Climate Change Solutions: What You can Do Right Now

We know. It's overwhelming. We’re being warned daily about the threat of global warming and the harm it is causing our planet's ecosystem, triggering: severe weather changes; threats to our food and water supplies; rising sea levels; glacier melting; endangerment of thousands of plant and animal species; and the spread of deadly diseases.

But there is good news. The world now recognizes the problem. Governments around the globe are taking action to cap carbon dioxide emissions (which account for more than half of the greenhouse gases that trap the sun's heat inside the earth's atmosphere) and to set meaningful targets for fuel-efficient cars and offer incentives for green buildings.

The U.S. government, unfortunately, has refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol which most of the nations of the world have signed in order to set mandatory caps on CO2. And the U.S. has refused to set meaningful fuel-efficiency standards for cars. These are two of the biggest, most important actions the U.S. government can — but won't — take to save our planet.

But that doesn't mean you can't do something right now and make a difference. Because here's the truth: if just one third of us take a handful of meaningful actions in our daily lives to conserve energy, thereby conserving fossil fuels, we stand a good chance of reducing our nation's emissions to the targets set for the United States by the Kyoto Protocol the U.S. government refuses to sign. That's right — us! The time to act is now.

  1. Change your light bulbs.
    You’ve probably heard about highly efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) that last for years, use a quarter of the energy of regular bulbs and actually produce more light. While each Energy Star qualified bulb will cost more initially — anywhere from $3 to $9 a piece — you will actually save hundreds of dollars in your household budget over the long term. If every household in the U.S. replaced a burned-out bulb with an energy-efficient, Energy Star qualified compact fluorescent bulb, it would prevent more than 13 billion pounds of CO2 from entering the atmosphere. This is equivalent to taking more than one million cars off the road for an entire year.
  2. Drive your car differently — or drive a different car altogether.
    The sad truth is that your car emits as much CO2 as your entire house. That's the bad news. The good news is that anything you can do to improve the fuel efficiency of your car will have an enormous impact on climate change. Drive less and get your car tuned up. Just a simple tune-up often improves fuel efficiency by half. If 100,000 of us went out and got a tune up, we save 124,000 tons of CO2.
  3. Adjust your indoor climate — not too hot, not too cold.
    The bad news is that half of your household energy costs go towards just two things — heating and cooling. The good news is that means you have lots of room for improvement, and even small changes make dramatic improvements in household fuel efficiency. Things you can do right now to make sure you're setting the right temperature in your house include: tune up your heating system, clean vents, close unused vents, and change filters in the vents. Buy a programmable thermostat, which can regulate different temperatures at different times of the day. And if you have one, use it! Add two degrees to the AC thermostat in summer, and lower two degrees in winter. If everyone did this, the cumulative impact is significant. Make sure windows and doors are sealed.
  4. Tame the refrigerator monster.
    Did you know that your friendly refrigerator has a voracious energy appetite? It is, by far, the single biggest consumer of electricity in the average household, responsible for 10-15 percent of the electricity you use each month. Older refrigerators, as a rule, are far less efficient than the newest ones – as much as 50 percent more efficient in many cases. Don't set the thermostat too high. Even 1 degree will make a big difference. If your refrigerator is near a heating vent, or always in the sun, then change the location, cover up the heat vent near it or drape the window. Turn on your "energy saver" switch near the thermostat. Clean the condenser coil. This one, very simple thing can improve the efficiency of your refrigerator by a third!
  5. Twist the knobs on your other household appliances.
    The other big users of energy in your household are your hot water heater, your washer and dryer, and your dishwasher. Either turn down the hot water heater a couple of degrees, or turn on the "energy conservation" setting. Buy insulation for your hot water heater at a local store and insulate the pipes as well. Install a timer on your water heater to turn off at night and just before you wake up in the morning. Wash clothes in warm water, not hot. The clothes will be just as clean, and you'll cut energy use by 50 percent. Don't over-dry your clothes. That will save 15 percent.
  6. Plant more trees to provide shade, and hardier plants.
    While it is true that planting more trees will help in the short term because they essentially soak up carbon, they also release carbon dioxide when they die. So it just postpones the problem. But there are other reasons to plant trees: as wind breaks to save energy, and as shade to lower cooling costs. And even the short-term help while we get our act together is a good thing. As for plants, do everything you can in your yard and garden to create ways in which plants use less water. Choose hardier plants, plant things in groups that need less water and put in mulch to help keep moisture in.
  7. Buy Green Energy, and invest in green energy stocks.
    Many utilities now give consumers the option to buy "green power." Ask for it! Learn the truth about nuclear power and natural gas as viable "green" options. They aren't. Radioactive waste will be a problem for tens of thousands of years into the future, and natural gas kicks out almost as much CO2 as coal and oil. Natural gas can help us make a transition, but it isn't the solution. Finally, if you invest, invest in green stocks and renewable energy companies through socially responsible funds. They perform just as well (if not better) than all of the unfiltered funds.
  8. Go organic.
    Even with our vast reservoir of scientific knowledge about farming, most American farmers still spray a billion pounds of pesticides to protect crops each year. Now here's the kicker: when chemical pesticides are used to kill pests, they also kill off microorganisms that keep carbon contained in the soil. When the microorganisms are gone, the carbon is released into the atmosphere as CO2. And when those organisms are gone, the soil is no longer naturally fertile and chemical fertilizers become a necessity, not a luxury.
  9. Buy recycled.
    This may sound simple, but it takes less energy to manufacture a recycled product than a brand new one. So if you and every other consumer buy recycled, you'll help create a market, and conserve energy along the way. Because many manufacturers don't go out of their way to tout their recycled products, you should know that aluminum and tin cans, glass containers, and pulp cardboard have a fair amount of recycled content. So buy away!
  10. Get active.
    Earth Day is April 22, 2007. Visit http://www.earthday.net and find an Earth Day event near you. Show up. It’s important that our government and policy leaders see that the citizens they represent care enough to actually do something beyond their own front door. We also need your help. This is a critical time in Congress and we need to make our voices heard if we want our nation’s leaders to take immediate and decisive action to mitigate mankind’s contribution to climate change.

If just one third of us in the United States follow through on most of what's on this list, we can all collectively make a difference, and keep greenhouse gas emissions where they might otherwise be if the U.S. government stepped in and imposed mandatory CO2 caps and fuel-efficiency standards. Remember, together we can make a difference!

Kathleen Rogers is president of Earth Day Network. Please visit http://www.earthday.net for more information.