Can individuals make a difference in the fight against climate change? Given the immense challenge, our well-intentioned actions can seem futile. But Dan Becker, who serves as Washington director of the Sierra Club's Global Warming Program, says this is no time to be pessimistic. "The president and Congress are being pigheaded about global warming -- we have to do it," he says. So we asked Becker and other prominent climate warriors to share their most effective and realistic suggestions for individuals looking to do their part.
Vote for change
"If you want to make a difference, the most important thing is to vote," says Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. "If politicians heard from the public that they really care about these things, then they would respond." No question about it, says Randy Hayes, who founded the Rainforest Action Network and currently serves as executive director of the International Forum on Globalization. "The majority of us typically leave our social-change concerns behind at the ballot box. But we should connect our concerns -- be they social justice, climate chaos, saving the panda or saving the rain forest -- to our voting and any electoral work we can make time to accomplish."
Put your environmentalism before your party loyalty. "Vote for candidates who care about these issues, and hold these candidates accountable," urges Laurie David, co-founder of the Stop Global Warming Virtual March. "I don't care what party; I'm past that point. I care whether they are concerned about the energy security of this country."
Donate your time and money
"Write a check today to progressive candidates," says Hayes. Or, says Eban Goodstein, an economics professor and chairman of the Environmental Studies Program at Lewis and Clark College, "Try spending 30 or 40 hours working for clean-energy candidates in swing districts. There are enough new coal plants being proposed to basically wipe out all reduction efforts. A really critical thing is that people can make sure that their states aren't saddled with new generations of coal plants that will become huge albatrosses around people's necks."
You've heard it before but we'll say it again. "For every gallon of gas used, 28 pounds of global warming pollution is pumped into the atmosphere," Becker says. "That's true if you burn the fuel in the most efficient or least efficient vehicle. So if you're buying a new car, consider hybrids. They may represent only a small percentage of cars currently on the highways, but, says Claussen, "when there's a demand for something the market responds. If there was enough demand for hybrid cars, the car companies would produce them. The role of the industry is quite important in those kinds of things."
"If you can't buy a hybrid car, your first question should be, 'What is the fuel economy of this car?'" David says. And once you're in the driver's seat, turn off your engine whenever possible. "When you go to pick your kids up from school, cars are lined up idling for anywhere from five to 20 minutes," David observes. "Starting a 'no idling' rule in your school carpool lane could have a huge impact."
Run a smart home
"We have so many electronic items now: Electronic toothbrushes, iPods, and hair dryers," David says. "Whenever [the charger is] plugged in, it's wasting energy. If we could just get people thinking about that charger it would be a big shift in consciousness."
Also, says Becker, "There are lights that you might leave on a lot; you can save money and global warming emissions by turning them off or switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs. They cost more upfront but save you a lot in energy along the way."
Well-placed plantings can combat deforestation, convert carbon dioxide into oxygen and cut homeowners' electric bills. "If you have a home with property around it and can plant shade trees to shade your home in the summer, you will decrease the degree to which you need to use your air conditioner," Becker notes. If you're a concerned suburbanite, Hayes advises, "plant food in the backyard."
Play Paul Revere
The reality of climate change may be gaining mainstream acceptance, but the awareness battle is far from over. "Imagine there's a comet heading right for the Earth and it is called the 'Sixth Great Extinction,'" Hayes suggests. "It's your responsibility to ride out and warn the electorate."