Earth Day Pessimism and Earth Day Optimism: Part Two

How you can inspire hope and act to reduce climate change impacts

Posted Apr 21, 2014

In Part One of “Earth Day Pessimism and Earth Day Optimism” I wrote about the need for optimistic realism and hope in the face of climate change news.  The “take-away message”: Unrealistic optimism may lead us to underestimate the impacts of climate change on ourselves and those we love, and to assume that we personally do not need to act. Realistic optimism requires that we accept that governments and free markets are unlikely to act in time to slow climate change. It requires believing that our own personal and political actions can make a difference.

This Earth Day adopt a personal plan for low-carbon living.  The psychological theorizing on hope says that when we have hope we believe that eventually our goals will be achieved, we think goal-oriented thoughts, and we plot a route to our goals which we believe we can initiate and sustain. Barriers are looked at as challenges to surmount (or to go around), not reasons to give up. Cultivate your hope that you can successfully act to retard climate change.

An old saying goes “Don’t be part of the problem, be part of the solution.” Here are some suggestions to get you started:

1. Because forest destruction produces as much as 15 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, take actions that reduce deforestation. 

Reduce or eliminate use of paper towels, paper plates, and napkins (use actual plates and cloth napkins) and use recycled paper products if you can. If you get takeout food to eat at home, decline napkins, plates, and utensils. Avoid products with palm oil to reduce the demand that drives burning the Indonesian forests to plant palm trees. Support organizations like the Nature Conservancy that work with governments to provide economic incentives to reduce deforestation.  

2. Over 70% of Americans’ energy comes from the burning of fossil fuels (petroleum, coal, and natural gas) that contribute to the greenhouse gases that trap heat and increase global warming.  The production of electricity is responsible for approximately 32% of greenhouse emissions. This means that reducing your electricity use is one of the most useful things you can do (added bonus: it will save you money).

All of us can adopt simple practices such as unplugging electronic chargers when not in use, turning off your computer if you’re not going to use it for while, using computer “sleep” mode instead of a screen saver if you do leave it on, buying local, using compact fluorescent bulbs, turning off lights or the TV when you leave the room for more than a minute, setting the water heater no higher than 120 degrees, choosing Energy Star certified appliances (especially refrigerators, washers and dryers, and TVs), reducing water use (take shorter showers, turn off water when soaping up dishes or brushing teeth), and washing clothes in cold water. If you are a residential or commercial property owner, there are many things you can do to increase energy efficiency and fossil fuel use, some of which are relatively inexpensive. I recommend the Union of Concerned Scientists’ book “Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living" for details about the most effective actions.

3. Transportation accounts for about 28% of United States greenhouse emissions and for most Americans, transportation accounts for a quarter of their “personal” carbon emissions. Altering a few of your transportation practices can make a difference.

If you can, buy a fuel-efficient car that won’t only reduce emissions, but will save you money in the long run.  Consider that most everyday tasks do not require a truck or SUV.  Of course, many of us cannot afford to trade in our gas guzzler but many of us can drive less by doing things like “trip chaining,” where we avoid making separate trips for going to work, shopping, and errands and instead perform car-necessary tasks as part of an efficient circuit. 

Increasing our walking, bicycling, carpooling, and public transportation use are also a good idea.  

Driving smarter also makes a difference. Avoid rapid acceleration and deceleration. Regularly changing your oil, air filters, and spark plugs, keeping your tires properly inflated, removing excess weight from the trunk and backseat, avoiding engine idling, and reducing long-distance travel (especially by airplane or in fuel-inefficient vehicles), all reduce emissions and save you gas money.  Many people that travel for business can accomplish some goals without travel by teleconferencing.

4. Food accounts for approximately 14% of the average American’s climate change emissions and one of the most impactful things you can do to reduce this source of emissions is to reduce or eliminate dairy and meat (especially beef) in your diet.  Americans eat nearly four times the amount of meat than the global average. Beef production accounts for at least 20 percent of the world’s global warming emissions, partly due to the cutting of forests for cattle grazing, but also because livestock production results in the release of powerful greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide.  Without reductions in meat and dairy consumption, experts say it is unlikely we will meet emissions-reduction targets in time to avert the worst effects of climate change.

Your personal climate change plan might include cutting down on cheese consumption, eating at least one meat-free meal per day, going meatless at least once a week, or adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet. Not only will you save money, but also eating less meat and dairy are recommended for heart health and for animal-lovers, eating less meat reduces cognitive dissonance arising from the poor treatment of factory-farmed animals.  Typing “meatless Mondays” into a computer search engine will yield a variety of tasty recipes to get you started.


Cederberg, C., Hedenus, F., Wirsenius, S., & Sonesson, U. (2013). Trends in greenhouse gas emissions from consumption and production of animal food products–implications for long-term climate targets. Animal, 7, 330-340.

Gallup (March 2014).  Retrieved on April 12, 2014.

Nature Conservancy. Retrieved on April 19, 2014

Snyder, C.R. (2000). The past and possible futures of hope. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 19, 11-28.

Union of Concerned Scientists (2012).  Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living.  Washington, DC: Island Press. 

United States Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved on April 19, 2014

United States Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved on April 19, 2014

Wirsenius, S., Hedenus, F., & Mohlin, K. (2011). Greenhouse gas taxes on animal food products: rationale, tax scheme and climate mitigation effects. Climatic Change, 108(1-2), 159-184.