What can ordinary people do to slow climate change?

December 14, 2009

(Updates with comments from Knut Alfsen of the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research, Oslo (CICERO))

Today’s expert panel discusses the question, “What can ordinary people do to slow climate change?”

Join the discussion and let us know what you think.



Gidon Eshel, physics professor at Bard College:

What can ordinary people do to slow climate change? A lot.

Which is extremely important as it appears increasingly unlikely that Obama the president will deliver  what Obama the candidate promised.

Some obvious suggestions cannot be made quantitative because they are of “the less the better” type. For example, consider the number one global emitter, China. Some undetermined fraction of its emissions goes to manufacturing the cheap consumer goods the western world voraciously consumes.

Concerned about global emissions? Don’t buy, from China or anywhere else,  stuff you don’t need. And think twice and thrice before you put anything in the “needed” category.

Or consider your shower. Switching from a 12 minute shower using a regular shower head to a 6 minute shower with an efficient head will lower your overall annual footprint by 1.1 tons CO2. If most Americans made this switch, the national emission savings will amount to over 330 million tons of CO2, more than Argentina’s total carbon footprint.

Or commuting. If your 5 days/week, 45 weeks/year, commute is 15 miles, the difference between using a 19 mile per gallon car (e.g., a slightly aged Camry) and a 52 mile per gallon car (a young and well tuned Prius) is again about a ton CO2.

If you live in the U.S., your personal annual overall footprint is on average about 24 ton CO2-eq (where this “-eq” is short for “equivalent”, and this sum tallies all greenhouse gases emitted due to one’s actions while considering the differing ability of each of  those greenhouse gases to affect climate).

For those U.S. denizens, switching from a Camry to a Prius will reduce their overall emissions to 96 percent of their current value.

Unimpressed? Multiply this by 100 million commuters, and you get 99 million tons of CO2, comfortably in excess of Congo’s total annual carbon footprint.

Heating your home can give you another pause, and vindicate President Carter’s sweater (if it has ever fallen on hard times).

Consider two homes, 2,200 and 2,800 square feet, the former poorly insulated with an average of R value of 18, the latter reasonably well built (though by no means outstanding), with an average R value of 36.

The difference between heating these two houses in typical northeastern U.S.  climate (90 days with an average inside–outside temperature difference of 30 degrees F) is 3.2 ton CO2.

If all 114 million American households switched from something like the inefficient house to the better one, we would save 370 million tons of CO2, or Poland’s total greenhouse gas footprint.

Still unimpressed? let’s talk about your diet. Imagine two people eating the same diet (same number of calories, same ratio of animal- to plant-based foods, same number of meat calories), but with one getting her meat calories from beef while the other from poultry. The difference between these two eaters is 1.4 ton CO2-equivalent per year. Convince 100 million Americans to switch from beef to chicken, and you have eliminated the emissions of 140 million tons of CO2-eq, the Czech Republic’s total annual greenhouse gas footprint.

Today’s high is 25 degrees F; it was 12 degrees F, and very windy, when I left home this morning to bike to work so I can write these priceless pearls of wisdom.

Biking to work no matter what,  rain, snow or a scorcher, is my personal fun; it also saves (see above) roughly a ton of CO2 emissions a year (0.6 or 1.6 tons if you assume my bike replaces a Prius or a Camry, respectively). But, because I eat about 3,000 kcal/ day instead of what a man my height/weight would otherwise need (2,200 kcal/day), it also adds to my overall footprint the demand for at least 45 x 5 x 800 = 180,000 kcal/yr (assuming, as above, 45 work weeks with 5 work days each). Since I eat only plants, with average efficiency of about 2.5 (which means getting 250 edible calories for every 100 fossil fuel calories used in the production process), this means I require 180,000/2.5 = 72,000 additional fossil fuel calories a year. On average, this added caloric demand is equivalent to emitting about 0.02 ton of CO2… Biking to work is an extremely good, if hardly original, idea.

You get the picture – everything that you do has a cost, and  thus can make a difference. Collectively, readily implemented personal changes can make a huge difference in your overall greenhouse gas footprint.
If there is anything wrong with climate scientists, it is most certainly not  our email style (with which Sarah Palin took issue in her confused and asinine Washington Post Op-Ed of Dec. 9) but the fact that we are, like most other people, not committed enough to the cause.

In terms of requisite personal commitment, averting climate change is like waging war.  When you assert, like former President Bush did, that it is possible to conduct a war without requiring widespread sacrifice, you not only brazenly and knowingly lie, you also guarantee failure. President Obama should refrain from perpetuating the myth that combating anthropogenic climate change can be nearly cost free, demanding modification of personal customs along the above lines instead.


Bjorn Lomborg, statistician and author of “The Skeptical Environmentalist”:

This is a timely question. The protest in Copenhagen on Saturday showed a great deal of concern about climate change.

The unfortunate truth is that it is hard for ordinary people to slow global warming. It’s easy to make a gesture but difficult to do something meaningful.

I think it is great when people make an effort to change their ordinary habits in order to help the planet a little – I’m a vegetarian who doesn’t own a car – but I think it’s less great when we kid ourselves that little gestures are more meaningful than they are.

Consider, for example, the much-photographed Christmas Tree in Copenhagen’s central square for the COP15 summit. It is bike-powered: the lights only turn on falteringly when humans pedal the bicycles set up underneath. This is a nice gimmick. It demonstrates the amount of energy it takes to power Christmas lights. But could we say that it is slowing global warming? Not a chance. The bright billboards that surround the tree – and, for that matter, every other Christmas light across Copenhagen (the ones that don’t go out every few minutes, and that light up all the main thoroughfares) twinkle away because they are connected to the main grid.

It makes sense for all of us to save power where we can – it helps our own pocket-books, and in that sense is great, although the net impact on global warming is tiny.

Alternative sources of energy are not yet cheap enough or efficient enough to replace fossil fuels at scale. The real shame of the Copenhagen summit, so far, is that politicians are not acknowledging that point.

The delegates have a single-minded focus on an international deal to cut carbon emissions – targets that we know from Kyoto and Rio will not actually be met. Until serious alternatives are ready, promises of carbon cuts cannot be taken seriously. What the leaders should be doing is ensuring green alternative energy technologies are ready to replace coal, gas and oil. We currently spend a paltry $2 billion a year on research and development of green energy. Increasing it to about $50 billion a year could be a game-changer.

This is a solution that can only come from political leaders. Until then, all the rest of us can do is apply pressure so that the decision-makers realize that they’re on the wrong course.



David Suzuki, geneticist and journalist:

Ordinary people can do a lot to slow climate change. It involves making changes in our everyday lives, but also—maybe more importantly—getting involved politically to create change within our political system.

Probably the three biggest questions that determine the impact individuals can have on the atmosphere are: How do you get around? What do you eat? Where do you live? I’ll address them in order.

Getting in a car every morning is the most environmentally damaging thing one can do, and not just because of global warming pollution. Yet, most people can reduce the amount of pollution they create by living closer to work, using public transit more often, and making their next car much more fuel-efficient. Getting rid of your car would be even better. Extra money in your wallet is just a side benefit.

Eating a lot of meat or buying food that comes from far away can have significant impacts on the environment. One doesn’t have to become vegetarian overnight to make a difference. Cutting down on meat will reduce your impact and may even allow you to discover fantastic new foods. Avoiding overly processed food and out-of-season fruits and vegetables can take transport trucks off the road.

Finally, the kind of home one lives in also makes a difference. Large homes need a lot more energy and cost a lot more to heat and cool. Owners who have had energy audits and invested in solutions will save energy and money. Most energy-efficiency investments are quickly recovered through lower energy bills.

But getting involved politically is also vital. Our governments—local, regional, and national—have the ability to use public policy to create positive change across whole cities or societies. Voting for people and parties that take global warming seriously is a start. Writing letters to newspapers, organizing community groups, or running for office could create even more momentum.



Knut Alfsen, head research director, Center for International Climate and Environmental Research, Oslo (CICERO):

We all know what we can do: Drive less, take our holidays at home, eat less red meat, lower the indoor temperature (in cold countries), replace our fossil based heating system with renewable sources of energy, buy less material goods, give experiences or services instead of “things” when we want to give a present, etc.

The problem is that our personal actions and sacrifices seemingly amount to so little, as long as factories, power stations, refineries, freight transport and other big sources of greenhouse gas emissions go on with their business as usual.

However, if enough of us ordinary people actually start demanding more climate friendly solutions and goods, the manufacturing sector will take note and gradually change their way of operating.

Perhaps even more importantly, through these actions the public will give a mandate to politicians to introduce stricter control policies and regulations, and thereby reduce the emissions from the “big sources”.

So the answer is that ordinary people can do a lot to slow climate change.

It will seem small and perhaps futile in the beginning and it will take time. Nevertheless it is extremely important that each of us do our little bits.

If not, nothing will stop climate change.


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Even considering for sake of argument that it is actually worthwhile to sacrifice economic output for C02 reduction, the arguments presented by Mr Eshel and Suzuki fall into the common trap of not considering total emissions for choices. Take the Prius example — better gas mileage is great, but the C02 created during the manufacture, shipment, and disposal of the battery dwarfs the amount saved by burning less fuel while driving.

Before you change your life to be more “green”, make sure you actually *think* about all facets of what you’re doing.

Posted by Casimireffect | Report as abusive

In packaging suggestions like these for a mass audience, it’s important not to give away the fact that the person giving the suggestion is substantially removed from the day-to-day experience of the person for whom the suggestion is intended. Dr. Escher, for example, refers to “your 5 days/week, 45 weeks/year” commute. Who has seven weeks of vacation a year? How many people these days work five days weeks? There was probably a lot of useful content in this post; however, I stopped reading at the first glimpse of the ivory tower.

Posted by Bob9999 | Report as abusive

What can ordinary people do to slow climate change?

Nothing, as it is a natural earthly cycle.

Posted by BillyD | Report as abusive

Gidon, In your calculation of switching from a Camry to a Prius, what is the total CO2 output (or carbon footprint for that matter) to build and deliver the new Prius? Shouldn’t this be added to your figures to be a true comparison? I’m not against purchasing a new hybrid, but to start at a zero baseline for comparison is misleading.

Posted by bkillinois | Report as abusive

There is climate change every 3 months where I live but it is not man made. Maybe we should all stop breathing that will reduce C02 output!

Posted by Freddi14 | Report as abusive

It is ignorant to say that each individual on this planet is not contributing to the CO2 output.
Everyone needs to realize this and at least try, on some aspect of life to reduce their footprint on the environment. The article overall was well written, people needs to not pick out the unclear part – comparison between Camry and Prius – and look at the total picture.
Do your part, however small it may be, to help the environment before it is too late.

Posted by snappinturtle | Report as abusive

it’s curious that in big industrial greenhouses, several acres, with climate control, the level of CO2 is maintained at about 1000ppm, 3 times earth average; CO2 is may be not that bad after all.

Posted by paisong | Report as abusive

There Are Way Too Many People On The Planet, Reduce Health Care, Let People Die Naturally, Plagues and Famines Will take Care Of The Rest!

Posted by nikola5574 | Report as abusive

I’ve got some very good news about how people can make a huge impact by eating less meat. The amount that people eat now in developed countries is both unhealthy and unsustainable.
Try eating vegetarian at least one day a week.
If everyone in America ate vegetarian one day a week, this would be the equivalent of taking 19.2 million cars off the road. Just one day a week!
If everyone in America went vegetarian it would equal taking all of the cars in America off the road. See the statistics at:
http://www.meatthetruth.nl/download/2008 0518_US_carbon_savings_table.pdf
See the documentary Meat The Truth and you will be surprised how easy it is to make a difference.

Posted by SteveNL | Report as abusive

I find it ironic that in the midst of a boiling climate debate:
“BAGHDAD, Dec 11 (Reuters) – Deal makers from the world’s largest energy firms assembled amid tight security at Iraq’s Oil Ministry on Friday to compete for deals to develop some of the country’s most prized oilfields.” (see Reuters article from 4 days ago)
http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSGEE5B 92EQ20091211
Isn’t it strange that those who have the power to do the most good, are the ones that repeatedly do the most harm?

Posted by Common.Sense | Report as abusive

It is even more important for us all to become aware and alert about how we, the ordinary people, can slow down climate change especially in the face of an extremely disturbing uncertainty as to the final outcome regarding measures to slow down climate change at the Copenhagen summit. What is alarming, disturbing and shocking is the complete lack of agreement and cohesion among nations at the Copenhagen summit….why can a consensus not be worked out?At least we can do our bit for our planet through measures such as using bicycles,walking to work and growing more trees.

Posted by jjohorey | Report as abusive

These plans for cutting consumption of products ignores the fact that per capita consumption and per capita employment are inextricably linked. Cutting per capita consumption is a recipe for rising unemployment and poverty.

Worse, every bit of these gains would be undone if the U.S. grows its population by 50% by 2050, as it plans to do through immigration. What has been gained by cutting our per capita carbon emissions by 50% if we double our carbon emitters? Nothing.

If we want all people of the earth to have the ability to enjoy a high standard of living, reducing our population over time through non-coercive means has to be part of any plan to cut emissions.

Posted by Pete_Murphy | Report as abusive

Lets just eliminate CO2. That will cause all of the trees to die. When the trees don’t produce any oxygen we will die and there will be no more polution.

What a bunch of idiots!

Posted by ICUR12 | Report as abusive

I agree people can make simple changes that taken as a whole can have a significant impact. More than not, these changes while having a positive environmental impact also save you money!

However, the most important thing anyone can do at this point is to contact your representatives in Congress and tell them you support robust climate legislation. The next industrial revolution is going to be a clean energy revolution and the countries that innovate and lead in these technologies are going to be the new leading economic powers in the world.

Posted by Sc0tt | Report as abusive

One could look at hypnosis to eat healthy and lose weight. I highly recommend it. Try this award winning hypnosis audio here: http://goodkarmatoday.info

Posted by GoodKarmaToday | Report as abusive

Stop breathing, or at least spare us your religious rants. Not all of us are members of your church.

Posted by charliemax | Report as abusive

Many people are helping to fighting against globle warming but the whole problem is USA

from 1900 to 2005
usa carbon dioxide emissions is nearly 318,432.1

china 92,949.9

india 25,895.4

Units: Million metric tons of carbon dioxide
the major damage is done by usa
details taken from….
http://earthtrends.wri.org/text/climate- atmosphere/variable-779.html

The question rises who is responsible for the globle warming and why usa is not taking any responsibility?

Posted by HarshVyas | Report as abusive

Born 1935- always loved what the Good Creator has given
to this planet, for we humans to share and admire and
respect. Climate change..well:
Income of only $14,000.00 yearly.
Little or no garbage,once/twice a year for collection.
I buy only the basics – I own no so-called junk.
My clothes are from goodwill stores, except shoes boots &
underwear (which I often make myself).
My back yard is a little forest.
I eat very little meat – fish and eggs 2-3 times a week.
I care for animals – they get the best, I come second.
No Cosmetics/ one bar of soap/ laundry soap/ no air-
fresheners because my home doesn’t smell.
Small toaster oven, one pan/ one pot/few old wood
furnitures (tables,beds,couch,chairs)/ land phone.
I haven’t been sick for fifteen years – I do ask the
Spirit of Life to give me strength to keep caring for
these animals – and seemingly it has been. I do appear
many years younger than my age. I have learned so much
from God’s beautiful animals – they seem to have re-
stored the goodness seen within me, and do keep me happy,
inspite of all the ugliness that’s in world from humans
who care not to live with common sense, compassion,
empathy, reasoning and wisdom. It’s a very good life –
people should try it – for the sake of the animals, the
environment and themselves.

Posted by darlingsapphire | Report as abusive

I did forget to mention:
My hydro bill is very low,because I only use what I need, and my water consumption is low because I reuse my
water:when wash water runs from washing machine I collect it in large pails and use it for more soiled cloths.If I buy something in a box or package I ask the store if I can put it in my bag and they can dispose of the carton. I live within my means and I don’t need wind-
power that can surely create problems, nor nuclear power
which definitely is dangerous…solar power energy too
will create problems. My solution was to use less energy,
and save money.

Posted by darlingsapphire | Report as abusive

[…] sites to learn more about saving the planet and keeping the cocoa: The  , The Nature Conservancy, Reuters Environmental Forum  and The World Wildlife […]

Posted by Melting Icebergs and Disappearing Chocolate: Climate Change Unleashed « A Chocolate Life | Report as abusive