The Most Important New Year’s Resolution for Climate
Changing your personal habits won’t change the world, but there are other benefits to doing so.
Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe famously adopts two new climate-friendly habits each year—“not because I think they’re going to change the course of climate change as I know it,” she told Christian Science Monitor in 2021, “but because it enables me to be consistent with my values and it gives me joy.”
One new habit could be reducing meat consumption, given that animal agriculture produces a lot of greenhouse gas emissions and contributes to deforestation and biodiversity loss. Or it could be reducing food waste, which accounts for more emissions nationally than the entire airline industry. You could switch to reusable grocery bags rather than plastic or eliminate plastic packaging from bathroom products (as Hayhoe herself decided to do in 2020). Or cut your energy bill with some combination of LED lights, adding insulation via curtains or door sweeps, turning down the thermostat a few degrees in winter, or even installing a heat pump—hey, there are good tax incentives for that now!
One of the advantages of this approach is that it encourages people to make small, incremental changes rather than getting overwhelmed by guilt about the amount of emissions and consumption baked into everyday life. Bigger, systemic changes like winding down fossil fuel production are vastly more important than an individual’s plastic use (although the fossil fuel industry has poured a lot of money into trying to convince people otherwise, popularizing the term “carbon footprint” to try to convince people that climate change is a matter of personal rather than corporate malfeasance). As Hayhoe frequently reminds audiences and readers, talking about climate change, joining an organization fighting climate change, and advocating for political solutions remain the most important actions an individual can take.
But the idea of adopting two climate-friendly habits is a welcome reminder that there isn’t actually any inherent tension between advocating for those bigger changes and living your values. In fact, living your values while advocating for bigger society-wide changes can help ease your climate anxiety in a productive way.
There’s also a way to fuse those different types of action: for example, deciding to make a small change in how you talk about climate change. I bring this up because, while the last Apocalypse Soon newsletter focused on some of the huge breakthroughs on climate in 2022, the United States is also starting 2023 in the shadow of one of politicians’ big failures of 2022: not including policy to directly wind down fossil fuels in last year’s historic climate package.
In the wake of that bittersweet triumph, Aaron Regunberg wrote about the need for ordinary people to start talking about just how much the fossil fuel industry has done and continues to do to keep the world hooked on planet-killing fuels—despite having known for decades that these fuels are heating the planet.
This isn’t to say that pointing out the bare facts of the fossil fuel industry’s deception is the best way to start a climate conversation with an avowed skeptic. But a lot of people who’d self-identify as being concerned about the climate may still be unaware of how far the industry’s reach extends (into think tanks and academia, for instance—the very institutions producing the papers that politicians then base their decisions on) and how much the industry has influenced our current understanding of what reasonable climate policy looks like. Anyone, for example, who thinks that climate policy is generally a good idea, but also thinks that we need to increase domestic gas production to counter Russia, is unwittingly parroting experts funded in part by ExxonMobil, as Kate Aronoff pointed out last year.
One way to start off 2023 on the right foot, and increase public support for more direct and substantive climate policy, would be, as Aaron wrote, “naming and shaming the agencies and creative professionals that produce fossil fuel propaganda.” Or reminding people in each discussion how our ideas of what’s politically possible are shaped by that propaganda. Or calling out politicians who continue to accept money from this industry. “If we want to save the world,” Aaron wrote, “we need to break the fossil fuel industry’s stranglehold on power.” That may involve turning over a new rhetorical leaf.
The Biden administration on Friday moved to re-expand the definition of waterways protected under the Clean Water Act to include ephemeral streams and ponds, reversing the Trump administration curtailment in 2019. The move helps limit agricultural, commercial, and industrial runoff; corporations, however, say it’s unfairly expensive to expect them not to poison these waterways.
The Biden administration is running out of time to finalize EPA rules if it wants to defend them in court. Unless it moves quickly, a lot of new environmental rules could be reversed by a new president and Congress in 2025. Read Jean Chemnick’s piece on this at Climatewire.
Stat of the Week
That’s the amount of nationwide food waste that comes from households, i.e., not restaurants, stores, or farms. Read Susan Shain’s excellent story about food waste—which contributes to greenhouse gas emissions—and how central Ohio is trying to reduce it, at The New York Times.
Elsewhere in the Ecosystem
Accountability Is the Most Important Climate Solution
As Republicans prepare to take over the House, vital work from the House Oversight Committee’s investigation of the fossil fuel industry’s role funding disinformation about the climate crisis could be stymied. In addition to providing some suggestions for how to avoid that, climate journalist Amy Westervelt this week offered a stirring defense of accountability, writ large, and the need for it in plans to save the planet:
Whenever I talk about accountability a certain type of well-bred elitist tends to bristle. There’s no need to blame, they say, or point fingers. Singling out villains is backwards, archaic, it smacks of eye-for-an-eye approaches to justice and it lets everyone else off the hook. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of accountability and the critical role it plays in formulating effective solutions.
Catastrophic climate change is a symptom of an intertwined web of problems. Untangling that web and the various forces that created it is not just a worthy exercise, it’s absolutely critical to developing solutions that actually work. The focus on technological and policy solutions to climate has put the cart before the horse, and in doing so, created a solutions framework that is hopelessly inadequate. Americans in particular have a tendency to skip right over accountability and straight to “solutions,” but failing to understand how a problem came about in the first place tends to deliver … not solutions, but new problems. And on climate, examples of that abound.
People talk about “the energy transition” as an aspirational, future phase, for example, which ignores the fact that we’ve just spent the past 20 years living through an energy transition, one that required major investments in infrastructure, a new distribution system, all of that. The conversion of U.S. energy sources from coal to natural gas was a massive transition, on par with the transition currently being proposed from fossil fuels to renewables. But we don’t often talk about it that way, which means we miss key lessons from that transition: simply swapping in one energy source for another, focusing on only one greenhouse gas, and allowing the fossil fuel industry to drive and manage that transition were all enormous missteps.
Read Amy Westervelt’s piece in her Drilled newsletter.
This article first appeared in Apocalypse Soon, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Heather Souvaine Horn. Sign up here.