Published in The Montana Standard February 7, 2020
We need to talk about how we talk about climate. The “no, seriously, we’re all gonna die” approach is how many activists unknowingly start the conversation about global warming. Environmentalists like me are trained to use scientific facts and figures to convince people to protect the planet.
There’s no doubt that the reality is scary. The International Panel on Climate Change concludes that we have a decade until we cannot reverse the dramatic effects of global warming. Every day new studies surface on melting glaciers, devastating flooding, and rapidly warming oceans. Closer to home, the 2018 New York Times reports that our children’s Yellowstone will be dramatically different because of climate change.
But the problem is that many of us can’t handle the truth. The calamitous scientific warnings don’t scare most of us into action – even people who believe that global warming is an existential threat. Instead, we want to curl under a blanket, watch Netflix, and act normal. Jonathan Safren Foer in his recent book, We are the Weather: Saving the Climate Begins at Breakfast, makes the case that global warming is too big to comprehend and that individual action can seem futile.
Environmentalists need to shift the conversation by celebrating positive solutions to climate change that have immediate benefits whether or not people “believe in” global warming. Scientists, architects, and engineers agree that technology exists to tackle the problem. Change is possible if we start talking less about the end of the world as we know it and more about a path forward to a vibrant, healthy future.
Paul Hawken’s beautifully written and designed book Project Drawdown outlines exciting, effective solutions to global warming. Overall emissions -currently 55 gigatons/year– need to drop by 55% by 2030 to meet current climate goals. A gigaton is the equivalent of one billion metric tons. To put this number in context, Chris Mooney of The Washington Post provides the imperfect, but helpful analogy that a gigaton is the weight of about 6 million blue whales. That’s a lot of carbon to reduce, but we can do it.
Some of the top strategies make sense no matter your “position” on climate change. For example, 3% of the world’s energy is currently produced by wind. Project Drawdown estimates that even a one percent increase in wind power in world energy production could decrease carbon emissions by 84.6 gigatons. According to a 2018 analysis at Montana State University, 7.5% of Montana’s electricity comes for wind power. While Montana is 24th in the country for installed wind energy, it’s 5th in the nation for potential onshore wind power. The clean energy sector is growing in the Northern Rockies and throughout the country.
Reducing food waste and eating a plant-rich diet are impactful solutions. Food waste is responsible for 8% of global emissions. Composting, sustainable agriculture, and investing in transportation and storage in developing countries can make a difference. The European Union has set aggressive targets to cut food waste by 50% by 2030. More governments and companies are following their lead. Animal-based agriculture accounts for 20% of global carbon emissions. I love a good steak. Foher concludes in his book that going plant-based for breakfast and lunch is a simple, individual action that can make a difference. That’s do-able even for a happy carnivore like me. Project Drawdown calculates that moving to a plant-rich diet can save 66.11 gigatons of carbon emissions. A plant-rich diet is also healthier.
In addition, educating girls across the world is one of the top 10 climate solutions. Educated women tend to have less children and therefore can reduce population pressures. They are also often chief decision makers for households on food choices, food waste, and energy. Potentially 105.02 gigatons of carbon could be reduced by creating a more highly educated population of girls across the world. It’s exciting that promoting equality can lead to a more sustainable planet.
We must engage people with these types of solutions. Promoting clean energy reduces air pollution. Reducing food waste makes sense. Eating more plants makes us healthy. Educating girls around the world is the right thing to do. We can talk more about these positive strategies and gain momentum.
We all know that we are going to die. The bigger question is what kind of planet are we going to leave for the next generation and what future can we collectively create together? We can make a healthier and greener world.
No, seriously, we can.
Heather White is President of Heather White Strategies, LLC. She is the former president and CEO of Yellowstone Forever, executive director of EWG, and Senate staffer. Heather lives in Bozeman.