What can I do about climate change?

Last week I was invited to help lead a discussion after the movie Chasing Ice as the science expert.  In brief, it follows a photographer who documents changes in glaciers by setting up remote cameras, showing with astonishing visuals the retreat of many glaciers.  If you haven’t seen it, I strongly recommend that you do.  Not only does it have a good message, but the images are simply stunning.  (It’s currently on Netflix.)

The discussion after the movie was focused on local issues pertaining to climate change.  No surprise there – Norfolk is the second most at risk city from sea level rise in the US (the first being New Orleans).  I was a bit disappointed, as I know much more about Antarctica and ice shelves than about bike paths and public transportation effectiveness.

Then one brave soul (so glad she came!) told us that until this movie, she didn’t believe in climate change.  She was clearly reeling from the aftershock of having that huge revelation crashing down on her, and her first question was, “What can I do?”.

Honestly, I was a bit taken aback.  I’m exposed to climate impacts, trends, the latest research every day at work.  I’m surrounded by people who think about climate non-believers the same as gravity non-believers.  Belief means nothing – you’re still going to fall when you jump.

Supported by other experts in sustainability and environmental activism, I answered her as best I could.  But the question stuck with me.

What can I, one individual, do about climate change?

After stewing it over for awhile, and talking with other scientists, I came up with a list.  It’s not exhaustive, but its more than enough to get you started, and to get you thinking.


Change the way you think. You, as an individual, are primarily a consumer. And, as a consumer, you need to consider the entire life of the items you purchase to choose what best helps the environment. Take a bottle of shampoo for instance. The environmental cost of the shampoo includes the plastic manufactured to make the bottle, the extraction and combination of all ingredients, the fuel cost to ship it to your store, the dispersion of used shampoo into the water system, and the effort needed to recycle the bottle (or the landfill impact it has). That’s a lot for one product! Basically any step in the process from creation to destruction that uses energy has an environmental cost. Your goal is to choose things that minimize this cost.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.  Once you think about the environmental and energy cost of everything you buy, it can feel overwhelming.  The best way to overcome this is with the three R’s.  First, reduce the amount you buy.  Then, reuse what you already have.  Finally, if you can’t do anything else with it, recycle.  The order is key here.  If you focus on recycling and nothing else, you aren’t doing much good.  Recycling takes energy, reusing takes less, while reducing doesn’t take any extra at all.

Vote with your money.  As a consumer, the most power you have is in your wallet.  Companies take note of what you, your friends, and your neighbors buy.  They want your money, so if you won’t buy their products, they will change practices until you do.  Enough people voting with their money for environmentally friendly options can make a huge difference.  A good example is with organic bananas.  They used to be few and far between, and expensive, but there was enough demand they are now widely available at a normal banana price.

Do the research. In order to implement your now excellent plan of helping save the environment, you need to know specifics about companies and products to put your money and effort to the most good.  Start with the Environmental Working Group‘s databases of cosmetics, household cleaners, food, etc…  Then, google your favorite products, stores, and brands to find out how environmentally friendly they are.  Some will be rather mediocre.  Others will clearly be a no-go.  A select few will turn out to be pretty awesome.  Use this information to continually revise your shopping choices and make a difference.

Environmental activism.  Outside of your life as a consumer, you can participate in environmental activism.  Help clean up your local ecosystem.  Lobby local politicians to make your city or town greener.  Just spend some time chatting with your friends and neighbors about what you know and what they can do too.  Always make informed decisions, especially when “fixing” the environment.  In some cases the help you contribute can cause more harm than good.  For example, well-intentioned volunteers saving wildlife from an oil spill along a coast may inadvertently trample and destroy the habitat, when, given time, it would have eventually recovered on its own.

Take baby steps!  The final, and most important point.  You can easily burn yourself out trying to do too much for the environment.  Every little bit helps, but if you take on too much at once, get stressed out, and give up, that doesn’t help you or the planet.  Do what you can, as you can.  Let little steps become easy habits and then move on to do more.  Don’t be overwhelmed by those who eat and breathe eco-friendliness.  They weren’t born that way – they had to figure it out or be taught, just like you.

What’s the first thing you would recommend to someone who had never considered climate change before?  Where should one start when saving the planet?

Always backup data, always!

I haven’t talked much about this, mostly because I’m still somewhat traumatized, but last August I lost a large portion of my data.  Avoiding the gritty details, it was one of those freak mishaps where, in a system with n redundancies, n+1 fail at once.

Overall, I’d say I lost about 3-6 months in the process.  There was a month or more where I was waiting to see if it was recoverable, then the time spent afterward to re-do what was lost.

I’ll be honest, it was incredibly frustrating for me. Mostly because events felt out of my control – there was nothing I could do to make it better besides just starting again. On the positive side, everything I had to recreate I did better and much more efficiently.  I was almost astonished at how much I had improved – it’s not something I notice on a daily basis, but this comparison really brought it out.

After I sufficiently recovered from the shock, I decided to take a good look at how I store my work-related files.  I wanted to minimize the damage if something like this ever happened again.  I now have a system that works pretty well and makes me feel relatively safe.  If I lose the files I’m currently working on, I will lose only a month or less of progress, which is pretty reasonable, given that it only takes me a few hours each month to backup everything.

If you don’t have your research files backed up in several locations, I highly recommend you do so now.  I’ve created an infographic (my first!) to illustrate my process.  Start there, and modify so that it works for you.

How To: Backup data for graduate students