Climate Steps for the Extreme Beginner

Looking for ways to help the planet but don’t know where to start? Here’s how!

I’ve never considered myself a climate activist, but the more I read and hear, the more concerned I am about our planet. Things are heating up and there is increasing urgency to address it. Changing behavior can be hard, however, and some of the steps I have seen feel really overwhelming. The Project Drawdown* list of climate solutions ranked by impact includes “refrigerant management,” preserving “tropical forests,” and “educating girls” among the top solutions. How would I even start doing something about those things? I think I’ll crawl under the covers and hope someone else figures this stuff out.

But wait! A famous proverb says a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Even those among us who feel helpless, overwhelmed, and anxious about change can start walking on the right path.

A few thoughts before we begin:

  1. Climate change is urgent enough that people are starting to refer to it as the climate crisis. By encouraging small steps, I’m not discounting the urgency of the situation. But we all have to start somewhere and changing things that we’ve done our whole lives can be hard.
  2. Not all changes are realistic for everyone. Your allergies might mean that sleeping with the windows open instead of using air-conditioning isn’t an option. You might live in an environment without public transit or without the good health to ride a bike, so you need to drive. There are lots of options to choose from, though, so do the things you can. Don’t feel guilty about the things you can’t do. But before you decide that an action is too hard, think creatively about it. Groups like Climate Steps’ Facebook discussion group can help in generating ideas.
  3. Culture and economics may factor hard into your decisions. That’s understandable but continue to challenge yourself. Economic barriers especially can be hard;  if you are worried about paying for rent, food, and healthcare, certain climate steps seem like luxuries. Then again, some steps can save you money. But if you are hesitant to make or suggest a change, or to ask your family to make a change because “that’s the way we’ve always done it in my family/community,” think about how you can safely nudge the culture in a more positive direction.

First Steps:  A Four-Step Climate Action Plan for Beginners

Here are four high-impact actions that you can do quickly and that won’t feel big and overwhelming (Trust me! I did them):

  1. Change your incandescent light bulbs to LEDs.
  2. Decrease single-use plastics.
  3. Be more energy efficient at home.
  4. Use renewable energy sources.

Does that sound reasonable? Read on for more tips on how to do it and why these steps are impactful.

Change your light bulbs

When my husband and I moved into my current house in Washington, DC, four years ago, most of the recessed lightbulbs were incandescent, which is the least energy-efficient bulb. As they blew out, we started switching them out for light-emitting diode (aka, LED) bulbs. True, LED bulbs are more expensive – a quick search in a Home Depot store tells me that the LED lights we use are a full $1 more expensive per bulb than the incandescent lights. But they are designed to last longer – a lot longer. For example, the Philips® incandescent 65 watt/635 lumen bulb is expected to last 1.8 years, based on three hours a day of usage. On the other hand, the Cree® LED lightbulbs of similar lumen strength are designed to last 22.8 years based on similar usage. You might pay off your mortgage before you have to replace your light bulbs again!

Impact: According to Project Drawdown, LED lights use 90% less energy than other lights. In fact,  the use of LEDs already appears to be decreasing carbon emissions by 1.5% per year. LEDs also give off less heat so they don’t warm up your house and require more air-conditioning.

Use fewer single-use plastics

For me, single-use plastics were easy to reduce. For grocery shopping, I stash shopping bags in my backpack. Compact options help because they don’t take up much space or weigh much. I also bought lightweight, reusable bags for produce and for dried bulk products. If you do an internet search for “compact grocery bags” and “reusable produce bags,” you’ll turn up a lot of options. Also, I have a set of metal utensils and metal and bamboo straws at my office, and at home, we use reusable containers (mostly glass) for leftovers in the refrigerator. I also have an insulated stainless-steel water bottle that helps me stay hydrated without leaning on single-use plastic bottles. 

The tools of the trade: large canvas bag, lightweight linen bags, and a compact bag (gray) that unfolds to have on-hand for unexpected shopping trips.

Impact: According to the Earth Day Network, world plastics production totaled around 335 million metric tons in 2016 and about half of that was single-use plastics. Most plastic we use today is made from fossil fuels, with the process resulting in emissions, and further, most plastic doesn’t get recycled and ends up in landfills or in our woods and waterways where it releases greenhouse gases as it decomposes. The more we can decrease our use of plastics, the less we are contributing to the emissions that cause climate change. You can read more about plastic and climate change in a recent Climate Steps article.

Be more resource efficient at home

How often did my dad scold me for leaving all the lights on in the house when I was growing up? A LOT. Of course, our behaviors change when we are more mature and pay for our own utilities. If you have control over your utilities and have the financial means to do it, a “smart thermostat” is a good purchase. Ours automatically changes the temperature when we leave the house as no one is around for the system to keep warm or cool. Further, we can set schedules so that the temperature setting changes when we go to bed and when we wake up. We also use fans around the house (ceiling and tower fans) so that we don’t have to keep the thermostat as low in the summer.

Using a line or a rack like this one to dry your clothes instead of running your dryer is especially impactful in summertime. Our dryer heats up the house and makes our air-conditioner work harder.

For more energy saving, when I do laundry I use a folding drying rack for clothes so that I don’t have to use the dryer as much. I still use hot water for certain types of laundry, but I try to mostly use cold water. We keep the shades closed during the day in summer to keep the sun from heating things up, and we open them in cooler weather to warm up. Electricity suppliers often provide a ton of additional tips on how to save money on one’s electric bill, which of course translates into how to be more energy efficient. Yours might too. Take a look on your energy provider’s website to see.

Energy Saver Tips from my Pepco (Electric provider in DC) dashboard.

Impact: One big benefit to energy efficiency is that it costs less money. But like the other tips, efficiency also means far less use of the fossil fuels that cause the greenhouse gases that lead to climate change. For example, in Washington, DC, Pepco is the electricity provider. According to required disclosures, close to 60% of its fuel source comes from coal and natural gas.

Use alternative energy providers

As I mentioned above, my local energy company is mostly sourced from coal and natural gas, both of which contribute to climate change. But if you get your electricity through your local utility, you may be able to choose a renewable energy source. Living in Washington, DC, means I have several companies from which to choose. I made the switch to 100% wind-energy through one supplier, but solar energy was an option too. The switch has increased my electricity bill a little bit, but that provides motivation to be more energy efficient. I’ll admit that when I first approached this action, it was a little intimidating. But because many of the offered plans didn’t lock me in to a long-term contract, I figured I’d give it a shot. If the cost difference was too high, there was no financial penalty to switch back. It ended up being easy.

One month of carbon savings, from my clean energy provider email. Not an endorsement for this specific energy provider — just an example of useful messaging!

It’s worth looking at the options in your area of the world too. The green-e website is a useful resource to identify renewable energy options in the US. However, it doesn’t include all options, as the company I use is not listed for any of the states in its service area. If you don’t see something in your state, keep searching – there may be a company offering renewable energy in your area that isn’t listed. 

Impact: According to Project Drawdown, onshore wind turbines and solar farms are both in the top ten most impactful climate-change-fighting solutions (offshore wind is further down the list). Switching your energy consumption to alternative energy sources will drive up demand for sustainable energy and drive down demand for unsustainable energy.

Let’s do this!

If you are feeling very motivated, you could set all of these changes in motion in a single day. But even making one small change is an important step. First, it feels good to take the action itself. Second, even a small climate step helps save the planet. And third, getting these steps accomplished makes us feel more confident to make harder changes.

Oh, and there’s another easy climate step you can take as a beginner: share what you are doing. If you are on social media, show people how you’ve decreased plastic use or how you have made your home more energy-efficient. Sharing what you are doing will make others think about it too. 

Ready to get started?

Okay, maybe I was closer to a climate activist than I give myself credit for. Here is your blogger at a 1990 Earth Day Celebration at the National Mall in Washington DC.

*Ok, slow down, friend. What even is Project Drawdown? It is a group of scientists, researchers, business leaders, activists, and others working to measure and model the most impactful ways to stop global warming. You can learn more here.

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