LAST WEEK, PRESIDENT OBAMA FINALIZED his climate plan, and it turned out to be surprisingly good. His goal is to have decreased carbon emissions in 2025 by 26 to 28% from where they were in 2005, and, while a lot of his success depends on whether the next president thinks that climate change is real or not, it looks like there’s actually a chance he’ll reach his goal.
This news comes on the heels of the U.S.-China climate agreement. Climate change can’t possibly be stopped without the cooperation of China, the world’s largest carbon emitter, so even though the U.S.-China agreement wasn’t perfect, it was basically essential for the future of the cause. Brazil also recently put some skin in the game, which is huge, seeing as deforestation in that country is a major contributor to climate change. While none of these acts will be enough to save the world, they are reasons to not be totally hopeless about our climate future, and “not totally hopeless” is a pretty high standard for most environmentalists.
What’s most surprising is how much of this has been done by a single person: Barack Obama. Even though he does not have the support of Congress, he does have the power to dictate regulations through the EPA, which can do a lot without Congress — indeed, this entire climate deal of his can be done without Congress. It illustrates just how important our leaders are in fighting climate change, and it explains why some people are saying Barack Obama is saving the world.
Obama’s not going to save the world.
Our leaders do have an insane amount of power over our long-term future. Indeed, without good leaders, we’re not going to get through climate change without some extremely serious problems or even societal collapse. Climate change is happening already, and has even already started wars. And yet, many leaders in the U.S. still refuse to acknowledge that it exists. If these people — the type of people who think the existence of snowballs disproves the existence of climate change — were to be in charge of the world, we’d be in sad shape.
But even so, Obama is not personally going to save the world, nor is any leader that follows him. For one thing, the United States only makes up 17 percent of the world’s total carbon emissions, so solving climate change without global cooperation is basically impossible, and for another thing, his programs depend on a succession of like-minded Presidents keeping them in place and strengthening them over time, while simultaneously avoiding attacks from conservatives in Congress.
In short, the leaders have a lot of power. But they can’t do it without someone else: you.
You are going to save the world.
In his 2005 book Collapse, scientist Jared Diamond goes back through history and broke down how and why civilizations in the past have collapsed. The answer? With the exception of being conquered by other, more powerful societies, civilizations almost always collapse because of some sort of environmental change. This might be a drought, it might be that the soils have become infertile due to overexploitation, and it might be because locals chopped down all of the trees in the area.
But what Diamond found was interesting: some societies, when faced with environmental catastrophe, survived, and went on to flourish once again. These are the societies that learned from their mistakes, and were willing to make hard short-term choices in order to live a better life in the long term. Diamond found that there were two ways in which these changes were made: either from the top down, or from the bottom up. In strong, centralized societies, powerful leaders were able to make hard choices for everyone, and thus save their civilizations. In more spread-out societies with no single central leader, though, the only way a society could be saved was if everyone got together and decided to put the good of their civilization ahead of their own personal interests.
We now live in a global society with no single leader. So while some of the work can be done by strong leaders, much of it needs to be done by ordinary individuals.
What you can do to save the world.
There are literally thousands of things you can do to make sure our world doesn’t fall completely to shit, but we’ll go over some of the easier basics here.
Lower your carbon footprint.
The first and probably most important thing you can do is lower your personal carbon footprint. Go to the Nature Conservancy’s Carbon Footprint Calculator and figure out where your biggest carbon footprint comes from, and then learn how you can cut back on it as much as possible. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that most of your emissions are coming from transportation: you can make a huge difference by taking public transport, biking, and taking a motorcoach instead of a plane when traveling long distances.
Cut back on the meat.
I’m not saying go vegetarian (although that’s definitely the greenest thing to do): I’m just saying cut back. Particularly on the beef. I swear this is true: cow farts are a big problem when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, because cow farts contain methane, which is a much more damaging greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. And since we eat so many cows, there are a lot of cow farts hurting the atmosphere. So simply by cutting back on your beef, you’ll be contributing less to cow fart pollution.
Ideally, you’d cut back significantly on all meat, though: while meat can be sustainable, production of meat requires much more energy than the production of plants as food, and it requires that we leave open land for grazing or corralling that we might have otherwise used for growing that more-efficient plant food. So a more sustainable world is (sadly and inevitably, for we carnivores) a world where we all have to eat a lot less meat.
Stop wasting food.
As the great John Oliver explained a few weeks ago on his program, Americans waste an absurd amount of their food. Enough so that it has some pretty serious environmental impacts.
In short, make sure you eat everything you buy (as much as is possible). Also, when you’re at the grocery store, buy ugly fruit — ugly fruit generally tastes just as good as sexy fruit, and it’s the fruit that’s the most likely to go to waste.
Plant a tree.
This sounds a little too much like an elementary school project to make a serious difference, but one of the best things you can do to help prevent global warming is to plant a tree. Plant several, actually. NASA released this video last year showing what the release of carbon dioxide looks like on a yearly basis, and one of the most staggering things about it is how much less of it gets into the atmosphere in the summer, when trees are able to absorb more of it.
On top of this, trees are good for your mental health, they prevent erosion and flooding, and, if placed near your home, can save you air conditioning costs by providing you with shade.
Get involved with politics.
Environmentalists justifiably like to blame businesses for destroying the environment. But as Jared Diamond says in Collapse:
“In the long run, it is the public, either directly or through its politicians, that has the power to make destructive environmental policies unprofitable and illegal, and to make sustainable environmental policies profitable. The public can do that by suing business for harming them, as happened after the Exxon Valdez, Piper Alpha, and Bhopal disasters; by preferring to buy sustainably harvested products, a preference that caught the attention of Home Depot and Unilever; by making employees of companies with poor track records feel ashamed of their company and complain to their own management; by preferring their governments to award valuable contracts to businesses with a good environmental track record, as the Norwegian government did to Chevron; and by pressing their governments to pass and enforce laws and regulations requiring good environmental practices.”
Finally, you can vote. Leaders like Barack Obama have the most power to change the way we deal with our environment, but at the end of the day, they are chosen by those of us in the electorate. So a huge way to help is to register to vote, and then to contact your representative and let them know you care about your environment.
These may all be relatively small actions for you to take, and they might not seem as dramatic as, for example, signing a deal with China to cut 30% of the world’s carbon emissions, but without you and millions of other people taking these tiny, easy steps, there is really no hope for our future.