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It was 20 years ago that Congress heard the first serious warning about global warming. What can individuals do now?

Published June 23, 2008 10:45AM (EDT)

Dear Pablo,

What can I do to help stop global warming?

On this day 20 years ago, June 23, 1988, James Hansen, head of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, testified to the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources that it was 99 percent probable that global warming had begun. With 20 years of lost opportunities behind us, the need for definitive action is growing ever greater. So what better time to answer your question?

When I saw Sir Nicholas Stern, author of the 700-page "Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change," give a talk at the University of California at Berkeley in March 2007, he was asked this same question. I liked his answer because it didn't start with changing your light bulbs for the curly ones. In his opinion, the most important impact that individuals can have on climate change is by expressing our concerns and opinions to our elected officials. Individuals' actions are important but are almost symbolic if not widely adopted. Only government policies, applied across various sectors of our economy and society, can bring about the sort of wide-scale action required.

The transportation sector is responsible for about one-third of U.S. GHG emissions, but it also represents a big emissions reduction opportunity. Arguably the recent spike in gasoline prices has done more to curb fuel consumption and the purchase of behemoth transporters (like the Hummer H2) than voluntary feel-good measures taken by individuals. If we were to institute a "Patriot Tax," a $1 gas tax, proposed by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, we could provide additional incentive for drivers to take public transportation or to work from home. The revenues could be used to fund renewable energy and biofuels to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and our contribution to climate change much faster than the current status quo. Sure, $5-plus per gallon would be difficult to stomach, but maybe it is the sort of cost signal needed to cause a shift in behavior and regional transportation planning and would surely benefit us all in the long run.

No. 2 on Stern's list was "eat less meat." You don't need to give up your favorite cut of meat in favor of some meat-shaped tofu, but reducing your meat consumption does have a measurable impact on your personal greenhouse gas emissions. The reason is simple; cows eat a lost of grain (mainly corn) and this feed requires a lot of water and fossil fuel-based fertilizer. (See the U.N. report, "Livestock's Long Shadow.") According to the National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science in Japan, it takes as much energy to make one pound of beef as it does to light a 100-watt light bulb for nine days. Cows fed on a corn-based diet also emit a lot of methane, a greenhouse gas that is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Stern's third and final point was to insulate your home better. The building sector represents another large opportunity, especially for government regulation and incentives. A huge amount of our energy consumption is devoted to heating and cooling our dwellings and workplaces. Before central heating and air conditioning, architects positioned houses so that they faced south to take advantage of the sun's energy in the winter, and provided adequate window shading to keep out the high summer sun. Sealing leaks around doors and windows as well as replacing your home's insulation with better insulation can increase your comfort level and reduce your energy bill and your greenhouse gas emissions.

So to recap: Pester your local, state and federal politicians, eat less meat and make your home more energy efficient.

By Pablo Plastic

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