6 ways ordinary people can prevent climate change, according to researchers and advocates

Worried about the environment? Scientists, researchers and advocates share the top changes we can make to be part of the climate change solution.
Image: The Wider Image: Journey to Antarctica: seals, penguins and glacial beauty
If you're worried climate change and its impact at home and around the world, focus on your own actions and habits, say environmental advocates. Alexandre Meneghini / Reuters file
Get the Better newsletter.
SUBSCRIBE
By Julie Compton

In October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a leading international body on climate change researchers, released an alarming report. The study found that countries around the world have just 12 years to reduce global warming before it reaches catastrophic levels.

Now that we know time may be running out, the question is: What can we do about it?

Understand how climate change will impact you

If current global temperatures rise above 1.5 degrees Celsius, as the report suggests, the warming atmosphere will create more extreme weather patterns across the U.S., according to Ben Strauss, chief scientist of Climate Central, an organization that reports on climate change. He says people across the country can expect hotter summers and milder winters, which will have a direct impact on food crops and the survival of wildlife.

“It’s getting hotter, so we can expect many more days above 90 degrees or 95 degrees, depending on where you live,” says Strauss.

In the West, continued wildfires will have a direct impact on air quality and human health, according to Strauss. In the Southwest, he says droughts will lead to water scarcity, while the East and Midwest will experience more torrential rainstorms. Strauss says people in eastern coastal areas, especially in low-lying communities, will see more flooding due to heavier and longer-lasting hurricanes, which will have an impact on the value of their homes. In the Northeast, he says, warmer weather will bring more tick and mosquito-born illnesses. The region will see fewer snowstorms, but the storms will become more intense due to increased moisture in the air.

One thing will surely impact people equally across the country, according to the scientist: intensifying summer heat. “Many more days that are danger days in terms of human health and that are ‘black flag’ days — you get to a certain combination of heat and humidity,” Strauss says.

What can we do?

Focus on solutions, according to Crystal Chissell, a vice president for Project Drawdown, a coalition of researchers and scientists who are working on climate change solutions.

Chissell says reports of impending doom tend to cause ordinary people to feel hopeless and to shut down.

“We will get a lot further toward solving the problem if we focus on solutions rather than continuing to highlight the problem,” Chissell says.

Project Drawdown recently put together a report highlighting 30 behavioral solutions ordinary people can take to combat climate change. The top three include wasting less food, adopting a plant-rich diet and consuming less energy and water.

6 things you can do to combat climate change, according to advocacy groups

1) Waste less food

Get the better newsletter.

Methane from agricultural actives, waste management, and energy use is the second largest cause of climate change behind fossil fuels, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Reducing food waste is the number-one thing consumers can do to significantly lessen their climate impact, according to the Project Drawdown report.

“Food that is disposed of and spoiled creates methane, and that’s why it has an impact on greenhouse gases, because methane is such a strong greenhouse gas,” Chissell says. “And that’s why reducing food waste has such a large impact.”

Food waste occurs when we don’t buy produce because it has blemishes or is misshapen, when we discard food because it is a day past the expiration date, or because we simply never get around to eating it, she says.

2) Eat less factory-farmed red meat

Factory farms feed cows grains, which cause them to release methane into the air through their gases, says Chissell.

“It’s not actually natural to their digestive system so it creates more methane,” Chissell explains.

Chissell says adopting a plant-rich diet, and eating more meat from organic farms where animals are fed natural diets, can help reduce methane. “It’s not even necessary to be a vegan or a vegetarian,” she says, “it’s just reducing the amount of meat that we consume and eating plant-based [foods].”

3) Consume less energy and water

“It’s absolutely imperative to also reduce energy usage,” says Chissell. “For instance, switching to LED light bulbs — that has a very large impact, as does any measure that can reduce household water use.”

There are a number of actions you can take to reduce water consumption, according to Chissell, including purchasing low-flow shower heads and sink faucets, taking shorter showers and washing full loads of laundry.

4) Call and meet with your representatives

Constituents who do the extra legwork of calling and meeting with their representatives have a huge influence, according to Flannery Winchester, communications coordinator at Citizens' Climate Lobby, a non-partisan advocacy organization that focuses on national policies that address climate change.

“If they’re not communicating with the people who are elected to represent them, then those people are not going to be prioritizing those issues,” Winchester says.

Many people believe their elected officials won’t be swayed by their concerns, says Winchester. But when people actively lobby their representatives, she says, change does happen.

For example, Winchester says voters influenced both Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives to come together to create the the Climate Solutions Caucus, a bipartisan group focused on climate change solutions.

“Things really are moving,” says Winchester, “and it’s because people are taking the time to talk to their members of Congress.”

5) Open a dialogue and find common ground

While there is major consensus among scientists that climate change is happening, some people may still doubt it’s real, or see climate change policies as “job killers,” according to Winchester.

How people talk to others about climate change is important to solving the problem, Winchester says. She says it’s imperative to avoid arguing about climate change as if it is a partisan issue.

“Really listen, ask open-ended questions and focus on finding common ground,” Winchester advises. For instance, if someone fears climate change policy will hurt coal industry jobs, re-focus the conversation on how climate change policies can create jobs, she says.

“Focusing on the common ground is the main thing that’s going to make it possible for you to introduce new information into the conversation, because they don’t feel like you’re fighting with them,” Winchester says.

6) Volunteer

A big way to be a part of the solution is to join a nonprofit organization where you live that focuses on helping the environment. Many of these organizations have membership opportunities in states and congressional districts across the country.

Want more tips like these? NBC News BETTER is obsessed with finding easier, healthier and smarter ways to live. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.