Five Radical Steps We Can Take to Fight Climate Change

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credit: World Resources Institute

Installing a smart thermostat or skipping a steak won't be enough.

After the release of the new IPCC report on climate change, we listed five things you can do to fight climate change, based on an article in the Guardian. I noted near the end: "Really, it is hard to be optimistic when you read this sad list. We have to do better. We CAN do better." They were all baby steps.

This list in CNN was even worse, tiny little steps. And it is clear that federal and state governments are not going to do much about all of this; it's probably down to cities and individuals.

All these personal lists include eating less meat, but according to that World Resources Institute chart up top, the biggest emitters of greenhouse gas emissions are still our transportation and our buildings. Next are chemicals, mostly plastics, and methane from agriculture, mostly meat. So sure, go veg if you can, but we have to deal with the bigger stuff.

Here are five radical steps, principles actually, that we can all take that might actually make a difference, building on some posts from earlier this year.

1. Radical Efficiency – Make every building Passivhaus

credit: Simple forms, basic materials, nice proportions in Munich/ Lloyd Alter

Simple forms, basic materials, nice proportions in Munich/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

It's time to build our homes and offices to really tough levels of energy efficiency. Many places in Europe are moving to the Passivhaus standard in their building codes. In North America people talk more about going Net Zero Energy but I still believe it is the wrong target; we need to reduce our demand for energy, not just offset it with renewables.

For existing buildings, there will have to be extensive retrofitting; Energiesprong is a good model that takes them to near Passivhaus.

Individual actions for energy efficiency are tougher, but the first is to change every lightbulb you own to LED. Forget about smart bulbs, and if you cannot add any more insulation or you can't seal another crack or hole, consider a smart thermostat.

2. Radical Sufficiency – How much do you need?

wooden house aspern

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

The single family house is the American Dream, but in the world's most liveable city, Vienna, just about everybody lives in an apartment and raises families there quite happily. It is enough; it is sufficient. Meanwhile, with only one exterior wall it needs far less heat or AC.

Because they live at a reasonable density, they can bike and take transit almost everywhere. When they build a new suburb (like on this old airport site) they bring bike lanes and transit right to it. In most cases, in a compact city with good infrastructure, a bike is sufficient. If you have a little more distance, an e-bike might be sufficient. For many in North America, a car is still a necessity. However, a used Nissan Leaf might be sufficient. That's better for the climate than buying a new Tesla and a lot cheaper.

If the single family dwelling is still a must, make it small, think about semi-detached or townhouse (less exterior wall), and find it in a relatively walkable or bikeable community. If you have a big house (like I did), duplex it to house more people with the same energy consumption.

3. Radical Simplicity – The KISS principle applies to everything. And why I like dumb things.

the future house

© Tesla/ Elon Musk

The acronym for "Keep it simple stupid" was first noted by Lead Engineer Kelly Johnson at the Lockheed Skunk Works, during the design of the SR-71 Blackbird. According to the Interaction Design Foundation,

Kelly explained the idea to others with a simple story. He told the designers at Lockheed that whatever they made had to be something that could be repaired by a man in a field with some basic mechanic’s training and simple tools. The theater of war (for which Lockheed’s products were designed) would not allow for more than that. If their products weren’t simple and easy to understand – they would quickly become obsolete in combat conditions and thus worthless.

Most of what passes for "smart home" devices are complicated, break down, don't get support, or people don't know how to use them. Billions are invested in autonomous cars that won't work for decades when we could invest billions now in fixing public transportation that we have now. Two years ago Elon Musk started taking orders for his gorgeous solar shingles and has installed it on exactly 12 houses, explaining that "it takes a while to just confirm that the Solar Roof is going to last for 30 years and all the details work out." New technologies take time to roll out, but we don't have time. Keep it simple.

It's why I like dumb homes, dumb cities and dumb boxes.

4. Radical Frugality – Just buy less stuff.

credit: Make it do

Make it do/Public Domain

Almost everything you buy has embodied carbon. We have already noted that even buying something made with recycled aluminum increased demand for virgin aluminum, and that plastics are basically solid fossil fuels. Consumption may keep the economy spinning, but there is a huge price in carbon. As Katherine has written:

Frugality is an environmental statement that’s far more powerful than empty words or bumper stickers. Ultimately, environmentalism stems from acts of doing less: less consumption, less commuting, less carbon emissions, less wastefulness, less carelessness.

At the start of the Great Recession I wrote about the idea of frugal green living, with a pile of tips that saved both money and carbon.

5. Radical Decarbonization – Electrify everything

live better electrically

Edison Electric Institute/Promo image

We have to cut back on our use of fossil fuels to the point that the oil and gas companies are forced to leave it in the ground because there is so little demand. That means getting our homes off gas, switching to induction ranges for cooking, mini heat pumps for heating and cooling. Switch to walking, bikes, e-bikes, scooters, and transit, and then electric cars.

In our buildings, we have to use less concrete and more wood. We have to fix and renovate instead of building new. We have to stop using foamed plastic insulations and get rid of PVC.

Individual actions can add up to carbon savings, but there is one individual action that tops them all.

Norman Rockwell Election Day 1944

Cedar Rapids Museum/ Norman Rockwell/ Election Day 1944/Public Domain

But it requires a change of thinking and lifestyle, not just buying a thermostat or skipping a steak. On the other hand, it is not necessarily onerous. I have given up half my house and have just about given up driving, but have less space to worry about and am a lot healthier for all the walking and biking.

Ultimately, we cannot do it alone. It's fine to say, "Get a bike!", but it is hard to do if there is no decent infrastructure. It's pointless to say, "Electrify everything!" if all the electricity is still made by burning coal. It's hard to tell people to live in flats or apartments if there are none being built for families at affordable prices. All these changes become possible only when there are a majority of voters demanding them. So ultimately, the greatest individual action we can take is to get out and vote the reactionary climate arsonist bums out.