Dear Dot: Climate change is overwhelming. Where do I begin?

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Dot tackles your thorniest questions from a perch on her porch.

Dear Dot,

Where do I start?

–Overwhelmed in Edgartown

My dear Overwhelmed,

In 2004, I had three young children and a nascent awareness that their future on earth, this ‘pale blue dot’ (as Carl Sagan referred to it) was uncertain, at best. An increasingly vocal group of scientists and environmentalists were sounding the alarm about climate change. The data was clear, they said, revealing an accelerated warming trend that began, not at all coincidentally, around the start of the Industrial Revolution, when we began burning fossil fuels with the glee of a Saudi prince. More alarming, two-thirds of the warming has occurred since 1975, reports the Earth Observatory at NASA. 

And yet back then, all around me, people were idling in their Hummers, dismissing climate change as junk science or simply the planet’s natural cycle. It was crazy-making. It was paralyzing. It was, yes, overwhelming. 

And so I did what I always do when I’m scared and uncertain. I gathered knowledge. I reached out to experts who admitted that, yes, the situation was dire but not impossible. Never impossible. I was reminded that science is a guide, not a crystal ball. I wrote a book detailing what I learned.

In the 17 years since my awakening, I have seen incredible change. I have seen reusable grocery store bags become commonplace. I have noted that the cost of solar panels has plummeted, making them attractive to the average homeowner. I have seen the value of oil and gas tank, making them, in some areas, more expensive to extract than they are worth. And I have watched my babies grow into young adults who march with signs alongside other youth, demanding a healthier, more just world.

And so I, like all of us at BlueDot Living, choose hope. We choose agency, we choose imagination, we choose manageable steps to make our little part of the world healthier and more just — for us, for our families, for the people and creatures with whom we share it.

But, you ask, where to start? 

First, I want to share with you something I heard on the amazing How to Save a Planet podcast (find it on Spotify), when hosts debated whether individual actions make any difference. They noted that, ummm, actually … not so much. Here’s why: Power to generate electricity contributes to about a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, and land use to produce food contributes about another 25 percent. And then there’s transportation and industry and construction, and so it turns out that the actual contribution that an average American can genuinely control of their greenhouse gas emissions is 0.0000000003 percent. That’s a whole lot of zeros, basically rounding to zero. It’s easy to conclude, then, that you might as well just throw up your hands. What’s the point, right? 

To which I say, Wrong. 

For one thing, our actions can drive others’ behavior. It can also drive our politicians (who tend to follow more than lead). Besides, what cynicism misses is that living with intention, making choices that respect the planet and the people and creatures with whom we share it is rewarding in itself. It feels good.

Sharing what we’re doing and why we’re doing it (think evangelism, not puritanism) normalizes the necessary changes we need to create. And there’s power in people demanding and creating change. So let’s start right there. 

Vote. Locally. Statewide. Federally. Or consider running for elected office yourself. Volunteer with organizations that are doing work you admire.

And then, take steps that make the most sense for you.

We choose agency, we choose imagination, we choose manageable steps to make our little part of the world healthier and more just — for us, for our families, for the people and creatures with whom we share it.

But, you ask, where to start?

Perhaps you love to cook, in which case, start in the kitchen. We put nature on our plates three times a day, so look for locally grown foods, ideally without pesticides. In the immortal words of food writer and seasonal Aquinnah resident Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” By “food,” Pollan refers to something that your grandparents would recognize as food, which means push that shopping cart right past the Go-Gurt aisle. It’s good practice to shop the perimeter of your grocery store, where most of the fresh stuff is, rather than the interior, where you’ll find largely processed foods. Better still, frequent our farmers markets. Eat less meat, especially conventionally raised beef. A quarter-pound hamburger requires 450 gallons of water to produce, says the Water Footprint Calculator. I love a burger as much as the next guy or girl, but yikes! U.S. meat production uses as much water in 24 hours as all of New England uses in four months. So consider going meatless one day a week. (Fun fact: The Meatless Mondays campaign originated during World War I because of a lack of meat!)

Or maybe it makes sense for you to start with how you get around, and you’re ready to reconsider your mode of transport. Sure, you can purchase an electric vehicle (See “Cruising with Currier“) but you can also pledge to cycle, or skateboard, or walk for any trips under two or three miles, or whatever distance is reasonable for you. And while I know transit isn’t as convenient as getting behind the wheel of a car, it’s definitely greener, especially with the VTA on track to have 50 percent of its fleet electric, with the intention of being fully electric by 2027. What’s more, you’re improving your health.

One of the most impactful ways we can cut our carbon footprint is improving our home’s energy efficiency, so starting there makes loads of sense (and cents!), and Cape Light Compact makes it a cinch. Visit capelightcompact.org, or call 800-797-6699, to schedule a free home energy assessment. They’ll send someone right to your home to perform an energy audit and then provide something of a roadmap for what you can do, from small changes to big. If you have inefficient lighting, they’ll give you LED lights (no cost) and a power strip for home electronics (also no cost). They’ll fill you in on what loans or grants are available, and show you exactly how these improvements will play out in terms of cost savings over time. “We’re looking to get as much efficiency to the customer with the biggest bang for the buck,” says Cape Light Compact’s Briana Kane, who leads the residential effort. “It’s about smart decisions you make when you need to.” Doesn’t that sound nice, Overwhelmed?

For those of us (ahem) who have old chest freezers gulping energy, or perhaps a second, no-longer-needed fridge, or maybe an inefficient AC unit, Cape Light Compact will remove appliances free of charge, and even pad your pocketbook by $75 for the privilege. Just call and set up an appointment, says Kane. “Every little step does help,” she says.

She’s right, Overwhelmed. It doesn’t matter which step you take, just that you take one. The one that makes the most sense for you. You’ll feel better. I promise. And then, don’t forget to tell your neighbor.

Love, Dot

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