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A new United Nations report confirmed earlier this month what many climate scientists had long been warning: It’s too late to stop climate change from happening. The world will get hotter over the next 30 years — and the temperatures will bring with them more flooding, heat waves and other serious weather conditions.
But there’s still a short window to prevent the worst consequences. Scientists agree if we cut emissions sharply and quickly, we could prevent even higher temps and more irreversible damage.
“The reality is, each one of us has to halve our emissions by 2030,” said Melissa Brown-Goodall, senior director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Environmental Innovations Initiative.
How do we do it? One of the problems with transitioning to a so-called “green” life is there’s an absurd number of options, from using metal straws and reusable water bottles to traveling by bicycle or electric car. Just trying to do the right thing for the planet can make your head spin.
“Folks are starting to see ecological disasters, and they’re feeling an immense, overwhelming anxiety from it,” said Rachel Valletta, environmental scientist at the Franklin Institute. “And what that does, psychologically, is it keeps us from acting. Of course, that’s the exact opposite thing that we need to advocate for folks doing right now.”
Here are some tips from Philly climate experts on the most impactful lifestyle changes you can make to lessen the blow on our planet.
Calculate your carbon footprint
So you want to lessen your personal impact on the environment? Good news. There’s an easy first step.
“One of the first things folks who are interested in being part of the solution should do is calculate their carbon footprint,” said Brown-Goodall, of UPenn. “That which is measured is managed.”
There’s a ton of calculators out there on the internet. On the EPA’s, for example, you enter info like how much your electric bill costs each month, how you get around, and how much you waste. It’ll calculate your carbon info and likely offer some areas where you could do better.
Said Brown-Goodall of suggested initial changes, “There should be some low hanging fruit.”
Eat less meat
This tip is often the one people least want to hear, scientists say — but it’s also among the most effective: Cut meat from your diet.
“The amount of emissions that come from consuming animal protein is pretty remarkable,” Brown-Goodall said. “I’m not getting up on my vegan soapbox and saying that everyone should be vegan, but I am saying: really consider having a majority-plant diet.”
Margaret Reinhart, a senior lecturer at the University of the Sciences who teaches a class on climate change, said a ton of global deforestation happens to make room for livestock. And then there’s the issue that cows themselves produce methane gas — which hastens global warming.
But they get it. Going totally vegan can be overwhelming.
Reinhart recommends you start small: Try a meatless diet just one day a week. Once you’re used to that, scale it up as much as you can.
“By adopting a plant-rich diet, and having at least several days a week where you don’t eat meat,” Reinhart said, “you can reduce up to 50% of your greenhouse gas emissions.”
You saw this one coming, right?
All together, cars produce about one-third of the country’s air pollution. Atsu Muto from Temple University’s Department of Earth and Environmental Science is shocked that in a city with ample public transit options, more people haven’t stopped driving.
“I have students who come late to class saying that they couldn’t find a parking spot,” said Muto, whose university has two subway stops and a Regional Rail station just a few blocks from campus. “It’s a little disappointing that not as many people take public transit as often as they could.”
Scientists like Brown-Goodall say transportation “could not be a more important part of this.” Switch to walking, biking and public transit as much as you can, they recommend.
Reduce power usage in your home
Almost three-quarters of Philly’s emissions come from a source you probably wouldn’t expect: Buildings.
“Almost everybody is flabbergasted when we say that 72% of our carbon footprint comes from the built environment,” said Christine Knapp, director of Philly’s Office of Sustainability. “Often that’s usually very invisible, because we don’t think of buildings as polluters.”
How does that happen? The city’s stock of buildings are pretty old, so they’re usually not energy efficient. Plus, Knapp said the city mostly gets electricity made from coal, natural gas and other dirty sources.
Even renters can help with this one. If you take small steps, like weatherizing your doors and windows, you’ll save on heating and cooling costs and help the planet: “It’s almost easily achievable for any home to reduce energy use by 20% without doing any heavy lifting,” Knapp said.
If you have some extra cash to spare each month, Reinhart recommended switching from PECO to a renewable energy provider. You can find some options for that and explore prices here.
One of the single most harmful industries for our planet is fast fashion — the quick, cheap stores like Forever 21 where you pick up affordable but crappily made clothes that don’t last long. Experts estimate companies like this make up 10% of global carbon emissions.
“People buy something and they wear it for a single season,” Knapp said. “And it’s just so poorly made that that’s pretty much all it’s intended to be worn for, and then it ends up in a landfill every single year.”
So stop going to those stores! We’re lucky — vintage clothes are almost always in style. Knapp recommends we capitalize on that and thrift as much of our wardrobe as we can.
Almost every scientist Billy Penn interviewed agreed on what they called the single most impactful action you can take against climate change: Voting.
Elected officials have the power to institute environmentally friendly changes on a larger scale than most individuals. That’s why Philly’s climate experts ask that you stay politically engaged.
“Call your damn representative,” Valletta said. “And vote for politicians that actually have the ability to change the laws, make restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions and cut funding for fossil fuels.”
Meanwhile, prepare for climate change
To some extent, we’ve already reached a point of no return. So while we try to lessen our impact on the environment, we also need to prepare for the inevitable.
“You can prepare for climate change,” said Richard Johnson, director of Climate Year, a program at Drexel’s Academy of Natural Sciences. “Philadelphia is getting hotter and it’s getting wetter. Understanding that those are our local impacts of climate change, you can tailor what you do to prepare.”
Since it’s getting hotter, you’ll want to start investing in cooling elements in and around your home. Think installing air conditioners and fans and planting trees outside. “That stuff that’s going to cool your environment is going to help,” Johnson said.
Understand that as time goes on, rains are probably going to be heavier and last longer. Expect your basement to flood more, and move important items upstairs.
And then tell all your friends what you’re doing
The biggest change comes from collective action, so when you start making lifestyle changes, try to get people you know on board with you.
Approach your loved ones in a friendly way, without judgment, to try to tell them new ways they might be able to help the environment. Valletta recommends using topics you know the specific person would be interested in — whether it’s more flooding in Philadelphia or changes to hunting season in central Pennsylvania.
“Leave the conversation with a definite ask, like, ‘We’ve both come to the conclusion that we care about the environment, and here’s what we can do together,’” Valletta said. “It’s a big, overwhelming challenge but we can do something about it together.”