The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently released its 2022 update on the state of the planet, and the news is not good. While conversations and carbon dioxide reduction commitments continue, the Earth continues to warm, averaging 1.09 degrees Celsius (1.96 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than the era between 1850 and 1900. Even if policymakers and companies aren’t making the necessary changes, each of us can — and send a message that changes are needed — based on ideas included in the report.
The new IPCC report reinforces previous conclusions with more, often discouraging, data that shows the planet warming, biodiversity decreasing, sea levels rising, and extreme weather growing more common. In particular, more evidence shows that feedback loops in the carbon cycle are beginning to contribute to increased CO2 levels, such as from the thawing of permafrost in northern latitudes and warming waters reducing the oceans’ capacity to capture CO2. Among the many impacts identified from human-caused climate change are increased human mortality (people are dying in extreme heat and cold events), trees are dying and wildfires growing in intensity, kelp forests and corals are experiencing mass die-offs, and half of the species studied for the report have started to migrate toward the poles in search of temperate climates.
The time for arguing about who is responsible has passed. Now is the time to take responsibility for our actions and make changes. Here are ideas for actions you can take in your home or community.
Plant trees, preserve old-growth forests
Planting the appropriate native trees to reforest lost tree cover is an investment in the planet’s ability to process CO2, literally recreating the Earth’s lungs. But the benefits only appear if the right tree is planted for the specific region. The Arbor Day Foundation provides a useful guide and tree selector based on the hardiness required for your region — be careful to choose only native trees for your region. If you don’t have space to plant trees at home, consider supporting reforestation efforts with 8 Billion Trees, One Tree Planted, or Trillion Trees.
The next, bigger step we can all take is preserving old-growth forests. This is the most effective step you can take because the complex ecosystems in boreal forests and rainforests offer more CO2 sequestration capacity and support biodiversity. The Land Trust Alliance can help you find forests that can be protected with a contribution.
Cut water use and capture rainfall to water the yard
From the bathroom and kitchen to the backyard, Americans use more water than any other country except the United Arab Emirates, an average of 300 gallons a day per family, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. About 30% of that water is used outdoors, where cutting back can be offset by collecting rainwater when it falls. Learn how to use water cisterns and how to make a rain garden that helps store water and prevent runoff of fertilizers and pesticides into local water supplies. Earth911’s Sarah Lozanova has four ideas for cutting water consumption in the house.
Invest in solar panels to offset some of your power consumption
We know going solar can be expensive, but it’s not necessary to go all-in to make a difference. Let’s go with a different take, and work to offset the power-hungry devices we use, if we cannot do without them. Consider the computer or phone you’re reading these words on right now. Or choose the TV. For a few hundred dollars, you can buy two to four solar panels that produce enough power — about 2,400 watt-hours to run a PC for 8 hours a day, according to RankLaptop. A laptop and phone can be charged with roughly the same capacity. Install the panels on the porch, in the backyard, on your roof, or on a southern-facing wall.
Drive your ICE vehicle less, buy an EV if possible
Internal combustion engines are killing the planet. We need to wean ourselves from them as quickly as possible but there are still only a limited number of electric vehicles available. That’s about to change, with new compact and luxury EV models, as well as electric SUVs and trucks, scheduled to ship this year. That flood of new EVs will produce the first generation of widely available used electric vehicles in the next two to four years.
If you cannot afford an EV, consider cutting your driving by combining trips to the store into one, planned drive a week. Too extreme? Try this rule of thumb: If a trip cannot cover three stops, wait until you have three or more places to drive before you jump in the car. The EPA estimates that the typical passenger vehicle generates 8,887 grams (19.59 pounds) of CO2 per gallon of gas burned. By combining trips and cutting your driving by the equivalent of 5 gallons of gas per week, you can reduce your carbon emissions by 5,093 pounds. That’s 2.5 tons of CO2 kept out of the atmosphere.
Eat less meat and more sustainably grown foods
Meat, at least the way we grow it today, is a tax on future generations. Meat, especially beef, accounts for about 14% of household carbon emissions and is easy to replace with plant protein, sustainably farmed fish, or lower-impact options such as chicken. As more meat alternatives and lab-grown options appear, we’ll still need to be attentive to how those products are made. If they use fossil fuel-generated energy, they are no better for the planet than industrial beef or driving a gasoline vehicle.
Americans eat an average of 220.9 pounds of meat annually, which is the all-time high. But beef consumption is on the decline, down from 94.1 pounds per person per year in 1976 to 57.5 pounds in 2020. That’s progress and it is simply a matter of continuing to build habits that help avoid meat and meat by-products in our food. We follow the meatless breakfast and lunch diet and feel better for it.
Grow some of your own food and mix it up
Several studies reviewed in the IPCC report showed that growing different plants increased food resilience in Africa and Central America, where extreme heat is already taxing farm yields. In addition to choosing a wide range of produce to grow, consider adding fruit trees — even a potted tree on your apartment porch — to support local pollinators, which directly contribute to the growing cycle of 35% of our food and indirectly to 75% of global food production.
Your garden doesn’t need to be in the backyard, it can hang on your wall, reside on a window sill or grow in a planter on the deck while providing a living connection to nature. If you cannot plant a garden, join a community garden and enjoy getting your hands in the soil. And remember to use drip irrigation wherever you can to reduce water consumption.
Make your community a green oasis
The urban heat island effect, which describes how cities and their miles of concrete, asphalt, and heat-absorbing buildings change local weather patterns, plays a large role in the climate impacts reported by the IPCC. Durban, South Africa, was an early city to undertake strategies to remediate urban heating by planting roof gardens, reestablishing urban tree canopies, and building water catchment infrastructure. Simply painting buildings with reflective, not dark, light-absorbing paint can be beneficial. In addition to reducing the city’s influence on its weather and the temperature of buildings, which led to less need for air conditioning, the programs created jobs and led to improved educational outcomes.
Get your neighbors together to plant trees in your yards, and petition the city government to plant trees along streets, as well as to invest in capturing rainwater in ponds and bioswales.
Adaptation, in addition to cutting emissions
The IPCC report makes clear that even with radical reductions in CO2 emissions, “there is at least a greater than 50% likelihood that global warming will reach or exceed 1.5 C in the near-term,” the tipping point at which dangerous climate impacts will be locked in for centuries. If there is a new truth in the IPCC report, it is that we are going to enter unknown territory within the decade. And that means we each need to think about how to adapt to climate change with the same urgency as reducing our carbon footprints. The reality is that some regions will benefit from climate change in limited ways. Colder places will be warmer; some regions will see increased rainfall. But it is the cumulative impact of climate change, which will be shared by all, that we need to acknowledge and plan for.
What must we plan for? More flooding. Crop failures due to drought: The longest in 12,000 years is ongoing in the West now. Supply line disruptions due to sea level rise and trillions (not billions) of dollars in storm damage. Extreme heat in cities and across the equatorial region that may make some areas uninhabitable. And we have to factor in the response of humans, who can be, well, unpredictable.
“Climate change impacts and risks are becoming increasingly complex and more difficult to manage,” the IPCC report states. “Multiple climate hazards will occur simultaneously, and multiple climatic and non–climatic risks will interact, resulting in compounding overall risk and risks cascading across sectors and regions.”
Today, the challenge of living well includes making environmentally responsible choices, even when they hurt. While none of us are perfect, we can all be better. Take the latest IPCC report as a challenge to step up your game.