Taking Personal Responsibility for Climate Change

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The other day, I went to a gathering of 50 people interested in advocating for clean energy in the United States. I rode my bike there. At least a dozen people commented on what a “good girl” I was for doing so.

We poured ourselves coffee and tea into paper cups. We ate our potluck lunch on paper plates with plastic forks. We grabbed our bottles of water. We wiped our mouths with paper napkins and we grabbed our packets of printed materials to talk about how we could help push the federal government into making clean energy a reality, starting with identifying ‘green’ businesses to be our allies in this campaign.

I mean no disrespect to the good people that gave their time to talk about the importance of renewable energy. Nor to the folks that put together these house meetings. The idea of bringing people together around clean energy is a good one and long over due.

But the experience did get me thinking about climate change and personal responsibility.

It has become very easy to say that we need sweeping institutional change since my changing of my light bulbs won’t have much of an impact. But if we look at global greenhouse gas emissions by sector, is that true?

It is hard to find consistent information on emissions percentages by sector so let’s use the World Resources Institute data to see what percent of greenhouse gas emissions are within our personal control:

13.5% of greenhouse gas emissions are transportation related, the majority of those are emissions on roads (9.9%). So, to cut those emissions, we have some personal choices we can make:

  • Choose a fuel efficient car
  • Choose an alternative mode of transportation like bicycle, walking or public transportation
  • Choose goods that are not shipped from overseas or out of state
  • Travel less


24.6% of emissions are from electricity and heat. Of those, 9.9% are residential buildings, 6.3% are oil and gas extraction, refining and processing and 1.4% is coal mining. So, cutting some of those emissions is possible on a personal level:

  • Weatherize your home
  • Use a programmable thermostat
  • Turn down the heat and wear a sweater
  • Turn off the air conditioning and open the windows
  • Unplug unused appliances
  • Use energy efficient appliances
  • Use energy efficient lighting
  • Use alternative energy sources like solar, wind and geothermal
  • Purchase renewable energy credits to help fund more renewable energy sources
  • Turn off lights when not in use
  • Use solar outdoor lights
  • Use cold water wash
  • Line dry your clothes
  • Run appliances like dishwashers in energy-saver mode
  • Go manual instead of electric
  • Keep your refrigerator full and use glass containers for storage. A full refrigerator stays colder as do glass containers


For the 10.4 % of emissions that are industry related and the 5.4% that are related to commercial buildings, we can also have an impact:

  • Choose to spend your money with businesses and industries that are fuel efficient and investing in renewable energy and LEED certified buildings, producing products sustainably and reducing use of packaging.
  • Encourage local businesses to become more fuel efficient. Carrot Mob has a great ‘reverse boycott’ model for doing this; ask businesses to invest in efficiency and for those that are willing, reward them by organizing a large group to come and shop there on a set day at a set time.
  • Ask your city council and county board of supervisors to set minimum LEED standards for new buildings.


Land use changes like deforestation account for 18.2% of emissions. That may seem out of our control if we don’t live in a forested area, but it’s not:

  • Stop buying paper products made from virgin wood; choose toilet paper, paper towels, tissues, napkins and paper made from 100% post-consumer waste and without chlorine.
  • Use cloth instead of paper for napkins and towels
  • Eat less meat. Forests are being clear cut to raise cattle or their feed. If you choose to eat meat, find local sources of grass fed beef.
  • Avoid products that contain palm oil
  • If you choose to drink coffee and eat chocolate, find sources of sustainably grown beans
  • Use reusable bags instead of paper
  • Always print double-sided on paper made from recycled materials
  • Stop junk mail. This insidious industry destroys around 100 million trees a year. Use services like Catalogue Choice, Green Dimes and others let you opt out of all kinds of junk, including credit card offers.


Agricultural emissions are 13.5% of global totals. 6% of that is soil management using petroleum and nitrogen based fertilizers and pesticides, 5.1% is livestock and manure, and 1.5% is rice cultivation. For the most part, we can control what we eat:

  • Eat less animal products. Consider Mark Bittman’s suggestion and make 2 out of 3 meals a day plant-based.
  • Buy produce grown without chemical fertilizers and pesticides
  • Plant your own organic garden as a source of fresh produce
  • Buy rice that is sustainably cultivated
  • Avoid products made with high fructose corn syrup, canola oil or soy unless they are organic
  • Avoid foods like boxed cereal that take more energy to create and package than they produce


3.6% of emissions come from waste. Here, too, we can have an impact:

  • Buy fewer packaged goods
  • Buy less in general
  • Buy from the bulk bins
  • Buy reusable instead of disposable
  • Recycle
  • Compost. Organic matter in landfills is a source of methane. Organic matter in your compost bin is a source of plant food.
  • Ask your city council to ban plastic bags
  • Use reusable bags for all of your shopping
  • If you live in a country with potable water that comes out of the faucet, STOP BUYING BOTTLED WATER!


Yes, we need institutional change. We need to have government investment in clean, renewable energy sources and regulations that set higher CAFE and efficiency standards. We need to stop the development of new coal-fired power plants and oil exploration. Federal, state and local governments need to incentivize individual and corporate efficiency like weatherization, plug-in hybrids and efficiency retrofitting.

The EPA is currently working on a report to inventory emissions sources and sinks in the U.S. Hopefully, this is to assess how the EPA can best regulate and reduce emissions.

And while this is happening, there is much we can each do, as individuals, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.


(Originally published on Sustainablog)