6 Critical Climate Actions You Can Take Right Now

Climate anxiety got you down? You probably already know that there is no better cure for anxiety than action—but it’s hard to know where to begin when you’re confronting a problem as enormous and complex as climate change. Deciding which climate actions to take has become even more fraught, given the recent debate over whether individual lifestyle changes make any meaningful impact at all—or whether we should focus all our energies on pushing governments and companies to transform practices.

The Rainforest Alliance firmly believes that to move the needle on the climate crisis, we must do both. Given that just 100 fossil fuel companies are responsible for generating 71 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Carbon Majors Report, applying relentless citizen pressure on governments to enact bold policy—as well as vigorous enforcement—is essential. Simultaneously, we must use our collective power as consumers to demand sustainable choices from companies, whose sourcing decisions impact how hundreds of millions of hectares of land are managed.

So don’t rule out everyday actions, but do pair them with grander ones. With that in mind, here are the 6 most critical areas to transform (from the climate action bible Project Drawdown) along with our recommendations for actions you can take—on both the micro level and the macro one—to drive that transformation.

Number one (surprising) climate change action: refrigerant management

Some of us hardly know what refrigerant management is, much less how terribly destructive it is to climate stability. But Project Drawdown lists this as the number one solution to slowing climate change. Prior to the 1987 Montreal Protocol, the substances used for refrigeration were ones that depleted the ozone layer, increasing our exposure to cancer-causing sun rays. The coolant that mostly replaced those ozone-depleting ones, called HFCs, are better for the ozone but have 1,000 to 9,000 times greater capacity to warm the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. An amendment to the Montreal Protocol, called the Kigali Amendment, went into force this year to reduce HFCs.

Micro: Because the risk of letting these chemicals seep into the atmosphere is greatest at the end of an appliance’s life, it’s crucial that you dispose of air conditioners and refrigerators correctly. Call your local recycling agency, or contact the EPA, to find out how to do that in your area. And if you’re buying a new fridge or air conditioner, look for ones that use natural refrigerants, such as propane and ammonium.

Macro: Talk to your friends and neighbors about the importance of managing refrigerants—which is hardly common knowledge, even for those of us who are deeply concerned about climate. If you are in the US—or any other country where the government is actively trying to roll back regulations on refrigerants—call or write to your lawmakers in support of strict regulations and amplify your actions on social media.

Renewable energy

solar panels and wind turbines

It’s no secret that our reliance on fossil fuels is a major culprit in causing the climate crisis. Renewable energy—so called because it can be replenished without the help of human intervention—includes water, sunlight, and geothermal heat. Keep in mind, however, that not all the energies that strictly fit in this category are sustainable: Hydropower dams, for example, can severely disrupt ecosystems and often displace communities.

But many items on the renewable energy menu have great potential to reduce global warming. Drawdown estimates that increasing onshore wind energy, for example, from 4 percent of worldwide electricity use to 21.6 percent by 2050 could reduce emissions by 84.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide.

Micro: If you’re a homeowner, look into equipping your home with solar panels. In many countries, there are often generous government tax incentives to do so. If that’s too tall an order, look into switching your energy provider to one that prioritizes renewables (but be sure to do careful research, as some “green” energy companies use fracked natural gas). Insulating your home well, choosing Energy Star® rated appliances, and being mindful of your energy use are also good ways to lighten your carbon footprint.

Macro: VOTE on climate. And keep the pressure up by contacting your lawmakers frequently to voice support for local, state, and national policies designed to advance a rapid renewable energy transition. Grassroots mobilization works particularly well at the subnational level, which is where implementation gains traction. In June, for example, New York state lawmakers reached a deal to pass the most ambitious climate legislation in the US after a strong mobilization by state residents and a raucous 11th hour demonstration at the state capital.

Reduce food waste

A third of the food we cultivate ends up in the garbage. One-third! That’s a lot of waste, when you think of all the water, capital, labor, and land that goes into producing food—along with the greenhouse gases generated at every stage and then the methane released when food rots at the dump. All told, food waste is responsible for roughly 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Micro: Maybe this is obvious, but stop wasting food! The key is not over-buying, and the key to that is being organized. Plan out your recipes and food needs before you head to the market. In restaurants, consider ordering smaller plates, and don’t be shy about taking leftovers home. The UK-based organization Love Food Hate Waste has a plethora of good ideas on “compleating,” or ways to eat the complete contents of your fridge before it goes bad.

Macro: Governments around the world are setting targets, implementing new policies, and creating campaigns aimed at reducing food waste—and these strategies work. Once among Asia’s biggest food wasters, South Korea, has made great strides in reducing waste through policy. In Seoul alone, food waste decreased by 10 percent over four years after a policy charging residents for their food waste was enacted. Look for national legislation and local efforts that you can support with your voting and social media power. If there’s nothing local in your area, consider launching an awareness campaign in collaboration with your employer, school, or local market (start small and build).

Plant-rich diet

vegetable market
Photo credit: Ja ma on Unsplash

If cattle were their own nation, they would be the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, according to Project Drawdown. That’s why eating a mostly plant-based diet is a critical part of the climate solution. Luckily, a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans is good for your body, too. (It’s also good for rainforests, which are routinely destroyed to create pasture for livestock agriculture.)

Micro: Eat more plants. If you need extra incentive, check out this food footprint calculator, which shows you the climate footprint of everything from beer and beef to peas and pasta—all in terms even the most science-phobic can understand. For example: eating beef 3-5 times a week for a year is the equivalent of driving a car 6,618 km (4,112 mi), whereas eating nuts 3-5 times a week for a year is the equivalent of driving 12 km (7 mi).

Macro: Work to stop government subsidies for the beef industry. Needless to say, when the price of something is lower, people tend to buy more of it. In Europe, the consumption of animal products has increased exponentially over the last 50 years, while prices remain quite low relative to the cost of production—because of subsidies. The US government alone spends $38 billion each year to subsidize the meat and dairy industries, but only 0.04 percent of that ($17 million) each year to subsidize fruits and vegetables.

Tropical forest conservation

trees in Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica

Here’s a topic that’s near and dear to our hearts. For more than 30 years, the Rainforest Alliance has worked to protect existing forests and restore degraded/deforested land. Our approach is to work with local and indigenous people to cultivate sustainable livelihoods—those that respect their cultural values, allow them to support their families, and bolster their capacity to protect their land. We also train farmers around the world in sustainable and climate-smart agriculture methods, since conventional farming (especially livestock) often involves clearing forests and depleting soils.

There are so many vital reasons to protect forests, not least of all because they sequester carbon, thereby helping to slow climate change. Project Drawdown says that natural forest regrowth on 435 acres (the amount of land that could theoretically be committed to this process through the Bonn Challenge and New York Declaration on Forests) could sequester 1.4 tons of carbon dioxide per acre annually, for a total of 61.2 gigatons of carbon dioxide by 2050.

Micro: Choose Rainforest Alliance CertifiedTM products for those essentials you can’t buy locally, such as coffee, bananas, tea, and chocolate. You can also amplify your individual impact by supporting our work to train farming and forest communities in climate-smart agriculture methods and sustainable forest-based enterprise.

Macro: Support indigenous and local land rights globally. Not only is this the right thing to do, it is better for climate: Numerous studies show that indigenous people are the most effective forest guardians, and we need their leadership now more than ever.

Educate girls

Girls in Guatemala

Educating girls has a ripple effect of wonderful benefits. It leads to better incomes and more independence for women. Maternal and infant mortality is lower among educated women, and so is the incidence of HIV/AIDS. Education also helps women respond better to climate shocks.

Micro action: Volunteer for and support mentoring and tutoring programs in your area aimed at keeping girls in school. If you have science skills, share them: Only 30 percent of the world’s researchers are women.

Macro action: While developing regions have achieved or are close to achieving gender parity at the primary school level, disparities widen in secondary and tertiary education, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, Oceania, and South and West Asia. Not surprisingly, some of the deepest discrepancies exist in the poorest countries. Globally, you can support programs to educate girls in countries where schooling is a financial burden to parents. At home, vote for policies that support gender equality.

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