To Help Climate: Decrease Footprint; Increase Handprint

(This essay was originally published in the Providence Journal on October 7, 2014.)

President Obama’s speech at the United Nations on September 23, underlining the urgency for action on climate change to over 100 assembled world leaders at the UN Climate Change Summit, was a welcomed antidote to the continued ominous scientific data on our climate.

This summer was the hottest on record (since 1880), 1.28° F warmer than the 20th century average. In early September, the UN’s World Meteorological Organization announced that the level of carbon dioxide—the most significant greenhouse gas—in the atmosphere had reached 396 parts per million in 2013, an increase of 2.9 ppm from the 2012 level. Before the Industrial Revolution of the 18th-19th centuries, the level was 280 ppm. The huge glaciers on Greenland and West Antarctica continue to melt, contributing to the rise in sea levels, potentially threatening such coastal cities such as Boston, New York, Miami, New Orleans … and our own Providence and Newport. The evening news no longer seems complete without some type of extreme weather event. Such news has gone from the extraordinary to the commonplace.

In addressing the UN General Assembly, the president asserted that the United States would succeed in its pledge to reduce no later than 2020 its carbon emissions by 17% from 2005 levels. As he is pushing our power plants to curb their carbon emissions, he called on China—the world’s largest polluter—to follow suit. He went on to state: “We can only succeed in combating climate change if we are joined in this effort by every nation, developed and developing alike.”

The Sunday before the summit, grass roots’ concern and hopes were on display in New York in the form of a People’s Climate March in which over 300,000 marched a 2.2 mile route through the city. One of the many banners on display said, “There is no Planet B.” Marches also took place in other cities around the globe.

Close to home this summer, I was pleasantly surprised to see for the first time recycle bins at the entrance to Clements Market here in Portsmouth. There are three separate bins: a brown one for trash, a blue one for cans and bottles, and a green one for paper products, reminding me of the containers I had seen in Germany in 1990.

My friends have asked me: What can we as individuals do to combat climate change? The first imperative is attitudinal: We must change the way we think of the environment. Instead of thinking of it as a bottomless trash dump, able to take all the pollution we dish out without any negative repercussions, we must recognize that the environment has its limits and that it will answer back. We must appreciate the impact our actions have on the environment and strive to adopt a model of sustainable living. Former Secretary of the Treasury Henry M. Paulson, Jr. has written: “Climate change is the challenge of our time. Each of us must recognize that the risks are personal. We’ve seen and felt the costs of underestimating the financial bubble. Let’s not ignore the climate bubble.”

Practically speaking, here are some ideas for reducing one’s individual “footprint” (negative impact on the environment) and increasing one’s “handprint” (positive impact). 1. Start a compost heap. Recycle appropriate food waste including egg shells, fruit & vegetable waste, and coffee grinds. 2. Start a vegetable garden. Place the composted matter into the garden each year. 3. Buy produce locally—less transportation and packing. 4. Reduce the use of plastic products, especially drinks in plastic bottles and plastic bags. The bags take years to decompose and can find their way into our water supplies and oceans. 5. Drive the car less. Car pool, ride a bike, and walk more. Be sensitive to your next vehicle’s miles-per-gallon rating. 6. Turn off lights not in use and install energy-saving bulbs. 7. In winter, wear a heavier sweater and turn down the thermostat; in summer, turn up your air conditioning. 8. Plant a tree. Trees eat carbon dioxide and release oxygen. 9. Install a clothes line in the yard. Use the dryer less and the line more. Heating elements draw much electricity. 10. Recycle, of course, and be sure to recycle all that junk mail.

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