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Climate change affects so many things in our lives that it’s easy to feel hopeless about slowing it down. But we can do a lot individually and together to help with the problem. We can (1) limit the total warming of the climate system by reducing the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere and we can (2) prepare ourselves and our communities for changes we can’t avoid. Different places in the world will have to do different things to prepare for change, so here we will talk about (1), ways to cut greenhouse gas, ways which are the same everywhere.


After a lot of discussion, scientists around the world have decided that our goal should be to limit the increase in average surface temperature of the earth to 2 degrees Celsius (about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). That may seem small, but even that small increase can be a big problem for living things all around the world.

How do we make this happen?  In order to reduce the amount of warming, we need to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.  Carbon dioxide (CO2) stays in the atmosphere for 30 to 100 years until most of it is removed by plants and natural processes, although about 20% of it can stay for thousands of years. Methane is a stronger greenhouse gas, but it breaks down in about 10 years.  So greenhouse gases are removed from the atmosphere through natural processes.  Right now, we put more greenhouse gas into the atmosphere than is taken out by natural processes. So even if we put a little less in, the concentrations will continue to rise over time. We have to put a lot less in if we want to have less greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. And we have to start now. The longer we wait, the harder it will be to cut the gases enough to reach our goal – do you see why?

What people do that releases greenhouse gases

There are many things we do that release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.  The biggest source is burning coal, gas, and oil (called fossil energy or fossil fuels). People use fossil energy to produce electricity and to make cars, trucks, buses, trains, and airplanes run or fly. The second biggest source of greenhouse gas is agriculture, forestry, and other uses of land (AFOLU).  Other sources are industries like those that make cement. (See the chart.)Sources of greenhouse gas emissions

How can we tell who is responsible for releasing greenhouse gases? Scientists can measure either (1) the amount of greenhouse gas released in a particular region or (2) the amount released because of the actions and choices of people in that region. For example, nowadays the U.S. is releasing a little less greenhouse gas than before because we’re using less coal and improving our technology. But in the U.S. we buy a lot of things that were made in other countries, and greenhouse gases were released when those things were made, so the amount of gas released because of our choices and actions is still rising.

In some poor countries people can’t afford to buy new things and they choose to reuse the things they have.  Their contribution to the release of greenhouse gases is small.  In 2010, the median amount of gas released per person in those countries was equal to 1.4 tons of CO2, but in rich countries it was 13 tons per person. This shows that what individual people do makes a big difference. We don’t want to be poor, but if we make better choices we can cut greenhouse gases without losing our quality of life.

We can use renewable energy (like solar, wind, or water power), we can improve our energy efficiency, and we can change how we grow crops and animals for food.

What we can do as individuals

In many ways our lives are easier than our grandparents’ lives were. Most families have cars, dishwashers, washing machines and dryers, even gas lawnmowers, electric can openers, and microwave ovens. These appliances save work for us, but they also cost us a lot – more than just what we pay to buy and run them. They cost us in pollution and global warming, and they can harm our health by letting us enjoy a lifestyle without much exercise in it. The greenhouse gas each of us adds to the atmosphere because of our lifestyle and choices is often called our carbon footprint. How can we reduce our carbon footprint while maintaining our quality of life? A good motto is “Burn calories, not fossil fuels.” For example, we could walk or ride a bicycle instead of getting into the car to go just a few blocks away, and we can rake leaves by hand rather than using a leaf blower.

Almost everything we buy was made using fossil fuels. So we can reduce our carbon footprint by buying less, reusing more, repairing things instead of replacing them, and using less packaging.

A very important way to cut our use of fossil fuels is by using renewable energy instead. We can do that by putting solar panels on the roofs of our homes and businesses. New York State helps people switch to solar energy by helping with the cost of installing solar panels. If solar isn’t practical for us, we can ask the electric company to send us electricity from renewable sources like waterfalls, solar farms, and windmills. We can also ask our government to set aside money for renewable energy development.

When we do buy cars or appliances, we can look for energy-efficient models. When people plan changes to their houses or build new homes, they can look for ways to reuse materials like bricks or wood, and they can improve their homes’ energy efficiency—for example, by using windows with double panes or by putting in good insulation.

About 14% of all greenhouse gas emissions comes from raising farm animals for food.  Much of this is from the methane gas that animals expel as they digest their food; the rest is from transportation and other uses of energy.  Changing how we raise farm animals could cut that by 30%.  We can help by eating less meat and dairy, or by buying our meat and dairy products from farmers who use climate-smart practices.

We can also help by composting our food waste (like onion skins and cauliflower leaves) instead of adding it to the garbage that goes to landfills.  When you compost, you turn food waste into garden fertilizer by putting it in a bin that stands on the ground. The oxygen in the air helps the waste break down and produces CO2.  If you buried that same waste in landfills, where there’s no oxygen, the break-down would produce methane, which is a much stronger greenhouse gas.

What we can do as a community

If a few of us do the things we’ve just described, that’s a start.  But how do we get lots of people to do them? People usually don’t want to do things that are inconvenient or that will cost them money. One of the problems is that when we make poor choices today, the damage takes place in the future, and it’s hard for people to make the connection between their choices today and future consequences.  The costs of those poor choices fall on people in the future.  One way to fix this is to make those costs fall on the people who make those choices today.  This will make some things we do today more expensive, but that will encourage people and businesses to make better choices.

There are ways of calculating future costs and adding them to the cost of things now, so that people see the true long term cost. One way is by charging industries a carbon tax (an extra tax on the things they do that contribute to the release of greenhouse gases).  Another way is by making regulations (rules) that make it illegal to hurt the environment or that make industries pay a penalty if they do it. This will make them want to change the way they do things. For example, because of laws in California, manufacturers are already making many more electric cars, and many are putting solar panels on factory roofs to run their machinery.

The downside to a carbon tax and environmental regulation is that they might raise prices or cost jobs for awhile, as the economy adjusts to these changes.  The upside is that people and businesses will make better choices for the environment.  We need to decide how much extra we’re willing to pay now in order to protect the environment over the long run.


Climate change is a huge challenge, but we are already seeing benefits from trying to deal with it. For example, there are many more jobs in renewable energy businesses like making solar panels, windmills, and electric or hybrid cars. The solar industry alone now employs more people in our country than coal, oil, and gas combined. And this change to “green” energy means less pollution and better health for us all.

Climate Education Initiative

  • Fenton 204 State University of New York at Fredonia Fredonia, NY 14063