What can we do? The answer to that question comes on three levels: what we can do as individuals, what we can do as communities, and what we can do in the broader policy arena.
Most people know a lot about what helps: changing light bulbs, recycling, installing solar panels, adding insulation, switching to a higher-mileage vehicle, turning up the thermostat in the summer and down in the winter, and eating less meat. You can simply consume less stuff, most of which has a carbon footprint in its own right when all of it is created, when it travels to you, and when the waste is disposed of. Households will make their own decisions about the changes that are most feasible for their circumstances, but we all need to know what personal changes make the biggest difference.
The number of people on the planet has by far the greatest impact on climate change. You might say that people having large families in developing countries is the problem; however, an affluent U.S. child (nearly all, by global standards) has far more impact, in many comparisons, more than 10 times as much. If you are considering having children, think about having fewer than you ideally want; or instead, adopt. Recognize that by having fewer children, you are likely to be saving other children and perhaps even your own from the suffering that will result from climate change. The future of all our children depends on the carrying capacity of the planet, which is severely strained now.
You can try to live car free, which is very difficult to do in many areas; still, any reduction of miles driven helps. Perhaps even more importantly, we can fly less. Air travel has more impact on global warming than any specific lifestyle decision other than number of children. Do you really need to make that trip? Can you take the train instead? Can you at least fly non-stop? You can say that the planes are going anyway; but if fewer people fly, there will be fewer planes and flights, or at least not increases.
There are many other positive, forward-looking steps that can be taken in neighborhoods and communities. Initiatives to promote local and organic food sourcing, community gardening, back yard havens for pollinators, water conservation (including rainwater harvesting), natural and other green building techniques, xeriscaping in public and private areas, shared equipment and transportation, land and riparian restoration, can all be important elements in resilient communities. Fortunately, there are visionary people all over the U.S. engaged in such activities, including trying to persuade governments and corporations to adopt innovative strategies for resilience.
Larger cities, especially in coastal areas, are rethinking housing patterns and developing networks of emergency preparedness. Parallel efforts are needed in plains, mountain and desert regions. For too long we as a civilization have tried to bend the land, water and air, not to mention other species, to our will. The limits of that approach are now becoming clear, as John Wesley Powell could foresee a century and half ago.
There are three primary forms of collective action on climate change that are recommended by Bill McKibben (author of “The End of Nature” and founder of 350.org). First, we can push for towns and cities to move to 100 percent renewables. Many municipalities, including Salt Lake City and Pueblo, Colorado have set renewable energy goals. Second, we can support policies that keep fossil fuels in the ground. Third, we can discourage fossil fuel development by encouraging divestment of stock in fossil fuel companies. Many major financial institutions are already doing this.
It’s true that some of these adaptations are easy and others more challenging. And, in many cases, we need to consider transitional costs, for example, for particular industries and their workforces. But we have the know-how, and we need to call forth the resolve. We can move away from ideas of responses to climate change as just optional or just sacrifices. Not only are these kinds of shifts important, they can also help to make our lives richer and, well, more livable.
Depending on our individual and collective choices, our legacy will not be the planetary nest egg that uncountable previous generations have provided for us. Instead we will bequeath them the burden of an increasingly harsh planet. It’s like the bumper sticker that we used to see on RV’s: “We’re spending our kids’ inheritance.” Are we ever! “Sorry, Grandma, I ate most of the pie and burned up the rest. All that’s left for the kids is a few crumbs, and they are too charred to eat.” Is that any way to honor our ancestors and descendants?
George Cheney and Sally Planalp are residents of Moab and part-time professors of communication at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the University of Colorado or any other institution.