Your Earth Day Guide to Saving the World

If you are among the small plurality of Americans that accepts that the world's climate is changing and that we should do what we can to prevent the worst-case scenario of global warming, you may have wondered: What can I do? 

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If you are among the small plurality of Americans who accept that the world's climate is changing and that we should do what we can to prevent the worst-case scenario of global warming,* you may have wondered: What can I do? Here, as a special Earth Day treat to you, are the answers to some of the options you may have considered.

* If you are not in that group, if you are one of the one-quarter of Americans that does not accept the scientific consensus, you may skip ahead.

Here's how this will work. You will offer a question:

Should I recycle?

And I will offer an answer:

Recycling is tricky one. There is broad value in reducing the amount of raw materials we extract from the Earth, for a number of reasons. One is that the process of extraction — milling timber, mining metals — are energy-intensive. And at the end of the day, the key to battling climate change is reducing energy use that is derived from the consumption of fossil fuels. The less stuff you need to pull out of the ground, the less energy used to pull stuff out of the ground. Another reason to recycle is that these resources are constrained in a variety of ways: there's only so much copper in the ground that can be extracted cheaply, for example. And, of course, recycling reduces the amount of material in landfills.

But you alone recycling doesn't do much to slow the extent to which that extraction takes place. One of the most intellectually challenging aspects of the climate debate is scale. The scale of global warming is, by definition, global, contributed to by people all over the world. Recycling is at a similar scale, something that would make a massive difference if adopted everywhere; something that makes only a very small difference when adopted by a house or a community or even a city. Should you recycle? Yes. Will your recycling solve the problem of climate change? No.

And an assessment of how useful it is to saving the planet:

Overall utility: Low.

And then there will be a little line, and then there will be a new question.

Should I take mass transit instead of driving?

Yes, you should, when you can. I recognize that it's nice having your own little space to hold your stuff and that it's inconvenient to have to figure out how you're going to get from the bus or train stop to wherever you're trying to go. But here's the deal: Those busses and trains are going to those places anyway. You hopping onboard doesn't make the bus or train burn (very much) more fuel. (It has to burn a tiny bit more because you will make the train or bus slightly heavier, and I do not say that to judge you.)


But, again: scale. There are a lot of people driving all over the place. Some of them are driving large trucks to bring things to stores and so on. You switching over to take half of your trips by bus instead of driving has a minimal effect on climate change. The chart at right shows the sources of greenhouse gas emissions by economic sector for the United States in 2012. A little over a quarter is from vehicles, because there are a lot of vehicles moving around out there.

Overall utility: Low.

Should I use paper towels in public restrooms or the electric hand dryer?

Good question, Elle Reeve, who is the person I work with that demanded I answer this! There are a lot of "it depends" components to this. Again, the key to this conversation — in which we're thinking only of the climate change context — is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Are the paper towels recycled? Are they made from old-growth redwoods located deep in the Sierra Nevadas? Are you in a building that is powered solely by solar power? There are varying greenhouse gas tolls for each of those things (low, high, and almost none respectively) that make it hard to issue a blanket response.

But regardless, unless you're constantly going to public restrooms and being confronted with this problem, what you choose on any given day doesn't make a very big difference. If you're responsible for purchasing hand-drying solutions for a brand-new international airport, that's one thing. If you're going to the bathroom in that airport and are wondering, it doesn't really matter.

This is the point at which I note that energy efficiency improvements are a very, very good way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, simply because we'll be using much less electricity, and electricity (see graph above) is the main way in which Americans contribute to global warming. Vast reductions in the amount of electricity we use would be helpful, and is one of the cheapest ways to cut emissions. But we're not going to reach that ideal state by making complex calculations about how we want to dry our hands at the Chipotle. (Sorry, Elle.)

Overall utility: None.

Should I install solar panels on my roof?

Sure. Over the long run, unless you live in a constantly cloudy place and / or underground, the solar panels will pay off by reducing the amount of electricity you pull from the electrical grid. It takes energy to make solar panels, of course, but the net gain is a good one for the environment.

But again, scale. So:

Overall utility: Low.

Should I use lambskin condoms instead of latex ones?

This is another question from a coworker, who I will not identify. No, but mostly because you don't want to get a sexually-transmitted disease. Being sick and having to be treated for that is resource-intensive. And the amount of latex we're talking about, unless you are particularly virile, is small.

However. It is very much the case that you should wear a condom when having heterosexual sex, because there are few things that contribute to global warming more substantially over time than more people. A kid uses a lot of energy over time, and a lot of products and food that themselves use a lot of energy. Kids are great, have kids. Just recognize that this is not a net plus for the environment.

Overall utility: Low.

I see products in the store that have green caps or that have pictures of leaves on them. Should I buy those things?

Probably not. It didn't take advertisers and marketing companies very long to figure out that the collective concern about the environment would inspire people to buy certain products. Companies should make their packaging smaller and reduce packing materials because it makes sense for their products and because they want to do the right thing — large companies have scale — not simply so they can stamp some leaves on their Kix and guilt you into buying their cereal.

Advertisers are hustlers. Some try to balance the need to raise money with the need to do right by the world; some don't. One of the big problems in the climate fight is that major corporations that are deeply responsible for the current problems — oil companies, coal companies — have fought any attempt to hold them accountable for doing so. In Pennsylvania, you drive past billboards that claim "clean coal" exists and is "green." That's just marketing. Be skeptical of similar claims in the grocery aisle.

Overall utility: Low.

I have the ability to either build or not build a giant pipeline that would carry oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast. Should I build it?

What a topical question! There's a proposal that would do just that called the Keystone XL pipeline. (Read our "nine things to know" about Keystone.)

In The New York Times on Tuesday, Coral Davenport reveals one of the secrets of the broad opposition to Keystone — blocking it won't do a whole lot to combat climate change. As one energy analyst put it, "the Keystone pipeline is a rounding error" in efforts to cut down on greenhouse gas pollution. There are some caveats — stopping the pipeline could greatly reduce extraction of oil in the Albertan tar sands, for one — but this is generally true. The pipeline will add far more climate pollution than you driving around will, but far, far less than America's coal-burning power plants.

There is a valid argument that the United States should not invest in any new infrastructure that would enable more fossil fuels to be burned. But even if you're not a purist on that front, there is one way that fighting the pipeline is valuable: it builds political pressure to act on climate change. At New York, Jonathan Chait dismisses the value of opposing Keystone in the climate change fight, as many do. But it unquestionably elevated the discussion of climate change in American politics, where it had been languishing for some time.

That's not the question though. You say you can build it or not? Don't build it, but that won't solve the climate problem.

Overall utility: Low.

I am near a switch that could convert all of the United States' power generation from coal- and natural-gas-burning to renewable sources. Should I flip that switch?

Yes, immediately. Again: Burning fuel for electricity is the No. 1 contributor to climate change emissions in the United States. Brad Plumer at explains why cutting emissions quickly and drastically is critical to avoiding the worst effects of climate change.

American politicians have been very, very reticent to actually act to curtail emissions, in part because the American public remains ambivalent about doing so and because American businesses have strongly opposed the idea. So flip your switch!

You should know, though, that this would only stop American emissions. The other big political problem in fighting climate change is that we need to figure out a way in which all of the world's big fossil fuel polluters cut their emissions and in which smaller countries don't see any incentive in increasing their output. The various international gatherings and treaties have been trying to crack this nut for a while, without success. In fact, it's often used as an argument against the United States taking action: it puts us at a theoretical disadvantage. So flip the switch, but it would be helpful if you had a switch for the rest of the world, too.

Overall utility: Medium.

Oh, there's a switch here labelled "The Rest of the World." Should I flip that one, too?

Ugh, yes. Are you even reading this?

Overall utility: High.

Well, I do not believe in global warming because [PICK ONE]

  1. I saw snow once.
  2. The world used to be warm at other times.
  3. You cannot show me, right now, something bad that happened which happened solely because of climate change and which wouldn't have happened absent a warming planet.
  4. Because I would rather think there is some uncertainty in the topic than embrace the idea that the world needs to confront the problem and, quite possibly, make dramatic changes to the cultural patterns that I've enjoyed my entire life.

I do not have an answer to these complaints that you will pay any attention to. My apologies.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.