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Q&A: “Substitution, not subtraction”: How to incorporate meaningful climate actions into your life

Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment visiting scholar Kim Nicholas discusses obstacles and strategies for what she calls “everyday climate action.” | Image credit: Simon Charles Florian Rose

When Kim Nicholas was planning her wedding, she dreaded having the same brief conversation with dozens of guests vying for her attention – something along the lines of “You look beautiful. I’m so happy for you.” So, Nicholas and her husband-to-be booked an epic train ride that would take them across Canada and the U.S., hosting a series of parties along the way. It was a reflection of the couple’s values: a lack of carbon-heavy air travel and an abundance of quality time with family and friends, good food, wine, and adventure. For Nicholas, a visiting scholar at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, memories of that time are powerful reminders that we can incorporate meaningful climate actions into our lives without painful sacrifice, by finding low-carbon substitutes in line with our values.

Nicholas is a sustainability scientist at Lund University in Sweden and the author of Under the Sky We Make: How to be Human in a Warming World and the monthly climate newsletter We Can Fix It. She studied the effect of climate change on the California wine industry for her Ph.D. in Stanford’s Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources. Below, she discusses obstacles and strategies for what she calls “everyday climate action.”

In alignment with their values, Kim Nicholas and her husband traveled across the U.S. and Canada via train to celebrate their wedding, stopping for mini-celebrations along the way. Image credit: Kim Nicholas

What are the most commonly perceived obstacles to climate action, and how can we overcome them?

Two things that I hear all the time are people not believing that what they do matters, and believing that other people don't care and aren't willing to act.

We are probably the most important generation to ever have lived because we are the last stewards of humanity's carbon budget for all of time. So we're the ones who are setting the thermostat for the rest of civilization right now with our actions. We know also in a more prosaic sense, our everyday actions affect those around us. For example, your neighbors are much more likely to get solar panels if they see you having solar panels on your roof. We behave according to the people around us. And that really influences our behavior and our beliefs as well. So leading by example is a really powerful way to galvanize change.

I think focusing on what it will take to stop warming the climate, which is to stop burning fossil fuels and destroying nature, is really important to having clear goals and guiding our actions. But we know that information itself isn't sufficient to change hearts and minds and galvanize policy and practice. So, we need to start talking more about climate, and to start taking everyday climate actions in ways that build community and help others to engage.

How would you advise a low-income person and a high-income person to take what you call “everyday climate actions?”

The most effective action that 90 percent of folks can take is in acting collectively, in focusing on making their job a climate job through their organizations at work, and as climate citizens. Effective citizen actions include voting, supporting strong climate leaders for office, and supporting organizations with volunteer time, perhaps, for charities and political parties who are working on passing strong climate policy, and reaching out directly to your representatives, who don't hear enough from their everyday constituents.

Our research identified five potential roles or superpowers for high-impact climate action: how we act as a consumer, role model, investor, professional, and citizen.

If you're someone who flies and drives frequently, especially long distances, your carbon footprint is materially important to addressing the climate crisis. So reducing your own overconsumption primarily of transport, which for the wealthy, and especially the top one percent, is about 60 percent of our total footprint.

A third high-impact climate action is to eat a plant-based diet because that saves a lot of emissions and also is probably the highest-impact action you can take to protect biodiversity.

For the global rich, meaning those of us in the top 10 percent globally, who earn over $38,000 per year, taking money out of fossil fuel investments, and supporting clean energy and infrastructure is a really high-impact action. Role modeling is also really important –  living a low-carbon high life and talking about it. We saw some of this in recent media around celebrity travel by private jet becoming increasingly criticized. I think it's a small sign of the culture changing. People expect and look for role models who lead a life that is in line with planetary boundaries and in line with ensuring a good life for everybody. (Read more about effective climate actions wealthy people can take.)

How should people think about aligning these actions with their values?

I took a big step back from flying inspired by a friend who had stopped flying within Europe. The way I approached it was to think about my values of connection, collaboration, adventure, meeting new people, seeing new places, being around new languages. I thought about how I could have those values in ways that were closer to home or didn’t require flying. (Read more about how to reduce flying.)

What about kids? What can they do to make a difference?

I'm sorry that kids are the ones who have to act, or feel that they have to act, that kids have been put in the position of desperation because they see adults in power and government and business and leadership not acting. That said, kids can and do have an incredibly powerful impact on adults and on moving the needle. There are studies showing that kids, especially daughters, are very successful at influencing their parents, especially fathers, in increasing their climate concern. So kids sharing their worries and concerns with their parents can get parents more concerned and more involved.

It's important to focus again on the high impact actions: reducing driving, flying, and meat consumption. So, for example, planning a local vacation or making it easier to safely walk and bike to school, or advocating for more plant-based school lunch options.

Some of the best protest signs I've seen, and some of the most eloquent and convincing speeches I've heard at demonstrations, have been from kids. At a climate protest in Copenhagen, I heard an eight year old girl say, "I dream of studying the ocean, but I'm afraid the ocean may be dead when I grow up." Adults being confronted with these really powerful, raw concerns and legitimate fears of young people can be a really strong motivator.

Lastly, young people have been incredibly tenacious and successful in taking legal action. Most climate lawsuits haven't succeeded all the way in the courts yet, but there are important cases being heard right now, and they're very important in the court of public opinion in galvanizing knowledge, attention, and sympathy. (Read more about climate actions kids can take.)

How can university faculty and other researchers take effective climate action despite academia's traditional lack of priority on public outreach?

Yesterday, I learned the term "pracademic": someone who's trying to take the results of academia into practice and help society benefit from research, so that results actually reach the people who can use them in their lives and make better decisions because of them. Scientists can be spokespeople for their own research and for the role of science in society, in taking science from idea to impact.

As teachers, we have the opportunity to educate and shape young people starting in their careers, and framing problems and solutions in a way that is compelling and engaging and gets people excited about this field and the work that they can do.

Universities have the obligation to take seriously the mission of benefiting all of humanity, putting our knowledge into practice and leading by example.


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