Where are the Biggest Climate Action Payoffs?

Everyone seems to have a different idea of "meaningful action.”  Some see it as primarily getting an institution to stop a practice they believe contributes to a worsening climate.  Others see it as taking the form of raising people’s awareness of how they as individuals make a difference. Still others believe educating the next generation about climate-friendly careers is paramount.  Tell us in a couple of sentences (in a comment to this post below) what high impact “action” means to you and why. 

If you have a moment, have a look at The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.  In particular, find out about “Global Warming’s Six America’s.”  It turns out that high impact climate action often varies by which audience you’re trying to engage. 

If you live outside the US, please let us know how audiences vary in your country.  Future posts will explore the differences around the globe.



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Dave Damm-Luhr's picture

Thanks to all who stepped

Thanks to all who stepped into last week’s discussion re: climate action payoffs!

My take-a-ways:

  • Some highlight how lifestyle choices could make a difference.
  • Others focus on how choices and policies of institutions can tip the balance.

I’d like to suggest there’s another bucket to consider:

  • Effective climate learning as a social activity, not only in teaching the next generation, but also in helping each other (as in “peer-to-peer”) get whatever knowledge and insights needed to up our games in taking high payoff actions, whatever that means for each of us.  This is central to ClimateX.

If you haven’t already, please have a look at Project Drawdown.  They have rigorously analyzed 80 climate solutions and rank ordered them, and welcome thoughts and observations (see FAQs).

More later!

Rick Shankman's picture

Took your advice Dave and

Took your advice Dave and went to Project Drawdown online.  Very interesting.

Lots of interesting people there, yet one of them stuck out among the rest... Board of Directors Member David Mayer de Rothschild, son of Sir Evelyn Robert Adrian de Rothschild, the Billionaire financier, Her Majesty's financial adviser, and member of the Rothschild banking dynasty.

Watched an NBC Today TV show where David gave lots of personal greening suggestions for battling climate change, especially (and somewhat ironically) unplugging your TV set when you leave home... David de Rothschild on NBC Today

Now I'm not suggesting that he has any special pull or influence in the matter, but...

Maybe he could ask the rest of his family to stop funding global oil, especially in war-torn Iraq... How To Invest With A Rothschild - In Iraqi Oil


Meaningful action in terms of

Meaningful action in terms of climate action will come in the form of research into paradigm-shifting technology in my opinion. Too many people want to drastically change the lives of the average person for the smallest of changes, or they want to implement clean energy before it's economically feasible creating long-term consequences. What humanity needs to do is come up with bold solutions. These solutions should increase the amount of energy humanity has, decrease the cost of energy for humanity, be sustainable for humanity's survival long-term, and improve the quality of life for humanity. Why are we settling for solutions that decrease the amount of energy humanity has, increase the cost of energy for humanity, that are short-term fixes not sustainable long-term, and/or decrease the quality of life for individuals?

Overall, there are a few steps humanity needs to take:
1) Change the mindset to try to achieve the bold goals stated above.
2) Shift research and brain power away from lesser solutions to paradigm-shifting research.
3) Show corporations, the government, and the public the bold solution(s) that will improve quality of life for people across the globe.
4) Develop and implement the new technology.

Curt Newton's picture

I'm with Damian on this one.

I'm with Damian on this one. Clean energy is essential, but nothing comes for free - i.e. mining and minerals toxics from all those grid-level batteries. So even as engineers and businesses convert the energy system, we should also be working toward shifting consumption patterns toward sustainability.

Rick Shankman's picture

"... we should be working

"... we should be working towards shifting consumption patterns towards sustainability."

Yes Curt, let's do that by working (right here at MIT) to shift CUP (and the Office of Sustainability) from bunker fuel and natural gas to sustainable renewables.

                                                            Signed: Climate Sexist


I argue we should only commit

I argue we should only commit to a reduction in consumption and a switch over to clean energy if doing so doesn't hurt the public.

Take recycling as an example. Some people benefit from recycling, because recycling makes them feel good. Others are burdened by recycling for various reasons. People who want to recycle should be able to, and those who do not want to should not be forced to.

Now look at what was said about Georgetown, Texas in "The Inconvenient Sequal". Al Gore makes the argument that this is the reddest city in the reddest county of Texas (one of the reddest states). Georgetown switched over to solar energy, because doing so lowered the cost of energy for the public in that area (at least that is the claim by Al Gore). We should allow these areas to switch over, but we shouldn't force areas to switch over that would be burdeoned economically by doing so.

Overall, I argue that the best principle to follow to get the public behind curbing climate change is through action that does not harm the public, but increases the quality of their lives. This leaves a good taste in the mouth of the public for clean energy, recycling, etc. rather than a bad taste in their mouth, and that will lead to more financial support for paradigm-shifting research, which will eventually solve the problem.

Rick Shankman's picture

"Would it not be prudent to

"Would it not be prudent to reduce consumption while working on these technologies?"

No, as the "technologies" are already here.

All we have to do now is use them; not partner with the fossil fuel companies who lobby against them - while burning bunker fuel and natural gas on campus.

Rick Clemenzi's picture

Less kids -> issue, but

Less kids -> issue, but irrelevant if energy and agriculture are carbon neutral ... which they will be by 2050-2060 for sure.  Not the core issue.

The key is understanding our Energy consumption is causing Climate Change, how to change our consumption to eliminate that cause, and Implement it. 

The Biggest Climate Action Payoff will come from buildings -- 40% of the GHG in the US energy market is from Buildings (see our "NZ: Why and How" page at http://netzerofoundation.org/ for the basic EIA info behind this claim).  Thankfully, solving this one issue is easy if we can just get the word out because the fix is already effectively "free" -- see our Net Zero Energy Climate CoLab winning proposal to eliminate GHG for MIT: http://climatecolab.org/contests/2016/mit-climate-mitigation-solutions/c/proposal/1329510.  Even the DOE is now strongly onto Net Zero Energy (https://energy.gov/eere/buildings/zero-energy-buildings), even though they do not yet understand the optimal path (DOE is always influenced more by 'existing' industry than best path).  Even regardless of the bumps in this road, it is wildly coming fast -- see CA Utilities Commission page http://www.californiaznehomes.com/ for "2020 Planning and Information for California ZNE Homes".

Second Biggest Climate Action Payoff is EV's powered from PV, and this too is now well underway.  Think about it -- you buy a different car anywhere from every 2-10 years.  So, in 25 years you will get 3 next cars.  The new EV's NOW have solved all the range problems with the latest batteries and charging stations already everywhere and wildly expanding, and the life-cycle-cost is already less than gasoline -- again, i.e. effectively "free".  In 20 years, the automobile world will have very largely changed.  I could cite loads of articles (Bloomberg bnef.com, etc), but this one about how fast the Easter Parade in NYC changed from horse and buggies to automobiles only in just 13 years is right on the mark: http://www.renewableenergyworld.com/articles/2017/06/letter-from-the-editor-innovation-in-renewables.html.

Not to point a finger, but suggesting "high impact climate action often varies by which audience" is part of the problem -- the solutions are Technical and understanding their importance is Technological and Economic.  It is up to those of us who understand this to Lead. 

Rick Shankman's picture

"Rick, I think you completely

"Rick, I think you completely mischaracterize of the "fewer children" angle. It's about educating girls and empowering women to be in control of their own lives with family planning and economic opportunity."

Well Curt, I'm not sure how you "mischaracterize" using fewer offspring to reduce your family's carbon emissions?  That notion (distraction), complete with a definitive CO₂ reduction value of -58 metric tons. 

MIT ClimateX: Where Malthusian Economics Meets Climate Activism.

"And I think it's incumbent [upon] the men that unfortunately continue to dominate too many conversations to get with it."

Climate action distraction goes sexist.

There seems to be no depth too low for ClimateX's climate action distraction efforts.

Rick Shankman's picture

Damian, I guess that would

Damian, I guess that would depend on the definition of "contributing factor."

As shown in the humorous calculation, telling the entire entering freshman class of MIT and half of the graduate students too that they shouldn't have a child in order to mitigate the pollution generated by MIT's on-campus power plant doesn't seem like a fair trade or real contribution to fighting climate change.

Personally, I'd rather address the power plant pollution issue and let the students have as many children as they see fit to have.

Curt Newton's picture

Rick, I think you completely

Rick, I think you completely mischaracterize of the "fewer children" angle. It's about educating girls and empowering women to be in control of their own lives with family planning and economic opportunity. 

I'll quote Drawdown, because I think they have this one completely right. And I think it's incumbent on the men that unfortunately continue to dominate too many conversations to get with it.

Climate change is not gender neutral. Due to existing inequalities, women and girls are disproportionately vulnerable to its impacts, from disease to natural disaster. At the same time, women and girls are pivotal to addressing global warming successfully—and to humanity’s overall resilience.

Project Drawdown’s Women and Girls Sector is deceptively small in number: its three solutions focus on the majority of humanity, and represent powerful ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (combined, educating girls and family planning are the #1 Drawdown solution). These solutions show that enhancing the rights and well-being of women and girls could improve the future of life on this planet.


That's a good point, I think

That's a good point, I think one needs to be very careful with the "fewer children" message. Fertility seems to naturally decrease with education and womens empowerment. Definitely best to avoid talk of sterilizations :) The british charity Population Matters also have some good articles on population issues.

Rick Shankman's picture

"I'd suggest its very Both /

"I'd suggest its very Both / And."

Okay Mark, you get started on that fewer children climate action drive!  How many human sterilizations will it take to offset the MIT CUP annual CO₂ emissions?

Mark Brown's picture

Salut Damian! Est ce que vous

Salut Damian! Est ce que vous etes Francais or vous vivez simplement en Nice? 

As you'll note, there's an active debate on the site about the merits of individual versus collective action.

Opinions clearly differ -- but I certainly don't think it's an Either / Or situation. I'd suggest its very Both / And. Have you seen some of the other discussion on the site about the new book Drawdown?

Are you actively involved in any climate related efforts or organizations in Nice?



Hi Mark, Im actually Irish,

Hi Mark, Im actually Irish, living in France, Im not aware of any climate organizations here.

Interesting dicussion on individual versus collective action, it does feel a little bit unreasonable to blame the government and corporations when we know our individual actions are a significant cause.

Is it similar to blaming bankers greed for the economic recession, instead of a collective greed. Not that I've much sympathy for the banks...

Anyway like you suggest I think we need both individual and collective action.

Rajesh Kasturirangan's picture

Hi Damian, thanks for sharing

Hi Damian, thanks for sharing the Guardian article! There's no doubt that we will have to make major lifestyle changes and every single one of those four (child/car/flight/meat) is currently considered to be part of a successful life - Herbert Hoover won an election on the basis of the slogan "a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage" just before the depression hit. We still haven't learned that lesson. 

What's your thinking on this topic - what do you think will be the easiest of the four? The hardest? 

Rick Shankman's picture

Bonjour Damian,

Bonjour Damian,

I know it's a bit far from La Côte d'Azur, but in Paris they have a different idea of what climate "action" is...

"Air pollution in Paris [in March of 2015] was worse than in any city in the world for a brief moment this week....

City Hall, which told FRANCE 24 on Friday that it recognized the gravity of the situation, has put some short-term measures into place. On Saturday March 21, public transport will be free in the greater Paris region in an effort to reduce pollution from cars, while parking in the city will be free."

Those measures were implemented in less than one day.

See... Paris briefly tops world charts for air pollution


With regards to personal

With regards to personal emissions There was an interesting article in the Guardian which was based on research from the University of British Columbia. Researchers ranked individual actions with the greatest potential to reduce emissions by calculating the annual savings per action. The top 4 are

  1. Having one fewer child (-58 tCO2e)
  2. Living car-free (-2.4 tCO2e)
  3. One less transatlantic flight (-1.6 tCO2e)
  4. Eating a plant-based diet (-0.8 tCO2e)

Whats interesting is these actions may require big lifestyle changes. They are not the often heard consumer changes like buying energy efficient light bulbs (-0.1), recycling (-0.21) etc... Its a tough path to 2 tCO2 emissions per person per year by 2050, from current levels which are about 16 tCO2 in the US.