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Your Power as a Citizen

Your Power as a Citizen

You can do a lot more about the climate crisis than watch your own carbon footprint. Here’s how.

What can I do, personally, about the climate crisis? You often ask us a version of this question. That was especially true this week, after the latest international scientific report on global warming.

Some of the most obvious answers can seem frustrating. Not everyone can install solar panels on their roof or give up driving, for example. We get that. The good news is, while our individual carbon footprint is important, that’s not the only thing that defines us.

Today, I want to discuss how we can think about our power as citizens, not only as homeowners or consumers, in a warming world. What are our responsibilities, and what opportunities do we have to shape the future?

To help with that, I spoke to Heidi Roop, a climate scientist at the University of Minnesota who published “The Climate Action Handbook: A Visual Guide to 100 Climate Solutions for Everyone” this week.

Roop told me her goal was to help readers chart their climate journeys by thinking about what she calls climate-action footprints.

Her approach is to acknowledge the limitations of individual actions. To be clear, she does not think they’re pointless. Far from it. She likes to say, “every action matters.” But she says that civic engagement is one of the most effective ways for individuals to make a difference and to avoid feeling overwhelmed by the climate crisis.

“There is a need for collective action,” Roop told me. “But the collective is comprised of individuals.”

Here’s what she had to say.

Start with research

Don’t know where to begin? Roop encourages readers to focus on learning more about themselves and what’s happening in their communities. For instance, what are the climate impacts that stem from your personal lifestyle? Are there opportunities to contribute to climate action in your own community?

Here’s an example Roop gives in the book of what this kind of research could yield. Imagine someone in Minnesota, a state where most electricity comes from coal, who wants to know more about the impact of her energy consumption. A bit of digging may reveal that her utility offers an option for customers to pay more to get their energy exclusively from renewable sources.

Talk to your bank about how your money is invested. Are there easy changes you can make to avoid investing in high-emitters? What about your workplace? There may be groups talking about a policy to reduce the company’s emissions that you could support.

The green energy option may or may not be affordable for any given customer. But, you get the point. Sometimes, solutions are just a Google search or a conversation away.

The role of communities

Roop says we should rethink our concept of collective action and notes that big, national policies aren’t the only levers for change.

“It isn’t just massive federal regulation,” she told me. There are many opportunities to engage local officials deciding how much gets invested in roads or water supply in communities, and even school boards deciding on infrastructure upgrades.

“These are climate-related decisions,” she said.

You should think about how things that seem purely individual can be extended to the collective level.

For instance, if you’re switching your home appliances to electric from gas, you can use what you learn to urge local officials to start requiring more robust electrical panels in buildings. That would make it easier for future residents to make the switch.

There could be local organizations within your community trying to address climate change through small projects like planting more trees to shade buildings. They may need your support.

All of this can be as challenging or as easy as you want. Sometimes, engaging with your community can be as simple as sharing books, tools or a ride with a neighbor.

“Engaging civically will look different for different people,” Roop told me.

Your passions may be the most powerful tools you have

Ask yourself, what are you passionate about? Using this passion may motivate you to help shape the future of your community.

In my case, I’m passionate about journalism. I’ve wanted to be a reporter since I was 10 years old. Knowing that my work gets more people talking about the climate crisis is often what keeps me going.

Your passion doesn’t need to be your job, of course. It can be the thing you love doing in your free time. Painting, gardening or writing. Roop encourages readers to direct those strengths toward climate action.

“Investing time, energy, and emotion in helping shape the future of your community — say, through being engaged in a community climate action plan or through sharing your own creative talents or advocacy efforts — is critical in a balanced portfolio of climate solutions work,” she writes.

Young activists, including Badge Busse, left, and Lander Busse, are basing a lawsuit on language in the Montana state Constitution that guarantees “a clean and healthful environment.”Matthew Hamon for The New York Times

Youth vs. Montana: Sixteen young people are suing, saying the state’s support for fossil fuels violates its own Constitution.

New national monuments: President Biden has declared parts of the Spirit Mountain area in Nevada and the Castner Range in Texas off-limits to development.

Growing economic risks: An influential White House panel has warned that a warming planet poses severe economic challenges to the United States.

A barrier to inclusion falls: The board of directors of NYC Audubon has voted to drop the name of the 19th-century naturalist and slaveholder.

1.1 billion specimens: Science museums in 28 countries are joining forces to make a global inventory of their collections. It may help answer questions about the climate and biodiversity crises.

A refill revolution? As more consumers try to cut down on plastic waste, more start-ups and big brands are working on refillable containers for cleaning products.

Oops! Scientists have retracted a paper about the discovery of a rare goblin shark in the Mediterranean Sea. It turns out, it might have been a plastic toy shark.

Activists sat in three-hour blocks throughout Monday night.Craig Hudson for The New York Times

Grandparents, great-aunts and great-uncles staged climate protests across the United States this week. Their targets were big banks that support fossil fuel projects. “We’re the activists, we’re the boomers,” a 68-year-old protester said. “People our age, we’re just incensed that no nobody’s doing anything. So here we are.” There were more than 100 protests nationwide.

Thanks for being a subscriber. We’ll be back on Tuesday.

Claire O’Neill and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward. Read past editions of the newsletter here.

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