April 22 is Earth Day, a day set aside for appreciating the environment and encouraging protections of it. The tradition dates back to the first Earth Day in 1970, when some 20 million people across the United States, from thousands of schools, colleges, universities and communities, took part in demonstrations, marches and environmental cleanups. It led to the passage of landmark environmental legislation in the country and helped create the modern environmental movement.
Today, Earth Day is celebrated in 192 countries. Its mission includes curbing plastic pollution, supporting regenerative agriculture and combating climate change.
Do you celebrate Earth Day? What role does the environment or nature play in your life? What do you appreciate most about it? Do you do anything to help protect the planet?
In the face of a warming world and increasing climate catastrophes, you might be asking yourself: Can one person help save the planet? In “Have Climate Questions? Get Answers Here,” The New York Times Climate Desk responds to that query and others. Somini Sengupta, a climate reporter, writes:
What can the average person do about climate change?
This is one of the most common and vexing questions: Can one person’s actions really make a difference? The problem is so big that the fix has to come from powerful nations and policymakers, right?
First of all, it’s impossible to separate the two things: Personal actions and international cooperation are inextricably linked. The answer also depends on whose actions we’re talking about.
The actions of a middle-class American matter a lot more than the actions of, say, a farmer in Bangladesh. Why? Because people in wealthy countries consume much more than people in poor countries, and so their choices matter more to global emissions.
What can individuals do? Here’s a detailed guide. A few examples:
∙ Transit: What car a person buys — or whether a person even owns a car — matters tremendously, because transportation is the single biggest source of emissions in most American cities.
∙ Air travel: Long-haul and first-class trips in particular increase a person’s carbon footprint.
∙ Food: If people were to simply waste less food, it would make a significant difference in emissions.
∙ Stuff: Avoid the disposable. Purchase things that last.
In our homes, one of the most effective (but sometimes complicated) things that can help is to replace gas heaters with electric heat pumps. Gas stoves, too, contribute to warming, although to a lesser degree, but also have other negative health effects.
Changing what you do can also influence others. Research shows, for instance, that people tend to conserve more electricity when their utility bills show how their power use compares with their neighbors’.
And it’s worth noting that individual action is a prerequisite for collective action. Without individual activists getting together, there would be no Sunrise Movement camping out in the halls of Congress. And, of course, voting is an individual action that can be an important force for change.
On the whole, though, humans tend to be bad at altering their behavior today to address risks tomorrow. This “present bias,” as cognitive scientists call it, makes it hard for us, as individuals, to carry out lifestyle changes now to prevent a catastrophe down the road.
Because the world has deferred climate action for so long, it must now cut greenhouse gas emissions drastically and swiftly. It can be hard to imagine how those cuts can be made without ambitious government policies.
Still, it’s not too late to make a difference. While it’s true that we have already dangerously warmed the planet by burning fossil fuels for generations, the future isn’t set in stone. Many futures remain possible. It’s up to us to decide which one plays out.
Students, spend some time exploring the rest of the guide. You can type your own climate-related question into the search bar or browse through the curated list of reader questions. Then tell us: