Janet McCabe says the question is an important one to ask:
What can individuals and the City of Bloomington do to make a difference on climate change?
But she says individual and even municipal actions alone won’t reverse the effects of environmental degradation seen in recent decades. And she’s in a prime position to look for actions that make a difference.
McCabe is director of the Environmental Resilience Institute. Her work is at the core of one of Indiana University’s Grand Challenges – a challenge called Prepared for Environmental Change.
She says the mission is to help the state of Indiana be resilient to changes in the climate and those scientists predict will occur in the future.
“I’m talking specifically about increased temperatures – it’s getting warmer in Indiana and it’s going to continue to get warmer,” she says. “ … and changes in the amount of precipitation we’re getting at different times of the year and how severe those rain events are and we’re already seeing the flooding that’s happened.”
The institute brings together scientists, economists, communicators, historians and experts from many other disciplines to help prepare the state for what’s ahead. McCabe says the fact there are things individuals can do keeps them from despair and will have an impact in the long run.
“Even though scientists tell us these effects of climate change are going to continue and even worsen even if we eliminate carbon emissions today, every ton of carbon we don’t put into the atmosphere from this day forward make the problems easier to deal with and make less suffering and disruption,” she says.
The City of Bloomington is ahead of many other municipalities with its recently released Greenhouse Gas Inventory, McCabe says. The inventory, which was released in October, tells city leaders and the rest of the community the most intense sources of greenhouse gases and guides city leaders toward policies that could make an impact.
The inventory shows the biggest sources of greenhouse gases are transportation and energy use in residential and commercial buildings. Those are areas that could guide future government actions.
McCabe says individuals can start making a difference in the same areas.
“Think about your transportation, think about the products that you buy, think about whether you might be able to get solar panels for your home,” she says.
And consider your home energy use, how you wash your clothes and the lighting you choose.
“Adjusting your thermostat, even a couple of degrees – one or two degrees warmer or colder than you have had it traditionally,” she says, will make a difference. "Another hugely impactful thing is to wash your clothes in cold water. It’s amazing how much energy hot water in laundry uses. Those are two very easy things to do."
“If people switch to LED lightbulbs, higher efficiency light bulbs, they will save a lot of money and we will save a lot of energy," she says.
McCabe says the new inventory of greenhouse gas emissions gives the city a baseline from which to measure the effectiveness of its efforts. She adds individuals can find tools online to measure how much difference their changes make when it comes to their carbon footprint.
But she says the size of the potential problems that can be caused by climate change are so daunting, individual actions alone need to be accompanied by broader policy decisions at a governmental level.
McCabe, who used to work at both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, has experience working with public officials who make policies. She encourages citizens to become educated and then go to the polls to share their views with leaders at all levels.
“Maybe most importantly, people have to think about the policy makers we’re electing to public office,” she said. “I often ask this question of people, and the answer I get more often than any other answer is, vote. Vote for people who understand what science is telling us and that we need to put policies in place. We will not solve this problem by people making individual choices to carry a reusable coffee mug with them.”
Not that reusable coffee mugs are a bad idea. McCabe encourages them.
She just doesn’t think they will be enough in dealing with climate change.
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