carbon

If you’re reading this, you’re probably someone who is concerned about the climate crisis. And you might have wondered, “But what can I do about it?” (or “What should I be urging government and business leaders to do about it?”) If so, you’re not alone. These are excellent and frequently asked questions. And answers are out there—but some are more informed, concrete, and constructive than others.

Often, these questions are asked by people who either: A) have been too busy dealing with other responsibilities or activities in their lives to spend much time learning about climate issues, and who genuinely don’t know what the primary causes and solutions to climate change are, or B) are highly informed about climate issues and are overwhelmed by the wide range of contributing factors and potential solutions, to the point of decision paralysis. Regardless of whether the questions stem from a lack of relevant knowledge or an abundance of knowledge and overwhelm, almost everyone wants to know which climate actions would be the best, most effective uses of their limited time and money.

A small percentage of people who ask “What can I do?” are only asking in a rhetorical way, and they don’t really want answers or plan to do anything. Some folks are so attached to the status quo that they would rather say that “nothing can be done” than consider changing any norms or habits. But we know the situation is not hopeless and we are not helpless. We all have agency to make a difference, and most of us realize that widespread inaction will consign us and future generations of all species to a wretched future.

Fortunately, most people really do care and want to do something (or want our leaders to do more). A study found that most of us wildly underestimate other people’s level of climate concern and their support for climate action. But the vast majority of people in the world—more than 76% of Americans, and more than 86% of people worldwide—are concerned about the climate, approve of pro-climate social norms, and want more political action on climate. (See: 2024 study published in Nature Climate Change, and an article about it in Carbon Brief).

That said, concern, good intentions, pledges, and commitments are not enough. These must be converted into actual action. And we can’t leave it to others (or rely solely on our leaders) to do this for us. There’s no more time for delay. We need all hands on deck now—which brings us back to the “What can I do?” question. I think that the moment after this important question gets posed is the critical juncture where climate progress too often gets stuck. Too many people are not seeing/hearing (or finding) answers that are specific or substantive enough, in the media or online or from peers. Many people don’t have the time, energy, or knowledge base to do this type of deep research or to figure out how to interpret or implement vague or wonky recommendations. That’s why my aim is to provide some clear guidance and direction—nuts-and-bolts information that can help people move forward and turn climate concerns into concrete actions. Thus, I’ve provided a Climate Action Starter Pack (below).

There are so many ways we can make a difference, on our own or as part of a collective effort. Each of us can take actions within our various roles: 1) as citizens, who have the power and responsibility to engage with and speak up to our representatives, governments, and other institutions, 2) as members of our assorted social circles, networks, and communities, including our workplace; and 3) as individuals, family members, and consumers. As I see it, those roles translate into these general categories:

  1. Systemic/Civic Actions
  2. Social/Community Actions
  3. Personal/Household Actions

Arguably, the changes we push for and achieve in those first two areas—influencing and working with others, and demanding policy changes and actions from government, businesses, institutions, and other entities—will have the biggest impacts and are therefore the most necessary. Clearly, one household’s lifestyle changes won’t be enough to change the world or stabilize the climate. However, there is an interplay among all three of these areas, and we should not discount the powerful ripple effects that our personal actions and choices can generate. They can set a needed example for and inspire our peers (people are much more likely to do something if they know someone who has already done it) and they send beneficial demand signals to “the market.” And admittedly, it can be easier and more immediately gratifying to make personal/household changes that are well within our control than to try to shift policies and systems, which requires a sustained, collective effort. Ideally, we can each find a good balance of actions within all of these realms, from macro to micro.

Climate actions and choices can include things To Do and things Not To Do. They can be high-tech or low-tech/no-tech (which is often preferable). And they can be no-cost, low-cost, money-saving, or higher-cost (and high payoff) investments. Many people assume that all climate-smart choices are going to be expensive or complicated or require huge sacrifices. But many of them are none of those things. Some climate actions might require a little thought, effort, or time, but many will save you (and society) money and improve quality of life.

There are literally thousands of things any of us could be doing to mitigate climate change, but it’s not possible for any of us to do all of those things, let alone all at once. All we can do is start somewhere, where we are, and do whatever each of us can do, and then do more when we can. We don’t all need to do the same things, but we do all need to do something, and it makes sense to try to do some of the things that will make the biggest difference.

Climate Action Starter Pack

This guide includes some of the most important climate actions you can take, some of which are also easy and money-saving. This is not an exhaustive list of actions. It’s a set of recommended actions—a menu of options that can help you build your own Climate Action Plan. Many are basic, beginner level actions and some are intermediate (i.e., they might require more time or money).

You may already be doing a number of things that help slow climate change. You might find it motivating to make a list of the things you have done or are doing and check off the suggestions below that you already engage in, and then identify some ways you want to build on those steps.

No one would expect anyone to take every action in this post. I recommend picking 2-3 actions to focus on at first, to make it manageable. Then once you make progress on those, add a couple more. You could set reminders and deadlines for yourself and regularly update your plan. Aim to add more actions each month, quarter, or year. It could be helpful to do this with others in your household or with a group of friends (or neighbors), for support and accountability.

Every climate advisor’s list of top actions will look a little different. I have developed these suggestions using a combination of sources, including Project Drawdown’s scientific analysis of top climate solutions, plus the Emergency Brake measures they identified (which are ways to make the deep emissions cuts that are needed immediately), as well as a Swedish study on the most effective individual actions for climate mitigation. And I’ve added my own commentary throughout on other important actions and “low-hanging fruit” (i.e., easy/quick, or free/low-cost choices), and some practical tips (and links) on how to implement the solutions.

I have presented these suggestions within the three main categories I mentioned above, in the following order: Personal/Household first, and then Social/Community, and Systemic/Civic actions. But please feel free to switch up the order and start with the broader systemic or community-level actions first! Or better yet, pick at least one solution within each of these categories when creating your own Climate Action Plan:

I. Personal/Household Actions (and Choices)

To take actions that make the biggest difference (in terms of climate impact), you could prioritize your actions based on Project Drawdown’s science-based solutions. Two of the most effective, high-impact solutions that they identified through their methodology are related to food: Reduced Food Waste and Plant-Rich DietsThese are some personal actions you can take in those two areas:

  1. Reduce food waste, refer to the numbered list in our recent Food Waste post.
  2. Shift to a more plant-based diet, i.e., eating less (or no) meat and dairy (a shift which also happens to be good for our health—as well as for the welfare of animals, and for land and water conservation): It’s easy to find delicious recipes online for meatless/vegetarian and dairy-free, vegan dishes, as well as vegetarian and vegan restaurants (those are search categories on Yelp), and plenty of information on protein-rich, plant-based or “plant-forward” diets. I’ve shifted to a mostly vegetarian and increasingly vegan diet. It’s gotten easier to do over time and I don’t feel like I’m depriving myself; I almost never crave meat anymore.

Click here for other top solutions identified by Project Drawdown. One of the other top solutions is Family Planning and Education (which I will cover in a later post).

Drawdown has also identified some “Emergency Brake” measures: “the fastest, largest, lowest-cost climate solutions we can deploy—right now” to make the deep emissions cuts that are needed immediately. I’ve listed below some specific personal actions you can take to effect change within each of the Emergency Brake areas. Some of these actions are easier and cheaper than others; you might put a couple of these in Phase II of your Action Plan, and many are best addressed through Systemic/Civic actions (which appear later in this post):

  1. Reduce deforestation: Only buy paper products (e.g., toilet paper, printing paper) that are FSC-certified or 100% recycled content, and reduce your use of disposable paper towels and napkins by using sponges/rags and washable cloth napkins. Only buy wood products (e.g., lumber, furniture, etc.) that are FSC-certified or reclaimed or used. Also, avoid products that contain palm oil (or non-organic soy, which is often grown in the Amazon region), when possible; palm oil and soy plantations—along with cattle grazing—are some of the primary drivers of global deforestation.
  2. Reduce potent, short-lived greenhouse pollutants such as nitrous oxide, “black carbon”/soot, and methane: Don’t use synthetic/chemical fertilizers and pesticides (which produce high levels of nitrous oxide), and do buy (or grow) organically grown food. Replace gas-powered lawn equipment (mowers and leaf blowers) with battery/electric equipment (or even better, reduce or eliminate your need to mow by replacing your grass lawn with native groundcovers or a garden, and “leave the leaves” or use them as mulch on your plants); and avoid using vehicles fueled by diesel and avoid burning wood (and coal) as much as possible (because these contribute to “black carbon” emissions). And if/when you can, switch from “natural gas” (methane) to electric equipment and appliances (e.g., stoves, furnaces).
  3. Increase energy and fuel efficiency: Switch to highly energy-efficient equipment and appliances (e.g., Energy Star certified), which sometimes qualify for utility rebates or tax credits/deductions, weatherize/insulate your home, and adopt energy-saving habits (note: conserving water also helps save energy). To avoid excessive energy consumption, also avoid buying cryptocurrency/bitcoin or using unnecessary AI tools. Choose fuel-efficient vehicles (non-oversized vehicles that ideally are electric or hybrid; or electric bicycles and scooters/motorcycles)—or better yet, drive less overall, e.g., telecommute or reduce your commute distance, ride a bike, walk, take mass transit, or carpool.
  4. Reduce all types of waste: Reduce your purchases of new materials/products, and reduce material and packaging waste (as well as food waste—see above). Always reduce first (i.e., don’t buy what you don’t need), then reuse/repair what you have and buy used or salvaged items or borrow/rent items when you can. (Note: There are local Buy Nothing groups all over, where people give their used items away for free, and some places have “tool libraries” or other venues where sharable items can be loaned or rented out). Lastly, recycle what you can. But be aware that many things are not readily recyclable, most plastics never actually get recycled and are shipped overseas, and recycling requires energy, plus melting down some materials—like plastics—can produce toxic emissions. It’s particularly important to avoid buying new plastic items (especially single-use, disposable items and all PVC items) and products with plastic packaging, as much as you can; I know this one isn’t easy, since plastic is everywhere. Plastics are made from toxic petrochemicals (fossil fuels) and they are a massive threat to environmental and public health, as well as the climate.

I want to expand on #4. I think it’s accurate to say that Buying Less Stuff is one of the most important things that all of us can do. In America, in particular, we are constantly pushed to buy, buy, buy—by companies and their advertisers, and also by our peers (or just from feeling like our status depends on “keeping up with the Joneses”). People in the U.S. consume much more, on average, than people in any other country. The ultra-wealthy consume the most by far, but most of us middle-class Americans also buy way more than we need. Our materialism and gross over-consumption greatly affect our climate and cause the degradation of all aspects of our environment. A study published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology found that, globally, the stuff we consume (buy) is responsible for up to 60% of global greenhouse gas emissions and between 50 and 80% of total land, material, and water use. Everything that’s made has its own carbon footprint (“embodied energy”) and environmental impacts—throughout each stage of its lifecycle, from raw materials extraction through manufacturing and use and finally disposal, via landfill or incineration (neither of which makes anything go “away”—it just ends up in our air or soil and water).

Using a different methodology than Project Drawdown, an earlier study from Sweden— which specifically focused on identifying the most effective individual actions for climate mitigationfound that the choices that will most affect your own contributions to climate change are:

  • how many kids you have (particularly if you live in a high-income, high-consumption, high-waste country like the U.S.)—This decision has a much bigger climate impact than any other we can make as individuals.
  • how much (how often and how far) you drive and fly;
  • how much energy you use in your home and how much of the energy you/your utility company use is from clean, renewable sources vs. dirty sources [Note: If your utility does not use much renewable energy yet, they might offer a program you can sign up and pay for that helps support the development of renewable energy projects in your region, an option that would be considerably less expensive than adding solar panels to your own home, though that’s also a great solution and investment if you have the means, as is getting a highly efficient heating/cooling system, e.g., a “heat pump”];
  • how fuel-efficient your vehicle (or the vehicle you are driven in) is; and
  • how much meat you eat.

Many of those synchronize nicely with Project Drawdown’s top 5-10 solutions, even though Drawdown’s are not solely focused on personal, individual-level actions. For more details on the Swedish study’s findings, click here (and scroll down to Part II of that post).

The final suggestion I would add to this list of Personal Actions is to think about which particular sectors or types of climate solutions you are most interested in or passionate about. Project Drawdown breaks the sectors down into: Electricity; Food, Agriculture, and Land Use; Industry; Transportation; Buildings; Land (Carbon) Sinks; Coastal and Ocean (Carbon) Sinks; Engineered Carbon Sinks; and Health and Education. You also might want to think about the skills, strengths, and resources you have that you can apply to the climate effort. Check out Ayana Elizabeth Johnson’s Climate Action Venn Diagram (and her TED talk) to jump-start your brainstorming. And OneGreenThing offers a free, quick “Service Superpower Assessment” quiz that could help you identify the “service type that best suits your personality.” Tools like these could help you pinpoint specific actions or approaches that are a good match for you and your unique set of interests and attributes.

Also check out the Climate Action Resources section towards the end of this post for links to tools and resources that provide additional guidance on taking climate actions.

II. Social/Community Actions

These are some ways to engage socially and as a member of your various social circles, networks, and communities (online and off), to help contribute towards cultural shifts:

  1. One of the best ways to get started is to plug into one or more of the many climate groups or initiatives that already exist. (This suggestion also has relevance to the Personal and Systemic categories of actions.) Find a couple of climate organizations that have a tone or strategy that resonates with you or that seem like a good match for your particular interests. Follow a few groups, and then join or support at least one group (it could be national, international, or local). Also start following/reading some good climate information/news outlets: see the Climate Resources list at the end of our previous post, and go to the last section of this post for links to some Climate Action Groups, Apps, Newsletters, and Books.
  2. Next, start sharing climate information from the organizations and media you follow with your friends and social networks, online or off. Or you could start by sharing some of the information provided in this post. Also talk about and share your own climate concerns and feelings with your friends and family; in addition to alleviating some of the weight of those feelings, expressing them will help let others know they aren’t alone (since most of us underestimate other people’s level of concern). Also share some of the actions you are taking and offer encouragement and support for others to take their own actions.
  3. Look into whether a local climate (or environmental) group has been established at your workplace, school, church/place of worship, and/or in your neighborhood or town. If not, you could consider starting one. (One idea: Form a Book/Action Group.) To identify specific actions to implement with your group, you could refer to the actions suggested in the Personal/Household and Systemic/Civic sections of this post, and discuss ways to apply a few of those within your group or community.
  4. Check out Project Drawdown’s Job Function Action Guides (for various types of employee roles and positions), to find ways to “make your job a climate job.” (Also, IT specialists, therapists, and architects can find job guides in this Climate Action Resource Library.)
  5. Food-based solutions: When hosting a group (or having a party), serve plant-based (vegetarian and vegan) foods. Or host a potluck where everyone brings some plant-based (and/or locally-grown or organic) foods to share. And if you have a lot of food left over at the end, send leftovers home with any of the guests that can use them. If you don’t have many food containers you can give away, you could ask people to bring some of their own.

And last but definitely not least

III. Systemic/Civic Actions

The following are some of the most vital and influential actions you can take—pushing for big societal, institutional, and systems-level shifts:

  1. VOTE for climate champions (and pro-democracy champions) at all levels of government: local, state, and national. Vote out climate deniers and “fossil fools.” Even if you don’t do any of the other things listed in this post, please vote in every election. It’s the least any of us can do. To go a little further, inform your friends about campaigns, candidates, and ballot issues. And regularly encourage people (especially young people and fellow enviros) to register to vote, to check their registration status (and their state’s voter ID requirements), and to vote. Additionally, if you are able to, support or volunteer with a campaign, or a voting/election group that helps with voter registration or Get Out the Vote efforts, or volunteer as a poll worker.
  2. Move your accounts out of the big banks (which include Chase, Citi, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo—for those of us in the U.S.), where your money is used to fund oil and gas projects (among other unsavory projects). Move your money into more socially and environmentally responsible banks (e.g., local credit unions or “fossil-free” banks). And if your employer offers a 401k or pension program (or you have your own stock-based investment accounts), find out whether they include fossil fuel company stocks; switch to, or ask that your employer offers, a fossil-free, socially responsible investment fund.
  3. Participate in actions organized by the climate organizations you follow. Actions could be online (e.g. signing on to petitions and letters to your representatives or others in positions of power) or offline (e.g., calling your representatives, or boycotting certain companies) as well as in-person/direct actions (e.g., sit-ins, marches, protests; or meeting with your representatives). If you’re not seeing good, current petitions or letters to sign onto, directly contact your federal, state, and local representatives and officials to demand that they urgently support, create, and enforce policies that treat climate destabilization as the emergency that it is, through executive and legislative actions that: end fossil fuel subsidies, stop permitting new fossil fuel infrastructure (including “natural gas” and petrochemical/plastics infrastructure), commit to >95% renewable energy goals and the rapid phase-out of fossil fuel use, and develop (and incentivize the development) of public and private renewable energy projects. I like to remind my government reps that the primary purpose of government is to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public for the common good. You can also urge your county to create a Community Choice Energy program, and pressure your electric utility company to rapidly make the transition to clean, renewable energy (solar, wind, no-dam hydro).
  4. Send messages and comments to media/news outlets (national and local), asking them to report more on climate change and climate solutions, and asking reporters to regularly interview climate scientists and experts who can accurately connect the dots between worsening “natural” disasters or extreme weather events and our destabilized, rapidly changing climate. (See Covering Climate Now for more ideas and resources.) You can also submit Letters to the Editor to your newspapers, about the climate crisis and solutions.

To address the two top food-related solutions identified by Project Drawdown, in a systems context:

  1. Reduce food waste: See the first section of our post on How to Reduce Food Waste (paragraphs 4-6) for some actions that focus on the systemic aspects of this problem. Also, if your city/county doesn’t have a local compost collection program, ask them to start one.
  2. Reduce meat consumption: Ask your state or city governments and school district to institute policies requiring the provision of non-meat options in government and school cafeterias and through their food vendors. You could also ask your local restaurants (and your workplace cafeteria program, if relevant) to provide more non-meat options. Cafeterias could do “meatless Mondays” (or even go meatless every other day or always). I would also suggest that they should try to procure organic (and local) foods.

As for Project Drawdown’s Emergency Brake measures: There are many ways to address these systemically, only a few of which I’ll mention here. You might pick one or two of these for your initial Action Plan, and add others to later phases:

  1. Reduce deforestation: Send letters/sign petitions to federal and state government agencies and officials, asking them to stop allowing the clear-cutting of large forest areas, and to ban further logging in the few remaining old-growth and mature forests; ask the state, local, and/or federal government to amend their purchasing policies to specify FSC-certified wood products and 100% recycled-content and/or FSC-certified paper products. Also ask your local lumber and home improvement stores to sell FSC-certified lumber (and other types of wood products), and ask other retailers (e.g., office supply and grocery stores) to offer and promote 100% recycled (or FSC) paper products.
  2. Reduce methane, nitrous oxide, and “black carbon” emissions: Tell your federal and state representatives to require and enforce the plugging of all abandoned wells and methane leaks; to support laws and programs that drastically reduce farmers’ use of nitrous-oxide-producing fertilizers and pesticides (and support/incentivize the transition to organic farming); and to incentivize the phase-out of heavy-duty/commercial diesel trucks in favor of electric or low-emissions trucks. You could also ask your city or state to phase out and eventually ban the sale or use of gas-powered lawn equipment, at least on public properties (something that more and more communities are doing).
  3. Increase energy and fuel efficiency: Ask your representatives (or at your least your workplace) to require that all non-essential lights and equipment be turned off in buildings after hours, and to push for high-efficiency requirements in your state building code, as well as to regulate or rein in cryptocurrency/bitcoin “mining” and unnecessary uses of AI, which are creating enormous energy demands for server/data centers. Also, ask your state and city representatives to replace vehicles in their fleets (including school buses) with electric or fuel-efficient/low-emissions vehicles, and ask your City Council or County officials to add more bike paths/lanes and bike racks throughout your area.
  4. Reduce waste: Tell your federal, state, and local representatives to support zero-waste programs and zero-waste procurement (including packaging and plastics reduction) specifications within their government agencies, with an emphasis on source reduction and a ban on (or phase-out of) single-use, disposable products, particularly plastic products.

There is no definitive, one-size-fits-all list of the climate actions that each of us should take. This Climate Action Starter Pack provides a general primer that includes a bunch of actions that most people can take. I also recommend taking a look at some of the Climate Action Resources in the next section, for other ideas and ways to get or stay engaged.

One’s climate actions and choices become more obvious and automatic as one’s climate and environmental ethic or mindset deepens. Gradually, you find yourself looking at almost everything you do and choose through a climate (and planetary health) lens. This doesn’t need to be seen as a burden; it is simply living within the reality of ecological limits. We already apply all sorts of other filters to our decisions (e.g., cost, aesthetics, convenience). It’s important to include climate and environmental considerations and shift towards prioritizing those over less consequential considerations.

I’m preparing a PDF checklist that summarizes all of the actions that I’ve suggested above. If you would like professional assistance with creating a customized Climate Action Plan for your household, workplace, or company/organization or other group, or if you want more prescriptive, step by step instructions or guidance on exactly how you can implement the strategies in your plan, I am a climate and sustainability advisor and I offer those services.

Climate Action Resources

The following are links to existing climate action groups, articles and guides, newsletters, apps, and books that might help you put your climate action plans into practice.

Climate Action Groups

These essentially function as support/action groups:

To find other types of group-based activities within climate organizations, see our larger list of Climate Organizations and peruse some of those groups’ websites.

Climate Action Articles and Guides

Climate Action Newsletters

Climate Action Apps

Climate Action Books

For lists of other books (plus films and videos) related to climate and other environmental topics, click here.

Again, if you would like professional assistance with creating a customized Climate Action Plan for your household, workplace, company/organization or other group, or if you want more prescriptive, step by step instructions or guidance on exactly how you can implement the strategies in your plan, I am a climate and sustainability advisor and I offer those services.

 

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April 8, 2024
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I much prefer focusing on preventive health than on emergency triage. I’d rather be writing about how to prevent climate destabilization and global heating from getting worse (and I’ve been doing that for years and will continue to do that), but tragically, we have entered the age of climate consequences, and adaptation has become necessary. The climate outcomes that scientists have been warning us about for decades are here, now, everywhere, and getting worse every year. Climate instability is already causing widespread suffering, misery, displacement and migration, medical emergencies, and death. If people continue to accept and allow the burning of fossil fuels (and the degradation of our natural environment) going forward, we will get to where we are headed: we will turn our once quite habitable and hospitable Earth into an uninhabitable planet more like Mars. We are creating Hell on Earth.

Globally, this has been the hottest summer on record (which has included the hottest day, hottest week, and hottest month ever recorded)—and it’s not just because of El Niño. The last decade (which included years with a heat-tempering La Niña) has also been the hottest decade ever recorded. Unlike the “heat waves” of the past, we are now experiencing more frequent “heat domes” with unprecedented, sweltering, record-shattering daytime and night-time temperatures, across large swaths of the planet, lingering for longer periods of time. The air, land, oceans and most other water bodies are now hotter than ever, with devastating and cascading consequences for all living things.

When we’re extremely hot, it can be hard to move, hard to work, hard to think, hard to function, hard to cope, and sometimes even hard to stay alive. Heat typically kills more people than any other type of extreme weather event in the U.S.  The number of heat-related deaths is often greatly underestimated, as heat is not usually listed as the “cause of death,” even when heat is what precipitated the organ failure or heart attack or other final outcome. This study estimated that there are approximately 12,000 premature deaths from heat exposure in the U.S. each year, and it projected that that number will rise to 50,000-110,000 premature deaths per year due to increased warming. Another study found that heat killed approximately 61,000 people in Europe during the summer of 2022. Correspondingly, emergency room visits skyrocket during heat waves.

Our bodies (and the bodies of other living organisms) can only survive temperatures within a certain range. High humidity can make it even harder to withstand high temperatures (which is why weather reports typically include a “heat index” or might even talk about the “wet-bulb” temperature.) Air pollution also tends to worsen during periods of excessive heat, which makes heat waves even more deadly. Studies show that the risk of a fatal heart attack may double during heat wave days and fine particulate pollution days.

Prolonged exposure to excessive heat can cause heat cramps, heat rash, dehydration (note: severe dehydration requires immediate medical attention), heat exhaustion, and heat stroke (which also requires immediate medical attention and can be fatal). See the graphic above for tips on how to tell the difference between heat exhaustion and heat stroke, and what to do if someone is showing symptoms of these.

Those who are particularly vulnerable to the dangers of extreme heat include: homeless/unhoused people (and their pets), older people, people who work outdoors (e.g., farmworkers, landscapers, construction and road workers, etc.), people who work and/or live in non-air-conditioned spaces, people who live or work in urban areas or “heat island” zones (areas that have a lot of dark and unshaded surfaces, such as asphalt pavement and roofs, and relatively few trees or green spaces), infants and young children, people with pre-existing health conditions or disabilities, pregnant women, incarcerated people, first responders, and athletes, as well as livestock, pets, and wildlife.

Basic tips for survival, health, and greater comfort in high heat:

  • Always stay well-hydrated (i.e., drink plenty of water throughout the day). Keep a water bottle with you wherever you go (but don’t leave plastic bottles in hot cars or sitting in the sun, where the heat will soften the plastic, which will then leach into your water). Also eat foods that are hydrating (e.g. fresh fruits, such as watermelon and cucumber). Avoid drinking alcohol or caffeinated or super-sugary drinks.
  • Wear loose-fitting, lightweight, and light-colored clothing.
  • Avoid going out into the heat (or exercising, watering your garden, or driving) during the hottest parts of the day (afternoon through early evening). Cancel or reschedule activities as needed. Early morning is the coolest time of day.
  • If you’ve been sweating a lot, drink even more, eat something salty, and make sure you’re getting plenty of electrolytes (potassium, sodium, calcium) and other minerals and nutrients.
  • If you’re feeling too hot, wipe a cold, wet washcloth on your face and body and/or run cold water over your feet and hands or head; or put some water in a spray bottle and spritz yourself as needed; or when you can, take a cool shower or bath. Or you can sit in front of a fan with a cool, damp towel on you or between you and the fan. If someone is over-heating (e.g., showing signs of heat exhaustion), put cold water (or ice/ice water) on the neck, armpits, inner thighs, and other places where heat gets trapped and a lot of blood vessels are just beneath skin, to help cool down the person faster.
  • No one should be left sitting in a non-air-conditioned, stationary car when it’s hot out (especially infants, children, elderly people, and pets). Rolling the windows down does not keep cars cool enough when the sun is beating on them.
  • If you’re outdoors: Stay in the shade as much as possible, and drink extra water. Take regular breaks from any physical exertion, or avoid it if possible. If you have a hand free, use a parasol (or an umbrella) to shade yourself from the sun.
  • If you’re indoors and you don’t have air conditioning (or you’re trying to minimize your use of the A/C to conserve energy or money, or to keep the grid from collapsing): Use fans (or evaporative “swamp” coolers in really dry climates). Cover your windows by closing the shades, blinds, curtains, or shutters. If you don’t have opaque or thermal window coverings, you could temporarily put up big sheets of cardboard or rigid foam or hang thick blankets or tarps inside or outside your south- and west-facing windows (and/or your windows that get the most direct sunlight) to keep the heat/sun out. Avoid running the oven, stove, dishwasher, washing machine, and dryer on the hottest days, and especially during the hottest hours of the day. Turn off any lights that aren’t needed (especially any lamps that are still using old incandescent bulbs or halogen bulbs, as they emit a surprising amount of heat). Unplug appliances or electronics that you aren’t using. If it gets cool at night—or any time it’s cooler outdoors than in—open your windows to get a cross-breeze; you can also use one fan as an exhaust fan to help push the warmer indoor air outside. It can be too hot to share a bed with someone else; if there’s nowhere else to sleep, you might find that sleeping on a floor is the coolest place to be. If you have a basement, that is probably the coolest area in your house.
  • Make sure you have a lot of ice (and/or ice packs) in your freezer and/or coolers, especially in case there is a power outage and you need to use the ice to keep yourself cool until you can get to an air-conditioned space.
  • If your house is too hot and you’re able to drive somewhere close, spend some of the afternoon hours in air-conditioned spaces, such as a library, mall/store/cafe, movie theater, or community center.
  • Click here for additional ”Tips from readers on keeping cool without A/C” (NPR).
  • Conventional air conditioners (especially old window units) use a lot of energy (and are therefore expensive to operate). And every time we use air conditioners to cool interior spaces, we’re heating the planet up even more. Much better air conditioning technologies now exist, and even better ones may be available soon. One option to consider is having a “heat pump” installed (also known as a ductless mini-split system). These are much more efficient than traditional air conditioners, and there are tax incentives and rebates that you might be eligible for. Or in very dry climates, many people use evaporative “swamp” coolers rather than air conditioners. Whole-house attic fans can also help reduce the need for air conditioning. (Note: If you are replacing/getting rid of an old air conditioner, make sure that your HVAC company properly recovers and disposes of its refrigerants. A/C refrigerant emissions are a major contributor to global warming!)
  • Scroll down to the section below on “Design strategies and investments,” for additional suggestions for keeping your home cool.
  • Check on your neighbors and friends, especially elderly or disabled people and people who don’t have air-conditioning (or who are experiencing a power outage). Make sure they are not showing signs of dehydration, heat exhaustion, or heat stroke (see graphic above). If you have air conditioning and a little extra space, invite others who don’t have A/C to come over to your house. Or let others borrow or keep any extra fans you may have.
  • Share information about local cooling centers that are open in your community or county. Print and post/distribute that information at homeless shelters and service centers, senior centers, soup kitchens, food banks, and libraries (and through social media and community websites, e.g., NextDoor). Find out if there are local Mutual Aid groups or others who are helping distribute water or assisting people in need. If your town does not provide a cooling center (or a mobile cooling bus), contact your Mayor or city council or local emergency services department to request one, or help find a location that could serve as one (e.g., community center, church, etc.).
  • You could leave some bottles/gallons of water in front of your house, in a fully shaded area, with a sign letting people know they can take one if they need it. And you could donate non-disposable (and disposable) water bottles (or clean gallon jugs with caps) to a local homeless shelter or organization.
  • On days/nights with particularly extreme heat, if you are able, you could offer to pay for (or you could crowd-fund) an air-conditioned motel room for a homeless person or family or for people who don’t have air conditioning. Or make a donation to a homeless/low-income services group that is assisting people in your area or in a region that is even hotter.

Animals

  • Pets: Do not make pets stay outside (or in a dog house) if it’s cooler in your house. When they must be outside, make sure they can remain in full shade and have plenty of water (you could even fill a small kiddie pool for them to sit in or drink from). Do not walk dogs on artificial grass or on hot pavement (especially black asphalt, but on any pavement when it’s hot out); it will burn their paws. Do not leave pets unattended in your car without air conditioning running. Click here for information on hot weather safety (and signs of heat stroke) for pets. If you see someone else’s pet in distress or in danger, call 911 or your local Humane Society or ASPCA.
  • Livestock and horses: Give them plenty of water every day (making sure they never run out) and access to shaded and well-ventilated areas (with a good cross-breeze and if indoors, also fans, if possible). If they have no shade trees (or not enough to shade all of them throughout the afternoon) or a large-en0ugh shade shelter outside, put up some type of shade canopies (e.g. canvas carports) for them. Hose them off with cool water when you can, or provide ice blocks for them to lick, or sprinklers, wading pools, or water misters when possible.
  • Wildlife: Put a bowl of clean water out daily for wildlife in your area (ideally in both your front and back yards); thoroughly wash the bowl out every day, if possible. I like to use a light-colored ceramic (or white plastic) bowl that won’t absorb much extra heat. (Note: Absurdly, many outdoor hoses have lead in them. Buy/use a lead-free hose, or get drinking water directly from a faucet.) Don’t set out deep buckets of water that tiny animals could fall into and not be able to climb out of. You can also leave fruit and vegetable scraps and other healthy food out for wildlife. And if there is no shade in your yard, you could put up a shade canopy/sail or make a temporary shade shelter (e.g., with old sheets or large cardboard boxes). Shade as much of your paved areas as you can to reduce the heat absorption on your property. If you see an animal in distress or in danger, contact your local wildlife rescue group.

Plants & Trees

  • Water plants at their base (near the roots) early in the morning. (On especially hot days, they might also need some water in the evening, but don’t soak plants too much before night-time.) Young trees (and new plants, planted within the last couple of years) especially will need more watering during heat waves. Older, established trees may need some water every few days during heat waves.
  • Move potted (portable) plants to shadier areas or cooler areas (e.g. a shaded potting shed).
  • On especially hot/sunny days, you could put shade cloth over the most vulnerable plants, or shade them with an umbrella.
  • Put a few inches of mulch (e.g., grass clippings, fallen leaves, wood mulch) around the base of plants (and place mulch several inches away from the base of trees). Do not buy peat.
  • Do not prune (or fertilize) plants on hot days.
  • Crops can benefit from having solar panels placed between rows for shading.
  • Organically grown crops and plants (and native plants) have been shown to have greater resilience to heat than chemically-grown (and non-native) crops and plants.
  • Some plants will simply not be able to survive the increase in temperatures, and we’ll need to replace some plants with more drought- and heat-adapted plants over time.
  • You can find lots of additional tips regarding how to protect plants and trees during heat by doing an online search.

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Design strategies and investments:

The tips above mostly cover immediate or short-term steps you can take to protect yourself and other living things from heat. Here are some design strategies and investments to consider, which require a little more planning or preparation time:

  • Put thermal window coverings on your windows (e.g., thermal honeycomb blinds or shades), particularly on large windows and west- and south-facing windows.
  • Add shade trees, awnings, or overhangs to your property (particularly outside of west- and south-facing windows and over dark, paved surfaces).
  • Make sure your home has enough insulation (especially in the attic and walls). This will also help you during cold periods.
  • When it’s time to replace your roof, choose light-colored roofing (and/or solar roofing tiles, or solar panels to shade the roof).
  • When it’s time to repave your driveway (or pathways), choose a light-colored paving material or pavers (rather than black asphalt paving), or better yet, replace some paved areas with light-colored pervious materials or vegetation. (Also ask your city to use light-colored paving materials.)
  • When choosing a car, in addition to choosing an electric or hybrid vehicle, choose one that’s a light color (e.g., white, silver) so it will not absorb as much heat.
  • Do NOT use artificial turf (fake grass). It becomes incredibly hot, even hotter than black asphalt, in the sun, and it can cause burns. Replace astroturf with native or adapted drought-tolerant plants, groundcovers, or a clover lawn. Replace astroturf sports fields with real (but drought-tolerant) grass.
  • Solar photovoltaic panels can provide shade over roofs, pavement, and between rows of crops.
  • Consider getting an electric battery backup system for your home; ideally, this would be tied into a solar photovoltaic system to keep your power (and cooling) on during extended power outages. You can also get an electric/solar generator to use during power outages (or off grid).
  • When designing any new home (or building), designers should consider incorporating passive cooling techniques. One ancient, passive cooling technique is the “wind catcher” design. And some building materials, such as rammed earth, have thermal properties that help keep homes cool in summer and warm in winter.
  • There are SO MANY things we can all do (and our society, government, and industry must do) to try to stop global heating from getting worse. Please check out and commit yourself to some of our climate solutions in our other posts.

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Sign this petition:

Urge OSHA to implement immediate heat standards
(Note: These standards also must be enforced everywhere.)

Articles:

Useful resources on heat health/safety:

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July 27, 2023
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The mission of Project Drawdown is “to help the world stop climate change—as quickly, safely, and equitably as possible. We do this by advancing effective, science-based climate solutions and strategies; fostering bold, new climate leadership; and promoting new climate narratives and new voices.”

Project Drawdown’s researchers have identified more than 90 climate solutions (specific strategies), and they have estimated how much each one of those strategies could reduce heat-trapping (greenhouse gas) emissions globally, to determine which ones can make the biggest impact in mitigating climate change. They note that their listing is “extensive but not exhaustive” and their research is ongoing and will continue to be updated.

On their Table of Solutions, you can sort the solutions’ climate impacts based on two different scenarios—or timelines—of emissions reduction efforts: Scenario 1 is in line with a 2˚C temperature rise by 2100, while Scenario 2 is in line with a 1.5˚C temperature rise at century’s end (a better scenario, to be sure, but one that is becoming less attainable every day that our societies fail to act with the needed urgency).

I looked at the solutions for both scenarios, and I found that both scenarios include the same group of solutions within their Top 15—just in a different order. (Beyond the first 15, the solutions start to differ somewhat across the two scenarios.) Here I’ve listed the 15 highest-impact solutions that Project Drawdown identified for Scenario 1, as of June 2023. Click on the links to learn about each one:

Top 15 Climate Solutions

  1. Reduced Food Waste
  2. Plant-Rich Diets
  3. Family Planning and Education
  4. Refrigerant Management
  5. Tropical Forest Restoration
  6. Onshore Wind Turbines
  7. Alternative Refrigerants
  8. Utility-Scale Solar Photovoltaics
  9. Clean Cooking
  10. Distributed Solar Photovoltaics
  11. Silvopasture
  12. Methane Leak Management
  13. Peatland Protection and Rewetting
  14. Tree Plantations on Degraded Land
  15. Temperate Forest Restoration

Start by selecting 2-4 of the solutions above, and think about (or research/Google) at least one way that you can participate in or contribute to each of those solutions. Then write down and commit to those actions and do your best to make them happen in the near term. (Then maybe you can add some more goals and solutions to your list, and/or help others achieve them.) While many/most of these climate solutions require action by government and industry in order to be fully and readily implemented, there are almost always some things that we can do as individuals and as communities to push them forward and to push government and industry in the right direction. (Note: I plan to publish future posts on specific actions that can help with Solutions 1, 2, and 3.  UPDATE: Here’s our post on Reducing Food Waste.) Government and corporate policies, funding and investments, and climate programs and efforts should aim to prioritize the most effective climate solutions and strategies, as well as all strategies that can be implemented immediately or quickly (and/or easily or most affordably), as time is of the essence.

To see the other 75+ solutions identified by Project Drawdown, visit and peruse their Solutions Library.

Project Drawdown organizes their solutions by sectors, as follows:

Sources: Food, Agriculture, and Land Use; Electricity; Other Energy; Buildings; Industry; Transportation

Sinks: Land Sinks; Coastal and Ocean Sinks; Engineered Sinks

Society: Health and Education

Interestingly, of the Top 15 solutions listed above, almost half of them (7) count as Land Sinks, while 3 of them fall within the area of Food, Agriculture, and Land Use; 3 are within the Buildings sector; 3 are within the Electricity sector; 2 are within Industry; 1 is related to Health and Education; and 1 is related to Other Energy (methane gas).

Also check out the new Drawdown Roadmap, which is a series of videos (and graphics) that demystify climate change’s specific causes and solutions, and show “how to strategically mobilize solutions across sectors, time, and place, engage the power of co-benefits, and recognize and remove obstacles.” These videos provide useful, one-of-a-kind summaries that can serve as a great resource for businesses, investors, philanthropists, government agencies, and non-profit organizations. I think they could also serve as a good learning tool for high school or college students. For other short, educational videos from Project Drawdown, see their Climate Solutions 101 series, which includes interviews with a variety of climate experts.

NOTE: We featured an earlier iteration of Project Drawdown’s research findings in our 2020 blog post “Sweat the Big Stuff: The Most Effective Climate Strategies,” which also featured other scientific findings on the highest-impact climate solutions, including high-impact individual choices.

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June 27, 2023
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Just left our house at 4:30 AM under a mandatory evacuation order, in the pitch dark, with howling winds, apocalyptic smoke, and ash swirling all around us. I’m quite shaken. We’ll figure out a plan when the sun comes up.”

That was the note that I posted on my Facebook page on the morning of October 27, 2019, once my husband and I were able to pull over in a town further from the fire, where other evacuees were parked. Overnight, gale-force winds from the northeast had started pushing the Kincade Fire rapidly and directly towards our area. (Officials feared it might jump over Highway 101, as the highly destructive and uncontrollable Tubbs Fire had done two years before, when it rampaged across the city of Santa Rosa to the horror and amazement of firefighters and everyone else.) Less than half an hour before I posted that note, we had been awakened by an evacuation notification alert blaring on our mobile phones. I could barely keep my panic at bay as we rushed to load our van up with our blind cat, along with other irreplaceable items and essential supplies that we had been gathering up in bags near our front door over the past few days of evacuation warnings. Our faces were pelted by brittle, wind-driven needles from our parched but magnificent redwood trees, and we had only our headlights and phone flashlights for lighting as we carried our things out to the van. I had to make a conscious effort to keep myself from hyperventilating or bursting into tears as we got into the vehicle and drove away from our home. I was reluctant to look back at it, knowing that when we returned, it might be burned to the ground.

This was one of the most intense days of my life. We were able to stay with friends in another part of the county for four days, until the order was lifted, and we were fortunate to be able to come back to an intact home and neighborhood (because the winds had died down before the fire got to the highway or beyond), though our power remained out for our first day and night back and the house felt like a walk-in freezer. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were part of the largest evacuation ever in Sonoma County history.

Many of us who are residents of the western United States have been personally affected by worsening (more frequent and much bigger and hotter) wildfires and the ever-longer fire seasons that we’ve been experiencing these past 5-10 years. The regular Red Flag “fire weather” warnings, the explosive fires every year, nerve-wracking evacuations and evacuation warnings, hazardous and acrid-smelling smoke in the air (tiny particulates that get deep into your lungs and make it feel like you’re sucking on a filthy truck exhaust pipe any time you’re outside) sometimes lingering for weeks at a time and making the air quality worse than anywhere else on Earth, being surrounded by other-worldly burnt-orange skies that block out the sun, sooty ash (including tiny fragments of people’s books/homes/lives) covering every outdoor surface (requiring the use of windshield wipers to clear car windshields), extended power outages as well as Internet and cell tower outages, and other substantial disruptions to work and to life in general—these things have taken a real toll on millions of us, and will take a toll on millions more.

Many of us also know people who have lost their homes and their sense of security—and who became climate refugees, facing displacement, years of insurance headaches, PTSD, and nightmares—because of these fires. I have some good friends who went through this trauma in 2017; they had to flee a giant wildfire in the middle of night and barely got out alive. I helped sift through the rubble and toxic ashes of their destroyed home and work studio. It looked like a large bomb had been dropped on their property, which had formerly been a hillside oak woodland paradise that felt like a sanctuary. That was an emotionally jarring experience, and it left an indelible mark on me, as did our own evacuation experience after that. And in the years before and after our evacuation, during other catastrophic fires in the region (including the one that destroyed our friends’ home), we were under evacuation warnings and had to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.

In 2021, after many years of living in that beautiful but increasingly fire-imperiled and drought-stricken region, my husband and I moved to live near friends in a wetter region, which has less fire risk—less risk for now anyway, though I know conditions will continue to change and no place is safe from climate-related calamities. While not exactly wildfire refugees, we were essentially proactive climate migrants.

Ever-worsening climate destabilization is causing more extreme and prolonged heat and droughts, and thus creating vast areas of extremely dry vegetation: e.g., trees, shrubs, and grasses. And that is adversely changing the world’s fire ecology. In recent years, there have been widespread fires in most western and many southern states in the U.S. and across almost every region of the world, including the Arctic (e.g., Siberia and Alaska), Canada, Australia, the Amazon/South America/Brazil (where fires are sometimes intentionally started to illegally clear rainforest land for cattle grazing), and in Africa and Europe. Wildfires have always happened to some degree, but the size and intensity, the times of year, and the locations of many of today’s wildfires are unprecedented.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless in the face of the increasing number of wildfires fueled by dangerous climate conditions. But we are not helpless. When doing research on wildfire risk reduction (see the resource links below), I was heartened to discover that there are many experts (e.g., fire ecologists, pyrogeographers, and all types of fire science aficionados and fire safety officials) doing good work, and some smart and positive efforts are underway to lessen the wildfire risks going forward. For example, there is a growing understanding among land managers, fire agencies, policymakers, and state and county staff of the need for some prescribed fires (AKA controlled or managed burns, or “good fire”): a traditional, indigenous practice to reduce dry and dead vegetation and to safely mimic and manage what would occur naturally (if most wildfires hadn’t been suppressed over the last century).

I’ve been pleased to observe that, in some areas at least, prescribed fires have been happening more frequently, despite permitting hurdles. I’ve also read about prescribed burns (as well as greenbelt buffers) that did, in fact, help protect some neighborhoods from recent fires. (Of course, controlled burns must be done very carefully and in the correct season and weather conditions, to make sure they don’t burn out of control, beyond the intended boundaries.)

There are numerous actions we can take as a society, as communities, and as individuals and households to prevent or minimize further destruction:

  • Community-scale wildfire mitigation efforts include policies and practices for state, regional, local, and neighborhood-level land use and management of public and privately owned lands: e.g., prescribed fires/controlled burns, greenbelt buffers and Urban Growth Boundaries for the wildland-urban interface, forest management, zoning that restricts building or re-building in fire-prone (or flood-prone or other disaster-prone) areas, and the development of fire-resilient infrastructure.
  • Property/Building-scale policies and practices (for land owners, building/home owners, and residents) focus on sites and structures: e.g., defensible space around residential and commercial structures, landscaping choices, vegetation management; home/building hardening and protection (design, building, remodeling, retrofitting); and indoor air ventilation and filtering strategies, for smoke protection and remediation.

The following websites and organizations can help you identify and implement a number of concrete actions that could protect your community or your own family and residence from wildfires:

I. General / Community-Scale Resources

Articles:

II. Property & Building-Scale (Site & Structures) Resources

Click here to see brief descriptions of these resources, or to see some more California-specific resources (in an annotated listing that I developed for the U.S. Green Building Council’s Redwood Empire Chapter in 2021). Also visit our Wildfire and Fire Ecology list on Twitter, which includes many of the above resources and others.

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Doing everything we can to prevent or manage the spread of wildfires and to protect people, animals, forests, and structures from wildfires and their smoke pollution (for the long term) also requires that we do everything we can NOW to help mitigate and slow climate change, as our fast-changing, destabilized climate is the primary driver—the accelerant—of today’s catastrophic wildfires.

Related posts (which include some specific recommendations):

 

Note: This article is now also published on Resilience.org.

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April 27, 2022
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Cities, towns, counties, states, regions, and countries all over the world are making large strides towards shifting to renewable energy sources (e.g., solar, wind, geothermal, hydropower, biomass, and wave/tidal energy). In early 2018 we published our original post on this topic. This new post provides an update on where things stand three years later, in early 2021:

Within the U.S., the Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 program reports that (to date, as of early 2021), more than 170 cities, more than 10 counties, 8 states, and 2 territories have adopted the ambitious goal of 100% clean energy (for at least electricity). Note: This is quite a bit more than just three years ago, when the stats were 50 cities, 7 counties, and only 1 state (Hawaii).  As of this year (so far), the 8 states and 2 territories that have committed to this goal are: California, Hawaii, Maine, New Mexico, Nevada, New York, Virginia, Washington, as well as Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico!  The counties that have made this commitment are located in California, Colorado, Idaho, North Carolina, New Mexico, Oregon, Virginia, and Washington state.

Whereas three years ago, only five towns in the U.S. had achieved this impressive goal (generating 100% of their electricity from non-polluting, renewable sources), now five counties (unincorporated county areas) in California, as well as 47 cities and towns across the U.S. have achieved this goal. Most of those cities and towns are in California. The non-California towns are: Aspen, CO; Greensburg, KS; Rock Port, MO; Kodiak Island, AK; and Georgetown, TX. You can use the Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 map to see if your city/town/county or other municipalities in your state have committed to or achieved these renewable energy goals.

Worldwide, many other cities and countries are also approaching and even reaching 100% renewable electricity goals. The Global 100 RE Strategy Group says that “To date, 11 countries have reached or exceeded 100% renewable electricity; 12 countries have passed laws to reach 100% renewable electricity by 2030; 49 countries have passed laws to reach 100% renewable electricity by 2050; 14 U.S. states and territories have passed laws or executive orders to reach up to 100% renewable electricity by between 2030 and 2050 [Note: That is more than the 10 identified by the Sierra Club above]; over 300 cities worldwide have passed laws to reach 100% renewable electricity by no later than 2050; and over 280 international businesses have committed to 100% renewables across their global operations.”

Countries that are powered or almost entirely powered on renewable energy (>90%) include: Costa Rica, Iceland, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Norway. Other countries with very high percentages of renewables include Portugal, Germany, Scotland, New Zealand, and Austria. Islands that now have >90% renewable electricity include: Eigg and Orkney (Scotland), Tasmania (Australia), Tokelau (New Zealand), Tau (American Samoa), and Samso (Denmark).

Note: Some of these countries, cities, and islands use primarily hydropower; large dams are controversial, as they are environmentally destructive to ecosystems and habitats. Some biomass (and landfill gas) sources can also be controversial. It definitely does not make any sense or pencil out (climate-wise/carbon-wise or otherwise) to cut down trees en masse (let alone ship their wood or wood pellets across the world) in order to make energy.

Some programs that help cities, regions, countries, and other entities move towards 100% include:

Also see these other resources on 100% renewable energy efforts:

We should all ask the leaders of our cities, towns, counties, states, and countries (mayors, city council members, county supervisors, governors, state legislators, congressional representatives, Senators, and President) to commit to a 100% (or at least 90%) renewable energy goal (as well as carbon-neutral and net-negative emission goals), and to enact forward-thinking policies right away to move rapidly towards those goals. You can share these program links with them, so they will be aware of networks they can join and resources they can use in setting their policies and meeting their renewable energy goals.

One way to accelerate the adoption of renewable energy sources at a local level is to create a county-wide, city-wide or regional Community Choice Energy (AKA Community Choice Aggregation, CCA) program. Per The Climate Center, “Community Choice agencies are local, not-for-profit, public agencies that provide electricity services to residents and businesses. Community Choice introduces competitions and consumer choices into the electricity sector with a focus on local, renewable energy to stimulate rapid innovations in clean energy systems.” According to Local Power, Community Choice energy programs now serve more than 30 million Americans, in more than 1,500 municipalities across the country. As of early 2021, there are 23 Community Choice energy programs established in California alone, serving more than 11 million people, providing more than 3,800 megawatts of new renewable energy capacity, and avoiding 940,000+ metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year! In addition to California, eight other states have also authorized Community Choice programs (so far): Illinois, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Virginia.

The Climate Center is also running the Climate-Safe California campaign, to try to push the state to set and achieve the goal of net-negative emissions by 2030 in California. You can read and endorse the platform via that link.

Energy efficiency is also critical. It is as important as shifting to renewable energy sources, because the less energy we need/use/waste (i.e. the lower the demand), the less we have to produce (supply) from any source. Simply adding renewable energy sources to the existing non-renewable sources will not help reduce pollution or slow climate change; renewable sources need to start to replace the existing fossil-fuel-based (oil, coal, and gas) sources. (All types of energy production, even non-polluting renewables, require material inputs and have some impacts.) The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) published a 2020 State Energy Efficiency Scorecard, which concluded that “For the first time in four years, California took first place nationwide, edging out Massachusetts, the leader in the Northeast…. Rounding out this year’s top 10, are…Vermont (#3), Rhode Island (#4), New York (#5), Maryland (#6), Connecticut (#7), Washington, DC (#8), and Minnesota and Oregon (tied for #9). …Other regional leaders include Colorado in the Southwest, and Virginia in the South.”

 

This was our previous post on this topic:
Cities and Towns Achieving (or Approaching) 100 Percent Renewable Energy (2018)

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February 23, 2021
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High-Impact Climate Actions and Choices that Make the Biggest Difference

If you’re not already aware of how dire the climate crisis is becoming (and how much worse it will get if our civilization continues on with “business as usual”), consider this past year’s news of extreme heatwaves, droughts, and massive fires across the Arctic, the Amazon, Australia, California, Africa, and elsewhere; and the increasingly catastrophic storms, hurricanes, and floods that have been happening throughout the world. Also take a look at the graph below of global carbon dioxide levels over time, and seek out more information on climate change from reputable sources (see the links list at the very bottom for several media outlets and non-profits), including articles like these:

What humanity chooses to do (or not do) in the next year or two—and over this decade—to lower greenhouse gas (carbon) emissions will determine how catastrophic things will get in the future and how quickly. The only way we will be able to slow and lessen the climate crisis enough to keep our world habitable and hospitable to life is to make big, bold, powerful, and effective changes rapidly and at scale. While smaller problems also matter and small, incremental changes and solutions are worthwhile and can really add up when many people take them on, it is crucial that we understand and focus on the biggest problems (i.e., planetary-wide crises) we all face, like climate change, and understand which choices, behaviors, actions, and policies have the greatest impact on accelerating vs. slowing climate change. Being aware and informed about which types of human activities are contributing the most to worsening climate destabilization empowers us to make the changes that will generate the most significant results. We’re not actually helpless, even though we may sometimes feel that way. Knowledge is power, and what we don’t know or understand could very well kill us (along with most of the rest of life on earth).

Several studies have been done recently that help identify the practices (at the societal level and at the individual/household level) that contribute to (or mitigate) climate change the most. Something that’s notable about the findings of these studies is that many climate solutions don’t cost much if any money, and many can even save quite a bit of money (whereas climate inaction is already costing all of us a LOT, and the cost of inaction is much higher than the cost of taking significant actions would be. See “Climate change’s giant impact on the economy,” New York Times.) In fact, many climate solutions simply involve making the decision NOT to do something (e.g., not cutting down trees, not wasting food, not eating much meat, not having many kids, not flying often, etc.) rather than actively doing something or having to pay for something.

I.

Project Drawdown is a world-class research organization that reviews, analyses, and identifies the most viable global climate solutions, and shares these findings with the world.”  They organize their solutions into the following categories: a) Electricity Generation, b) Food, c) Women and Girls, d) Buildings and Cities, e) Land Use, f) Transport, and g) Materials.

Most of these solutions require some systemic, societal, institutional (e.g., government policy and industry-driven) changes, but it’s important to recognize that all of us as individuals and as communities can support and promote these types of broad-based changes, through our votes, policy advocacy, education and awareness building, and our own behaviors, habits, and lifestyle choices (which can not only reduce emissions, but also serve as role modeling and as examples and inspiration for others, helping to change the culture and shift consumer demand).

The Top 15 Highest-Impact Solutions identified by Project Drawdown are as follows (click each of the links below for descriptions, details, and cost/savings analyses). Many people are not yet aware that some of these strategies are so important:

  1. Refrigerant Management (leak prevention and proper, careful disposal of HFCs in refrigerators and air conditioners; phase-out of HFC chemicals and and replacement with safer, climate-friendly alternatives)
  2. Wind Turbines [onshore]
  3. Reduced Food Waste
  4. Plant-Rich Diet
  5. Tropical Forests (preventing deforestation, and doing restoration and reforestation)
  6. Educating Girls
  7. Family Planning
  8. Solar Farms (utility-scale solar power plants)
  9. Silvopasture (integrating trees and pastures into a single system for raising livestock)
  10. Rooftop Solar (distributed, small-scale solar PV systems <1MW)
  11. Regenerative Agriculture (practices that enhance and sustain the health of the soil by restoring its carbon content, thereby sequestering carbon; e.g., organic production, cover crops, compost, crop rotation, no-till or reduced tillage, etc.)
  12. Temperate Forests (protection/preservation and restoration)
  13. Peatlands (protection/preservation, fire prevention, and restoration of bogs, which store a lot of carbon)
  14. Tropical Staple Trees (planting perennial crop trees)
  15. Afforestation (growing new forests on land that is not currently forested, especially degraded agricultural, pasture, or mining land; preferably a diversity of native and adapted tree species rather than mono-cropped plantations)

Policy-makers, industry/business and institution leaders, foundations and philanthropists, nonprofit organizations, and all of us as citizens should take these findings into account when deciding which climate strategies we should prioritize and amplify, and the types of projects and programs on which we should focus most of our time, energy, and money.

I recommend taking this short, interactive, online quiz on CNN’s website: “The most effective ways to curb climate change might surprise you.” The quiz is based on Project Drawdown’s findings, and it indicates which changes can be made by individuals/households, by industries, and/or by policymakers. (Note: Many of the changes can be made or influenced by more than one of those.)

Project Drawdown published its research conclusions in a book: Drawdown: The most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming, edited by Paul Hawken.

NOTE: See an updated version of Drawdown’s research findings in our newer post (from June 2023): Project Drawdown’s Top 15 Most Effective Climate Solutions.

II.

In addition to Project Drawdown’s useful findings and recommendations, another recent scientific study (from 2017, by Seth Wynes and Kimberly Nicholas) has identified some of the highest-impact personal choices and actions each of us can make/take to reduce our own contribution to climate change:

Climate Mitigation: Most Effective Individual Actions

Their data showed that the following are the highest-impact decisions and actions; sadly, they also found that education and government recommendations (in the US, EU, Canada and Australia) have been failing to focus on most of these (and instead they often mention and prioritize lower-impact actions). We should all aim to achieve at least two or three of these, and ideally all of them:

  1. Having a small family rather than a large one (i.e., having few or no kids). This decision makes a bigger impact than any other we can make as individuals, by orders of magnitude beyond the others. Researchers have found that each additional person (in a developed country) ends up contributing an average of 58.6 tons of CO2-equivalent (tCO2e) emissions to our atmosphere per year. [Note: The carbon footprint of U.S. households is about 5 times greater than the global average, as we Americans consume so much more than people in most other countries. (Source)]
  2. Going car-free (or at least driving as little as possible, and ideally switching to an electric vehicle or a very-low-emissions, high-MPG hybrid vehicle)
  3. Avoiding airplane travel (or flying as little as possible).  [From a New York Times article: “In 2016, two climatologists published a paper in the prestigious journal Science showing a direct relationship between carbon emissions and the melting of Arctic sea ice.” They found that one passenger’s share of emissions on a 2,500-mile flight melts the equivalent of 32 square feet of Arctic summer sea ice. And cruise ships are even worse; “even the most efficient cruise ships emit 3 to 4 times more carbon dioxide per passenger-mile than a jet,” along with other serious air and water pollutants. And container/cargo ships use even filthier fuels.]
  4. Buying/using green, clean energy (e.g., via your utility if they offer this, or by installing solar or wind). [A note from me: FIRST always use conservation and efficiency to minimize any over-use/waste of energy! One of the best ways to do this is to avoid living in a home that is too big for the size and needs of your family. It’s wasteful to have to heat or cool—and furnish—rooms or spaces that you don’t really use.]
  5. Eating a plant-based diet (or reducing your meat consumption)

For more information on this study, see this article/analysis, as well as this concise Grist post and its infographic (shown above), which provides a good visual sense of the relative difference in impacts from each of the choices or actions/inactions. To learn about additional personal actions and decisions that can make a difference, beyond the five identified by the study above, check out the book Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living, Expert Advice from the Union of Concerned Scientists (Island Press, 2012).

For some of us, the five choices above don’t seem like big sacrifices to make, and in fact many can drastically improve our own lives (as well as everyone else’s). But in our highly individualistic and materialistic culture, many of us are taught that we can (and should) do whatever we want (any costs and harms to our community or society or public health be damned). We are too often conditioned to believe that we are inherently entitled to do anything we want (and buy anything that we can afford), and we are not often encouraged to think about whether or not we should do (or buy) those things. Americans, in particular, often tend to feel entitled to get as large and gas-guzzling a vehicle as we want, and many of us tend to drive and fly as often and as much as we want, and buy as much as we can, acting almost as if this is somehow our inherent, God-given right. Please question the assumptions, expectations, pressures, and social conditioning that you/we have been brought up with. These beliefs are not universal “human nature;” they are culturally taught. Consider the benefits of self-restraint and self-regulation. Think about the concept of “enough.” Think about: “Live simply so that others may simply live.” Consider your neighbors; consider vulnerable populations; consider other species; consider future generations. Consider and be considerate of the common good.

Lastly, always remember (and remind others) that almost any choice or change that you make or that society makes to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions will not only help stabilize the climate; it will also reduce air pollution (as well as water pollution and ocean warming) and thus improve and protect public health and well-being in other very direct and often immediate ways.

 

Related posts:

Related resources:

See our Twitter list of Climate groups, scientists, and leaders

 

These are some organizations focused on the climate crisis and climate solutions:

And these are a few media / news and information sources that provide fact-based information on climate change:

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January 30, 2020
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The only thing that is truly certain in this life is that all of us will die. We don’t know when or how, but we do know that ultimately we cannot avoid death. Impermanence and death are inevitable, universal, and unavoidable parts of life.

Rather than live in denial or in fear of that fact (as so many people do), we should strive to face it and prepare for it to the extent that we can. That way, we can have a role in trying to ensure that our end of life experience and our post-death legacy are in keeping with our values and that our loved ones know what we want and won’t have to muddle through all of our death care decisions and post-death details and arrangements without any of our guidance when they are in the process of grieving.

Each of us has an impact on our environment not just during our life, but after our death. Conventional modern burials and cremation both have significant negative impacts on the environment. Death is natural, but the ways our modern society usually processes dead bodies is far from natural (or benign). Embalming fluid is a toxic mix of formaldehyde, benzene (both of which are carcinogens), and methanol. (Some shocking stats: Embalmers have a 13% higher death rate, 8 times higher risk of leukemia, and 3 times higher risk of ALS than the general population. Sources: See link at the end of this paragraph.) Caskets and vaults use vast quantities of natural resources, such as wood (including tropical hardwoods), steel, copper, bronze, and/or concrete, and can leach iron, lead, zinc, and cobalt into the soil. Meanwhile, cremation uses a lot of energy (burning fossil fuels) to reach a temperature of 1900 degrees F for more than 2 hours, which produces considerable CO2 emissions. Cremation also releases mercury—a dangerous neurotoxin—into the air (due to the incineration of people’s silver dental fillings), as well as other by-product air pollutants (e.g., dioxins, nitrogen oxide, and particulates). For additional impacts and statistics, click here.

Fortunately, alternatives to conventional burial and cremation are now available in many areas, as the interest in natural burial is growing. Increasingly, people are opting to be buried without being embalmed (or else being embalmed using non-toxic, biodegradable fluids, or temporarily preserved using dry ice); wrapped in a shroud or placed in a biodegradable casket or container; and buried in a natural setting (rather than in the typical mowed and manicured lawn cemetery that uses toxic herbicides, fertilizers, and pesticides), where their body and its nutrients can decompose into the earth (dust to dust), allowing them to contribute to new life. An added bonus is that natural burial options are often considerably less expensive than conventional casket (or vault) burials.

The Green Burial Council certifies funeral products, services (funeral homes), and cemeteries and burial grounds that meet their criteria. While definitions of “green” can vary, these are their general criteria: “The Green Burial Council believes cemeteries, preserves, and burial grounds can broadly be considered green if they meet the following criteria: caring for the dead with minimal environmental impact that aids in the conservation of natural resources, reduction of carbon emissions, protection of worker health, and the restoration and/or preservation of habitat. Green burial necessitates the use of non-toxic and biodegradable materials, such as caskets, shrouds, and urns. Hybrid, natural, and conservation cemeteries choosing to follow these basic guidelines fall under the general category of green cemeteries, as opposed to conventional lawn cemeteries that require concrete, plastic or other vaults or liners, and allow embalmed bodies and exotic wood or metal caskets.”

For specific details on their certification criteria for burial products, services, and venues, check out the Green Burial Council’s Standards.

You can find a list of certified providers and products on the Green Burial Council’s website. You can also find providers listed at AGreenerFuneral.org.

Other innovative green burial options are emerging, including human composting (accelerated decomposition/recomposition: to convert human remains into soil, e.g., Recompose; see the Smithsonian article link below), using mushroom mycelium to help digest and neutralize toxins in our bodies during decomposition, to prevent them from leaching toxins into the ground (e.g., the Infinity Burial Suit), and an egg-shaped biodegradable burial pod (Capsula Mundi). UPDATE: Another newish option is aquamation (AKA water cremation, or alkaline hydrolysis), which is currently approved in more than 20 states, as of early 2022 (and other states will eventually approve it, as well). Aquamation is the option that Bishop Desmond Tutu chose for himself.

Green burial resources:

And these are other useful resources on related issues of death, death care, and end-of-life planning:

When writing up your will or talking with your loved ones about your wishes, be sure to also identify some of your close friends or family members who might be able and willing to take your pets or other animals in the event of your death.

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August 20, 2019
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logoNEW: 2021 update: Municipalities, States, and Countries that are Achieving, Approaching, or Committed to 100% Renewable Energy

Cities, towns, counties, states, regions, and countries all over the world are making large strides towards shifting to renewable energy sources (e.g., solar, wind, geothermal, hydropower, biomass, and wave/tidal energy).

Within the U.S., the Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 program reports that (to date, as of early 2018), more than 50 cities, 7 counties, and the State of Hawaii have adopted the ambitious goal of 100% clean energy. The first five cities to hit their targets, generating 100% of their electricity from non-polluting, renewable sources, are:

In addition, Georgetown, TX is expected to hit its 100% renewable goal this year (2018). And the city of Palo Alto, CA currently provides 100% carbon-neutral electricity and carbon-neutral natural gas, by supplementing their use of renewables with carbon offsets (renewable energy certificates, which help fund renewable projects in other areas). Meanwhile, the other 50+ cities that have committed to achieving 100% renewable energy include several large cities, such as Atlanta, GA, San Diego and San Francisco, CA, and St. Louis, MO.

Worldwidemore than 40 cities now get all of their electricity from renewables, and more than 100 cities (including Seattle, WA, and Eugene, OR in the U.S.) now get more than 70% of their electricity from renewables; that is more than double the number of cities that met that threshold in 2015. Here’s a full list of the cities studied by the CDP (Climate Data Project). (Note: Some of these cities, especially in Latin America, use primarily hydropower; large dams are controversial, as they are environmentally destructive to ecosystems and habitats. Biomass & landfill gas sources are also sometimes controversial.)

A few of the countries that are leading the way on using renewable energy sources are: Iceland, Costa Rica, Germany, Uruguay, Scotland, Kenya, Portugal, and New Zealand.

Some programs that help cities and regions move towards 100% include:

Let’s all ask the leaders of our cities, towns, counties, and states (mayors, city council members, county supervisors, governors, and state legislators) to commit to a 100% (or at least 90%) renewable energy goal, and enact forward-thinking policies right away to move rapidly towards that goal. You can share these program links with them, so they will be aware of networks they can join and resources they can use in setting their policies and meeting their renewable energy goals.

One way to accelerate the adoption of renewable energy sources at a local level is to create a county-wide or regional Community Choice Energy program. Per the Center for Climate Protection, “Community Choice agencies are local, not-for-profit, public agencies that provide electricity services to residents and businesses. Community Choice introduces competitions and consumer choices into the electricity sector with a focus on local, renewable energy to stimulate rapid innovations in clean energy systems.”

Energy efficiency is also critical. It is as important as shifting to renewable energy sources, because the less energy we need/use (the lower the demand), the less we have to produce (supply) from any source. (All types of energy production, even non-polluting renewables, require material inputs and have impacts.) The Union of Concerned Scientists ranks states by their energy efficiency progress.  In 2017, they found that the most energy efficient states were: Massachusetts, California, Rhode Island, Vermont, Oregon, Connecticut, New York, Washington, and Minnesota.

 

For more information on cities with 100% renewable energy goals, see:

Also see these other 100% renewables efforts, for other sectors (beyond cities and towns):

 

Also see: 2021 update: Municipalities, States, and Countries that are Achieving, Approaching, or Committed to 100% Renewable Energy

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March 26, 2018
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photo by Erica Gies

photo by Erica Gies

Trees are life enablers and life protectors. They are air cleaners and oxygen makers, making it possible for us to breathe (i.e., live). They mitigate climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide; one tree can sequester up to 50 pounds of CO2 per year, and an acre of forest can absorb twice the CO2 produced by the average car’s annual mileage. Trees also filter some pollutants out of the water and soil, and they can prevent soil erosion and control flooding by absorbing stormwater and buffering storm surges. They provide habitat to many species. They provide shade (natural cooling, which reduces energy use for AC cooling). Some trees provide food (fruit and nuts), as well as medicines. Being near trees boosts our mental health and clarity. Their presence increases property values for homes and neighborhoods, and they contribute much-needed beauty to our world. So many benefits. Trees are life; trees enable life; trees save lives.

Despite all of the ways that trees contribute to (and are necessary for) our health and wellbeing, a recent study found that during the past 12,000 years of human civilization, humans have wiped out almost half of the trees on earth. Around 15 billion trees are cut down each year (to make wood products, pulp, and paper; to clear land for development, as well as for cattle grazing, palm oil plantations, and other agricultural uses; and to use as a heating fuel). (Click here for other Forest Facts.) We are destroying our own life support system. We are also losing millions of trees to drought and disease in some areas, and also to the growing number of severe storms (wind/ice) and wildfires, which are worsened by climate change and simultaneously contributing to climate change through additional carbon emissions, in a vicious cycle (AKA a feedback loop).

“You and the tree in your backyard come from a common ancestor. A billion and a half years ago, the two of you parted ways. But even now, after an immense journey in separate directions, that tree and you still share a quarter of your genes….”
— Richard Powers, The Overstory

“When we plant trees, we plant the seeds of peace and seeds of hope.”
— Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is today.”
– Chinese proverb

“In some Native languages the term for plants translates to ‘those who take care of us.’
Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass

“In the case of trees, being old doesn’t mean being weak, bowed, and fragile. Quite the opposite, it means being full of energy and highly productive. This means elders are markedly more productive than young whippersnappers, and when it comes to climate change, they are important allies for human beings.”
Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees

“We’re so good at clear-cutting mother trees; we always go for the biggest, oldest trees because they’re so valuable. And I’m saying, ‘No! We need to do the opposite!’ We need to save those trees. And the more trees we can protect around them, the better off they’ll be.”
— Suzanne Simard, author of Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest

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First and foremost, we need to prevent deforestation (particularly of the few remaining ancient and old-growth forests, as well as rainforests, boreal forests, and coastal mangroves). And then we also need to reforest and regreen our world. We can start with our own yards, gardens, fields, open spaces, or towns. Resist plans to cut trees down in your yard or community (unless the trees are hazardous or diseased). Plant a tree, or two or three! Try to select trees that are native or climate-adapted to your region; fast-growing and fire-resistant trees are great, too (yes, there are trees that are less flammable and even fire-resistant, such as redwoods). You can also choose fruit or nut trees, flowering trees, and other trees that help feed pollinators.

You could also have a tree (or multiple trees in a forest) planted in someone’s name (i.e., “adopt” or “sponsor” a tree in their honor) as a gift for any occasion—through groups like One Tree Planted, The Nature Conservancy, Cool Earth, 8 Billion Trees, the Green Belt Movement, Arbor Day Foundation, Trees for a Change, etc.

[NOTE: If you celebrate Christmas and you traditionally mark the occasion with a cut-down (i.e., killed) xmas tree, how about starting a new tradition: you could buy or rent a living (potted and replantable) tree instead (do a web search for the words “living Christmas trees” or “live xmas trees” and your county name to see if there are places near you that offer these; or just go get a live, plantable tree from a nursery). Alternatively, you could put ornaments or lights on a tree that’s already growing in your yard. Or get creative and make (or buy) a wreath or a table/mantle garland decoration from evergreen trimmings, and forego having a xmas tree at all (gasp!). In a climate crisis (which is what we are in now), and with millions of trees being destroyed by massive wildfires, drought, deforestation/development, commercial logging and clear-cutting, disease, and climate-driven pests every year, I think it’s entirely fair and appropriate to question and reconsider some traditions (such as our Great Annual Xmas Tree Massacre) and start up some new ones. Don’t you? Regardless of what you choose to do (or not do) for Christmas, you can always make a donation to a reforestation group or a local tree-planting group (or plant a tree or three in the spring or fall). You will find a partial list of tree-related organizations below.]

imagesfscOne good way to reduce extreme deforestation (the clear-cutting of forests) is to look for FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified wood and paper products (or even better, 100% recycled paper products), as well as Rainforest Alliance-certified products (see logos to the right)—and of course reduce, reuse, and recycle all forest/paper products. Also avoid processed foods and other products that contain palm oil, whenever possible, as palm oil plantations are responsible for much of the deforestation in the world, particularly in Indonesia (where orangutans’ habitat is being decimated).

Earlier this year (2017), 1.5 million volunteers planted a record 66 million trees in 12 hours in the state of Madhya Pradesh in India. Reforestation “flash mobs” have been conducted in other areas, as well. Costa Rica has served as a model of strong reforestation efforts in recent years. In some parts of the world, groups are starting to use drones to plant seeds or saplings, to reforest areas more quickly and efficiently than can be done by hand (there have been articles on this in Fast Company and Wired magazine, among other publications). Note: Climate- and site-appropriate (native or adapted) trees should be selected when planting trees, and multiple species should be planted for biodiversity, to recreate natural forests as much as we can (monoculture/monocrop tree plantations are not the answer). Also, forests should not be planted over native, wild grasslands, which also sequester carbon.

There are many anti-deforestation efforts as well as local tree-planting and global reforestation organizations around the world, including:

Also check out these online tools:

These and other groups are included in our Twitter list of orgs working to protect and replant forests/trees. We welcome you to Follow that list, to see regular Twitter posts from these groups.

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December 6, 2017
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