This guide can help you think through the most effective things you can do to respond to the climate crisis.
Seeing the whole picture will help you understand what needs to be done and motivate your commitment to responding. So be sure to look first.
Don't get sidetracked
Between the heaviness of climate change and the busyness and distraction of daily life, it is exceedingly easy to get sidetracked. For most of us, making choices about how to respond and getting on a path toward making good on them requires an uninterrupted period of intention.
One safeguard you can try is to post one of the open letters in a conspicuous place until you are firmly on your way.
Lifestyle matters, but getting involved is essential
Lifestyle choice matter because our footprints matter. Changing how we live is also important in signaling to and inspiring others. There is something very important emotionally too, as we witness catastrophe unfold, in disconnecting from the primary practices that are causing it.
At the same time, it’s the system as a whole that is driving beliefs and behaviors at the root of climate change and planetary environmental breakdown. There is absolutely no way to address the problem through lifestyle choices. Only a very large social movement can fundamentally change the system—it’s clearly not structured to transform itself for the greater good.
Thankfully, the climate change movement is global, determined, and growing. You can join in by working with an existing organization or even starting your own.
Working with others for positive change will likely help you feel good, build social connection, develop new skills, strengthen your sense of purpose and self-esteem, raise more-prepared children, and increase your personal, family, and community resilience in an increasingly difficult and hazardous world.
Since we can’t do everything, it’s actually counterproductive to make lifestyle changes that matter relatively little at the expense of those that matter decisively more. Traditional “green” lifestyle choices have some positive environmental benefit, but only very small effect on emissions footprints.
There are a handful of lifestyle changes that matter very substantially. Focus on making as many of these as you can and taking them as far as you can—it isn’t all or nothing.
In general, the higher your income (and therefore level of consumption), the bigger your footprint, and the more your positive lifestyle changes matter.
Have no more children
In the developed world, for every child you do not have, you avoid emission, on average, of 58.6 tons of CO2-equivalent of per year. (A CO2-equivalent is a unit that describes amounts of multiple greenhouse gases in terms of just the primary one.) This makes this choice probably the most impactful one you can make for the climate.
Adopting a child may increase his or her carbon footprint, but is still a great alternative to additional births.
Having no more children saves you substantial time, energy, money, and anxiety over their welfare in an increasingly difficult and hazardous world.
Eat a plant-based diet
A plant-based diet, say scientists at the University of Oxford, is “probably the single biggest way to reduce your [overall] impact on planet Earth.”
The biggest cause of environmental breakdown, destruction of natural habitat, is primarily caused by animal agriculture. Animal-based food uses a staggering roughly 30% of the world’s surface land area (for livestock and the crops needed to feed it). The second largest factor, killing for food (like fishing), is also primarily caused by the animal food system. From 18 to as much as 51% of the emissions causing the third factor, climate change, stems from animal agriculture.
Shifting to a plant-based diet therefore almost immediately ends your contribution to the activities most responsible for the top two drivers of environmental breakdown and to what could be the largest source of greenhouse emissions causing the third.
Eating a plant-based diet will most likely make you substantially healthier, save money, and prevent atrocious acts of animal cruelty.
Living without a car avoids 1 to 5.3 metric tons of CO2-equivalent of per year.
Going car-free prevents a shocking amount of other environmental damage, provides hefty financial savings, and can make you stronger, much healthier, more intentional in what you do, and substantially less stressed.
Living car-free does not mean never using motor vehicles. In addition to alternative modes of transit, like buses, many people use ride-sharing and rent vehicles as needed.
Not flying avoids up to 2.8 metric tons of CO2-equivalent of per flight.
Far from a necessity of life, flying is actually an activity of extreme privilege: Only 5-18% of the world’s population has ever even flown on an airplane.
Not flying reduces airplane-related sickness and toxic exposure. When not flying means not going, it can save a great deal of money and time.
Consuming less in general supports reduction of greenhouse emissions and other environmental harm—but it likely only belongs with the above choices for high-income and larger-family households. By all means consume less, but not at the expense of the most important lifestyle choices you can make.
Consuming less can save you a great deal of money, free up considerable time, and help you create a less cluttered and more peaceful home. If it leads to more do-it-yourself activities, you may develop new skills, enjoy the satisfaction of creating things with your own hands, and become more self-reliant.
Making significant change can of course be hard, but you can find many extremely helpful and engaging resources—including communities of like-minded people—online and probably near you in the real world.
This site offers selected resources to support you in all of the actions discussed in this guide.