Kim Cobb traveled to the Kiritimati coral reefs in the spring of 2016 and found, to her horror, an underwater graveyard.
A climate scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Cobb was alarmed to see this precious research site in the Pacific Ocean in such visible distress. The reefs were mostly dead after months of being in abnormally warm ocean waters.
Then that fall Donald Trump was elected president, dashing Cobb’s hopes of the US implementing the environmental rules needed to prevent a warmer world. “It became clear after the election not only was that hope misplaced, but it was actually never going to be enough,” Cobb told BuzzFeed News.
And so, she underwent a “wholesale reorganization” of her life, she said, including biking to work, rarely flying, going vegetarian, investing in expensive residential rooftop solar panels, and getting involved in her community’s new transportation plans.
A growing number of scientists and activists are, like Cobb, taking dramatic personal steps to decrease their personal carbon footprint. But stopping the activities that make a real difference — flying, driving, eating meat, and having children — is for most people a big sacrifice, and even climate experts disagree about whether they have a moral imperative to do so.
“I think it’s a good thing for climate messengers to ‘walk the talk.’”
The camp that’s going all out includes a 400-person Facebook group called #BirthStrike, formed in December 2018, for people who have decided “not to bear children due to the severity of the ecological crisis.” And hundreds of climate scientists have vowed to scale back on flying.
“I think it’s a good thing for climate messengers to ‘walk the talk,’” said Peter Kalmus, an associate project scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has stopped flying altogether and created the website No Fly Climate Sci for others to publicly share why they are flying less. “It makes the message much more effective.”
Other scientists point out, though, that without strict laws to curb carbon emissions, no individual’s choices matter all that much. For them, the most important action is political — to try to change the direction of national and global policies.
If everyone who already cared about climate change "reduced their carbon emissions to zero, it doesn’t actually change very much," said Gavin Schmidt, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Making your home energy efficient is nothing compared to laws that would require all buildings to be greener. Buying solar panels for your roof doesn’t pack the same climate punch as electric companies relying more on solar farms, and less on coal plants, to feed the grid.
“Agitating and voting and writing letters and op-eds,” Schmidt said, “make far more sense” for promoting systemic change.
Many people who care about climate change are wrestling with what, if anything, they can do about it. Although many of the most popular consumer choices, from ditching plastic straws to using an electric vehicle instead of a gas-guzzler, have some environmental benefits — they don’t put a dent in global emissions. Meanwhile, carbon pollution is approaching frightening levels: According to an influential report published in October, the world could experience dangerous warming as early as 2030 if we don’t rapidly cut emissions.
And yet, President Trump has reversed course on a lot of US climate policies. His administration has repealed the Clean Power Plan designed to curb pollution from coal plants, gutted stricter climate standards for cars and trucks and, just this month, signed executive orders aimed to streamline the development of new fossil fuel projects. Trump also pledged to withdraw the US from the Paris climate agreement, slowing momentum for global action.
The one-two punch of witnessing coral reef carnage and then seeing Trump get elected sent Cobb spiraling into depression. She decided to try engaging with climate action on a personal level, focusing on changing things within her control, such as how she got to work and what she ate, and found a new sense of hope and energy along the way. “It became a daily part of my self-care,” Cobb said.
But talking about her transformation on social media sparked a backlash. “I brought the haters out,” Cobb said.
She has been accused of virtue signaling, and touting a lifestyle that some say is only attainable for the rich. Cobb said she’s not out to shame or judge anyone — instead, she’s trying to show that living a climate-friendly life doesn’t have to be a sacrifice.
As scientists have debated these issues, outsiders have piled on. Climate skeptics have repeatedly called out scientists and activists for their carbon-intensive lives.
For these people, Schmidt of NASA has no patience. “People who use the personal choices of climate scientists as some kind of excuse for not understanding science or refusing to accept science, those are not good-faith arguments, and we shouldn’t really entertain them,” Schmidt said.
“Individual actions are not really the solution, but there’s no reason that you should unnecessarily pollute the atmosphere.”
Peter Kalmus’s journey down the path of a carbon-limited life started years before Trump’s presidency, back in 2006. He was a graduate student in astrophysics at Columbia University at the time, and a new father. One of the department’s weekly talks featured then-NASA climate scientist James Hansen, and his presentation had Kalmus on the edge of his seat. In the years since, he switched careers to focus on climate change, cut meat from his diet, and gave up flying. He shares his passion with his two sons, 10 and 12, who regularly strike before school on Friday to spread awareness about climate change.
Similar to Cobb, upending his lifestyle was a way for him to find meaning and hope in the face of a terrifying future.
“I’m basically freaking out about carbon emissions,” he said. “If I feel like, This is so urgent and I can’t even reduce, I would probably feel pretty hopeless.”
And more than many of his peers, Kalmus sees individual action as instrumental in bringing about larger change. “You can’t have systematic change unless a whole bunch of individuals are essentially voting for it and voting for it with their actions,” he said.
T. Jane Zelikova, an ecologist at the University of Wyoming, said she’s struggled with what to do. ”Climate change is a collective problem,” Zelikova said. “I think putting the onus of climate change solutions on climate scientists — it doesn’t seem fair. But I also realize we have to lead by example.”
Schmidt is fine with people changing their lives because it’s fulfilling. But he doesn’t want the public to get the impression that the only way to save the planet is by abstaining from certain products or not traveling. “I don't think that is where we want to end up,” Schmidt said.
His philosophy is: “Individual actions are not really the solution, but there’s no reason that you should unnecessarily pollute the atmosphere.”
Neither Schmidt nor Zelikova have given up flying entirely, but they have tried to cut back by combining trips or using virtual conferencing software. Schmidt became a vegetarian, driven both by animal welfare and climate concerns, and Zelikova aims to only buy meat from ranchers with sustainable grazing practices.
Zelikova said she is “really lucky” to have a good-paying job and live in a place that makes such choices possible.
Zelikova has also mulled one of the biggest decisions of all: whether to have kids. Adding to the more common concerns, such as financial security, Zelikova told BuzzFeed News that, in the wake of increasingly catastrophic predictions from climate models, she and her partner have talked about “whether it’s responsible to bring new kids into the world or whether we should adopt.” They haven’t decided yet.
The top actions you can take to cut your own emissions, in order of impact, include having one fewer child (equaling, for someone in a rich country, an estimated 58.6 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year), living car-free (about 2.4 tons per year), avoiding air travel (about 1.6 tons per round-trip transatlantic flight), and eating a plant-based diet (roughly 0.8 tons per year), according to a 2017 study in the journal Environment Research Letters.
The study authors also looked at what recommendations were being shared in textbooks, government material, and other sources. They found the biggest actions, mentioned above, were often omitted, whereas moderate- and low-impact choices — like recycling, buying energy-efficient products, and taking public transportation — were featured. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency’s “What You Can Do” website includes a “green vehicle guide” and “fuel economy guide” but doesn’t suggest ditching cars altogether.
Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University regularly engages with the public about climate change. She gave a TED Talk and created a YouTube series. Over and over again, she’s been asked the same question: What can I do about climate change?
This has led her down a multiyear journey of experimentation, giving up certain things and seeing how it felt. Over the past decade, she’s invested in solar panels for her home, bought an electric vehicle, and switched from a dryer to a drying rack. Increasingly, she’s been giving virtual talks to cut down on travel.
Hayhoe’s biggest climate impact, she said, is not cutting her own emissions or serving as a model for others on this front. It’s simply talking to as many people as possible about the perils of climate change.
“The most important thing I’ve done is restructure my life to tell as many people in as efficient and effective ways as I can,” Hayhoe said. “It is real. It is us. It is serious and there are solutions if we act now.” ●