On 50th Anniversary of Earth Day, Taking Action On Climate Change : Short Wave Happy (early) Earth Day, Short Wave listeners. We've received many questions from you about climate change, specifically what can individuals and households do to reduce their carbon footprint. So, we consulted two folks who have been thinking about this deeply and developing strategies for over a decade: Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac, two architects of the 2015 Paris Agreement.

On 50th Anniversary Of Earth Day, What You Can Do For The Environment

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You're listening to SHORT WAVE...


SOFIA: ...From NPR.

Hey, everybody. Maddie Sofia here with SHORT WAVE reporter Emily Kwong.


SOFIA: Hey, you. So Kwong, it's a listener question episode that we have perfectly timed because tomorrow is Earth Day - the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. And...

KWONG: Woohoo.

SOFIA: Yes. And you know what? Earth is SHORT WAVE's favorite planet.

KWONG: We love you. We love your tectonic plates...


KWONG: ...Your oceans.

SOFIA: Absolutely. Your many fungi and insects. Kwong, favorite insect on three - one, two, three.

KWONG: Oh, no.

SOFIA: Walking leaf.

KWONG: Ladybug.

SOFIA: Ladybug?

KWONG: But as we all know, our home planet is getting warmer. We've had evidence of climate change since 1960, when Charles Keeling measured carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere and detected an annual rise. And climate change has, of course, progressed significantly in the past few decades...


KWONG: ...Bringing costly changes to our oceans and forests, soil and air.

SOFIA: So this leads us to our listener question, right?

KWONG: Right, like this one from Janet Graul (ph) in Heidelberg, Germany.

JANET GRAUL: One topic which is very much in the news these days and very much on my mind is climate change. It's something which is causing many people a great deal of anxiety because they feel helpless in the face of it. So what can individuals do to slow global warming?

KWONG: Thanks for the question, Janet. And you know, we like to overpromise, overdeliver on SHORT WAVE.

SOFIA: (Laughter) Yes.

KWONG: So I took this question straight to the top - to folks who have thought about this more than most.

TOM RIVETT-CARNAC: Hello. My name's Tom Rivett-Carnac.

CHRISTIANA FIGUERES: And I'm Christiana Figueres.

RIVETT-CARNAC: Got it (laughter).

KWONG: Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac were lead negotiators for the United Nations during the 2015 Paris Agreement.

SOFIA: Dang, Kwong. Those - they're, like, big-time climate folks.

KWONG: It's true - only the best for our listeners. And this landmark document, the Paris Agreement, really crafted the language that we now use to talk about climate change action. Here's Christiana.

FIGUERES: We knew that this would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have 195 countries come around and agree. This is our one chance, and we have to set out the entire thing the way that science demands it.


SOFIA: So today on the show, Christiana and Tom, two of the folks who have shaped global action on climate change, will tackle how to take action in your own corner of the world.


SOFIA: All right, Kwong. Now, before we get to answering Janet's question, let's learn a little bit more about Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac, two architects of the Paris Agreement. You sat down with them earlier this year.

KWONG: That's right. Tom is a political strategist from Britain. Christiana is a diplomat from Costa Rica. And in 2010, she was given a big job - executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, basically to bring the entire world to global agreement in Paris.

SOFIA: Yeah, she's like an MVP of climate change, for sure. OK. So they helped create the Paris Agreement, as in the plan in which almost every country in the world...

KWONG: A hundred and ninety-five countries and the European Union.

SOFIA: ...Agreed to try and bring down or offset our carbon footprints, bring us to net-zero emissions by 2050.

KWONG: Right. And to reach net zero by 2050, the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says we must cut emissions in half by 2030 to have a chance of keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

SOFIA: So basically, this is the decade. Like, we need to make moves in the next 10 years.

KWONG: That's right. And the planet is already about 1 degree warmer than it was in preindustrial times. And beyond 1.5 degrees, we reach what Tom describes as an environmental tipping point. That's really dangerous for life on Earth. So to Janet's question...

GRAUL: What can individuals do to slow global warming?

KWONG: ...Tom had this to say.

RIVETT-CARNAC: So it's a great question. And it's a question that many people are grappling with - right? - because it's a very real issue. So I'd say three different things are really important. And the first is somewhat counterintuitive, but it's something that we experienced writing this book. Getting educated about really what's at stake and kind of facing the reality of what this could be draws it out of the realm of the sort of feared subconscious and makes it into a real thing.

KWONG: In their book "The Future We Choose," Tom and Christiana imagine two future scenarios, one where we didn't act and one where we did. And the one where we didn't is pretty harrowing to read. It's a world of mass extinction, natural disasters and catastrophic ocean rise.

SOFIA: Worse than we're experiencing right now?

KWONG: Much, much worse. But for Tom, writing this chapter was actually pretty cathartic. It helped him clarify his ideas and double down on fighting climate change.

RIVETT-CARNAC: And it kind of gave me a sense of deep purpose. So I think that can actually, for some people, be very powerful. You can feel very detached from this and very remote and unpowerful until you start taking action. Think about it in a slightly different timeframe. We tend to overestimate what we can do in a year, and we underestimate what we can do in 10. So think about it as a 10-year journey. All of us - this is one part of what we need to do - need to reduce our emissions by at least 50% the next 10 years. Now if you lay it out...

KWONG: In our own households?

RIVETT-CARNAC: In our own lives - yeah, exactly. Now, if you lay that out over 10 years, that's enough time. You can figure out what your emissions are today and make a plan for how you'll transition those to a much lower-impact scenario.

KWONG: And to basically come up with a plan to cut your emissions in half by 2030 and break that big goal down into smaller pieces you can act on at home.

SOFIA: So he's suggesting creating, like, a household action plan to basically mirror the Paris Agreement.

KWONG: Yes. And their third suggestion, after facing the reality of the world we're creating and coming up with an action plan, is learning to do more with less - to be more efficient, getting two, three, four uses out of a pair of clothes or a container, which we're not really doing right now around the world.

FIGUERES: We have ascribed value to quantity as opposed to quality. We have ascribed value to consumption use and waste as opposed to ascribing value to things that are shared. It's not that we're going to sacrifice our comfort; it's that we're actually going to be much more efficient about every ton of carbon that we will produce.

SOFIA: Got it. So being more efficient, having a plan and facing reality - that's the answer to Janet's question.

KWONG: Yes. And actually, a lot of listeners had questions drilling down into the action plan part of it. So we asked Tom and Christiana - what are the three most significant actions a household can take?

FIGUERES: You know, honestly, there are so many things that we can do. So let's start with home, OK? Not everyone lives in an old home in the United States. Many people live in very new homes that are efficient and are well-insulated. But if you don't, you better get an energy auditor in there to show you where you are just wasting your money. And that includes, of course, all of your appliances - right? Your boiler, your air conditioner, da-da-da (ph) - all of that should be absolutely ultra energy-efficient, which is good for the planet and good for your wallet.

KWONG: OK. And two?

FIGUERES: Two - what do we eat? The fact is that we do not realize that if we eat red meat, it has something that we call embedded carbon in it, which means a lot of the red meat comes from areas that have been deforested. That doesn't mean if you're eating red meat seven days a week that you have to immediately go vegetarian, but you can start with one day or one meal or two days.

KWONG: And what would you say is the third?

FIGUERES: And third thing that all of us can do is, particularly in this country, be much more mindful about transport. And so the more mindful we are about transport - if we share transport, if we go to bicycle - and why do we have to jump in a car to go down, you know, five blocks and get a quart of milk? Can we actually walk there?

SOFIA: Got it. So if you can afford it, making your house more energy-efficient, introducing more plant-based protein into your diet and rethinking transport when we're all traveling again.

KWONG: That's right - so looking at your own behaviors.

SOFIA: Yeah. And you know, I was thinking about it, Kwong - now that a lot of people have been working remotely, maybe we'll be better positioned to travel less for work and still get the work done.

KWONG: It's true. And food, household and transport are some of the biggest sources for household carbon emission. So taking action in these ways would absolutely reduce your own personal carbon footprint.

SOFIA: But you know, Kwong, like, how much overall can this really add up, like, from individuals? Because the majority of carbon is produced by a small group of big companies that individuals have very little or no control over - corporations, the fuel industry, national governments, that kind of stuff.

KWONG: Yeah, you're talking about whole economic and political systems.

SOFIA: Sure. So like, if they don't change what they're doing, there's no way this goal can be met.

KWONG: That is absolutely true. And a lot of the work that Tom and Christiana do is with those entities. But I will say that we have some power as the consumer to not buy the products that some of those companies make - basically to decrease the demand. So we're not completely powerless. And obviously, the pandemic has turned our economy and the global economy on its head, which is another conversation for another episode that is forthcoming.


KWONG: But I did ask Christiana and Tom this question.

To push back on this, if I were that person and I got an electric vehicle and I became a vegetarian or vegan and I had an energy audit on my home and got all electric appliances across the board and I taught my kids this or I - would that even make a dent in carbon levels on this planet, even if myself and all my neighbors did that?

FIGUERES: You know what it does do - yeah. But you know what it does do? It changes your thinking about this. And it means you will not tolerate political leaders who are not equally aware of these issues. It changes the mental chip, right? I mean, yes, it reduces your personal emissions, but it begins to change the norm.

RIVETT-CARNAC: And it's all of those things, right? It's the three different levels we've talked about. It's my mentality and my mindset. It's my personal responsibility for my emissions, and it's how I'm going to use all of my roles as an individual, as an employee, you know, as a citizen to push the power structures of this world to make the systemic changes that are also important.


SOFIA: OK. Thank you, Kwong, for tackling this doozy of a listener question. Happy Earth Day, ma'am.

KWONG: Happy Earth Day, Maddie. And if you want to listen to more from Christiana and Tom, they have a podcast called "Outrage + Optimism." Or check out their book, "The Future We Choose: Surviving The Climate Crisis."

SOFIA: Today's episode was produced by Rebecca Ramirez, edited by Viet Le and fact-checked by Emily Vaughn. I'm your host, Maddie Sofia.

KWONG: I'm your reporter, Emily Kwong.

SOFIA: Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.


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