What You Can Do About Climate Change

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A nozzle pumps gas into a vehicle at a BP gas station, Thursday, June 30, 2016, in Hoboken, N.J. Switching to a car with better fuel economy is one way individuals can combat climate change, according to author and climate scientist Brenda Ekwurzel. (Julio Cortez/AP)
A nozzle pumps gas into a vehicle at a BP gas station. (Julio Cortez/AP)

In the fourth installment of our series on climate change, Here & Now looks for solutions.

Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson first talks with climate scientist Brenda Ekwurzel, whose book, "Cooler Smarter," features household-level steps that can help fight climate change.

Then he hears from Steven Cohen, executive director of Columbia University's Earth Institute, for an overview of institutional measures to slow and reverse the impacts of global warming.

4 Steps For Combating Climate Change From 'Cooler Smarter'

  1. Switch to a car with better fuel economy. Upgrading from a 20 mpg car to a 40 mpg car can save you 4,500 gallons of gasoline over the car’s lifespan. At today’s gas prices, that’s a total savings of more than $18,000.
  2. Eat less meat, especially beef. An average family of four that cuts its meat intake in half will avoid roughly three tons of emissions annually.
  3. Use power strips in your home office and home entertainment center to curb “phantom loads” and save a surprising amount on your electric bill. Keeping your laser printer turned on when not in use could be costing you as much as $130 annually.
  4. Upgrade your refrigerator and air conditioner, especially if they are more than five years old. New ones are twice as efficient or more. For fridges: If they’re old, an upgrade can pay for itself in as little as three years in energy savings alone.

You can read all of Ekwurzel's household-level tips, from her book "Cooler Smarter," here.

Interview Highlights: Brenda Ekwurzel & Steven Cohen

On the impact of cars with better fuel economy

Ekwurzel: "If you drive, and if you drive what an average America drives, which is about 10,000 miles a year, a single most effective step is to switch your car to get better fuel economy. For example, if you were to upgrade your car that got an average fuel economy of 20 miles per gallon, and instead had a more fuel efficient car that's 40 miles per gallon, you could save over the life of that car about 4,500 gallons of fuel. And if you were doing $3 per gallon, that's putting over $13,000 in your pocket. Luckily, in our country, we have an established aggressive fuel economy standard, so all Americans are gonna save money at the pump."

On the impact of how we eat

Ekwurzel: "It really comes down to thinking about where your food comes from. What we find is that, for example, a pound of beef would be equivalent to 18 pounds of pasta, regarding the harm to the climate... It's mostly important to know the source of your food. What really matters is how that beef was produced. If it's produced with a lot of green and corn, and a lot of fossil fuel tractors driving, a lot of water needs, it's different than a grass-fed cows, for example... Whereas vegetables, eating local vegetables makes a big difference. But vegetables in general are very low carbon footprints compared to beef."

On the impact of recycling

"We looked at the recycling, and you'd be surprised [that] aluminium is the most important thing to recycle from a climate standpoint by slowing the pace of climate change... It takes so much to extract that aluminium and get it to market — it's a lot of energy use. We're going be mining our landfills in the future for some of these precious metals. That's closer to home and it's better than extracting the raw aluminium."

On institutional changes that would have an impact

"Let me start with the easiest thing to do, because the easiest thing is we can waste less energy. I don't think anybody's going to oppose energy efficiency and Americans in particular waste enormous amounts of energy. When we transmit energy from wherever it generates it to wherever you use, we lose upwards of 25 percent, sometimes as much as a third of the energy that's generated.

So if we develop — and this would take a large-scale change — a smart grid technology where we use more but we build it a more intelligent system, that's gonna save energy. If there's a single thing that we really should be focusing on is to make solar energy, solar cells more efficient, possibly through the application of nano technology, and to continue to focus on battery improvements. Because the problem with solar power and wind power is intermittent. [If] we figure out a way to store it, suddenly, solar energy — which is basically zero to generate — become cheaper and cheaper, and it will draw fossil fuels from the marketplace.

I think that what we really have to do is move away from this idea that solving the climate change means that you have to sit alone in the dark with a candle. We can maintain and even enhance our lifestyles by becoming more conscious of our impact on the environment and moving to technologies that will allow us to do more with far less energy."

On transportation's role

"We in America have developed unfortunately a very dispersed lifestyle.We're going to be relying on personal transportation. So if that personal transportation is electric and electricity is largely generated by renewable energy, it won't be that much an issue. But what we also can do is have a system where you can ride a bike to a bus or to a train, and you can do ride sharing so there're five people in the car instead of one. There are so many things we can do by just simply altering how we do some of the transports."

On how climate change awareness has increased

"What's really important about it is people now are paying attention to what they're eating. Some vertical farming could be very effective because you can actually close the system of production. There'll be not waste going to the aquifers. You could limit the amount of water. Those are technologies that're going to develop overtime. I think what's really good about what's going on now is people are thinking, 'What am I breathing? What am I eating? What's the quality of my water?' When I was growing up, nobody thought about any of that. And I think that's a dramatic change in how people are living today."

More From Our Climate Change Series


Brenda Ekwurzel, director of climate science for the Union of Concerned Scientists and author of "Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living." She tweets @BrendaEkwurzel.

Steven Cohen, executive director of Columbia University's Earth Institute. He tweets @stevenacohen.

This article was originally published on September 22, 2016.

This segment aired on September 22, 2016.



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