Just before the end of 2017, I had the chance to speak to a group of college students about what they can do to act on climate change. I love speaking to younger people. Why? Because we need them on our side. They're smart, they care, and they are eager to engage. The students of today will likely be the key to addressing the climate challenge.
I suggested four specific ways students can step up and make a very positive difference. But first, I shared some key points on climate change.
Climate change is by far the biggest environmental threat we face. But it's not just an environmental problem. Climate change is a huge challenge to human health, access to food and water, security, and the economy, too.
In the past, college students have often been the loudest and most important voices behind big changes and cultural shifts.
Today, environmental activists on college campuses mostly speak out against one thing or another—protesting pipelines, decrying oil companies, and campaigning against fossil fuel investments in endowments. This engagement can be effective. It gets the conversation going and draws attention to important issues. It puts pressure on bad actors.
But—importantly—such activity is not sufficient. We need college students to do more.
One way or another, we need humankind to drastically lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. We need to do this fast and at scale. That's the only way we'll meet the goal to stay below a two-degree Celsius temperature rise.
Here are four ways that students can help make that happen.
1) Political Commitment
Nothing is more critical to lowering greenhouse gas emissions than smart, pragmatic, and effective government policy.
What can young people do to shape those policies? First—and most importantly—they need to vote. We all do. This may sound obvious, but—sadly—less than 37% of Americans voted in the last mid-term election—the lowest levels since WWII. We must do much better than that. We have a hugely important mid-term election coming up in November 2018. If you care about climate, it's mandatory that you vote.
Second—get involved beyond the voting booth. Not with a tweet, or by just pointing a finger at bad actors. Instead, engage in politics in a direct way. Look for the candidates that you admire, whose positions you support—and then support their campaign. And work hard to get out the vote. It takes work. But it's very rewarding. My daughter recently campaigned door-to-door for the gubernatorial election in Virginia. She says it’s one of the most fulfilling things she’s ever done.
And fight for smart climate policy. Most economists on both the right and left agree that a price on carbon is the lowest-cost way to reduce emissions. Campaign for it. Or stand up for renewable portfolio standards and other smart energy policies.
Democracy is a participatory sport. And achieving smart government policy is a critical step in achieving sustainability at scale. We all need to dive in and do much more.
2) Personal Engagement
Another important thing we can all do is learn the science, and use it wisely.
Some pundits say that we’re living in a “post-truth” era—where the facts don’t matter as much as the spin. Of course that’s baloney. Facts obviously matter. But how we approach these facts matters too.
We could all benefit from less re-tweeting, more re-searching. Let's do the work. Let's learn the science. It's not that hard. And the stakes are too high to be led blindly by folks with an agenda.
Some people insist that climate change science is very uncertain. Or even that it's a hoax. Again, that's total BS.
Since 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—a group consisting of hundreds of the world's top scientists—has released periodic reports on climate change. These reports summarize thousands of scientific studies and millions of observations. They are approved line-by-line by governments representing the majority of the Earth's population. Each time, the underlying conclusion of the group's report is clear: Global warming is unequivocal.
Maybe you prefer your science to come from home. Well, the US National Academy of Sciences completed an exhaustive study as well. Now, this isn't some fringe group trying to push an agenda. It's the most prestigious scientific society in our country, established by president Abraham Lincoln to provide objective, nonpartisan scientific advice to the government.
And what did our country’s best scientists have to say about human-caused climate change? They declared it "a settled fact."
Here's another good way to think about climate science. We have the same level of certainty about climate change being caused by human activity as we do about cigarettes being harmful to human health.
There's a scary parallel here, too. Tobacco companies knew early on that their product killed people, but they buried the science for many years. The consequence—many people died from the effects of smoking. Let’s not allow this sad history to repeat itself.
Ready to dive into the science but not a scientist yourself? A good place to start is Joe Romm's book, "Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know." It's a very clear, easy-to-read, and exhaustively cross-referenced primer on climate science.
Once you do get up to speed, please use that knowledge wisely. Engage in conversations on the topic, of course—but please don't mock or vilify those who hold a different perspective. Instead, try to understand where the other person is coming from.
At the end of the day, we all mostly want the same things: good jobs, clean water, nutritious food, and a healthy environment. When you start with these broadly-held goals in mind, it creates room for conversations between people who might not see eye-to-eye on every issue.
Instead of trying to use your knowledge to win a debate, use it to focus on matters everybody really cares about, and establish some common ground and productive dialogue. If more college students wisely, patiently, but firmly, stand up for climate science, I think we’ll get more people on our side.
3) Practical Action
Remember, to address the climate challenge the most important thing we can do is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions now—at scale and with urgency. We can all do this in a direct way, too.
The first step is to be aware of your personal carbon footprint—the total amount of GHGs that you are personally responsible for. Research tells us that American households account for more than 14% of global carbon emissions. If each of us cuts our personal carbon footprint in half over the next several years, we can put a real dent in climate change.
There are many strategies that can produce these results:
- Consider smart energy options. As college students graduate and enter the workforce, there is an opportunity to go electric: electric cars, efficient home appliances, electric heat pumps, and smart thermostats. You can also opt for solar panels. And take your bike for short trips instead of hopping in the car.
- Eat less meat, and minimize food waste. The global livestock industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transportation sector worldwide. Changes to our diet really add up. You'll save money too.
- Buy carbon offsets for your air travel. Air travel is a big part of our carbon footprints. Some airlines provide tools to calculate the carbon emissions from your flight. Then you have the chance to purchase an “offset” by making a contribution to fund a forest conservation project that removes or prevents the release of an equivalent amount of CO2 into the atmosphere.
None of these individual steps—even if we do them all—will be significant enough to avoid the need for smart government policy. But these practical, individual actions will make a positive difference. For example, it's already driving the private sector to step up and meet customer demand. Many utilities now offer the choice of renewable energy to individual customers. And first Tesla, and now all auto companies, are making electric cars. Google, Apple, and JP Morgan are committed to running on all-renewable energy soon. And in time, the government will catch up.
4) Professional Opportunity
Probably the only good thing about the mess my generation has made in the environment is the range of interesting and challenging jobs that will be available for today's young people to get us on the right path. It’s not just scientists and environmentalists that we need to save the planet.
From environmental engineers, to journalists, to city planners, to impact investors, there are many ways college grads can align their careers with environmental values. Students can prepare for such jobs by engaging in environmental issues today—participate actively in college committees that manage campus energy use, get involved with local community energy issues, or apply for internships that help young people build careers in conservation.
Job seekers can also look for businesses that align with their beliefs—or push employers to be more sustainable. I already mentioned companies like Google, Apple, Amazon, and Walmart and how they’re making big investments in renewable energy and squeezing greenhouse gas emissions out of their supply chains. And it’s not just major corporations that need to step up and address impact on the environment—all businesses can benefit from taking a closer look at their carbon footprint.
Looking ahead for 2018
It's easy to be discouraged and alarmed by the climate challenge ahead. We have a long way to go and very little time to achieve huge and enduring cuts to greenhouse gas emissions. But there is also a lot that all of us can do right now to make a very positive difference. Let's get to work. Vulnerable people all around the world and future generations too are counting on us.