Climate Change is Personal

By Justin Brightharp | YPFP Rising Expert for Energy | May 16, 2023 | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Global warming and climate change are phenomena of world-wide concern, but in many respects, we are starting to feel their effects on a personal, local level. Climate change and energy are personal. The energy from burning fossil fuels moves our family cars and freight around the world, powers industry, and provides electricity to our homes and communities, thereby fueling worldwide environmental changes that impact us all locally. Yet many of us are growing uncomfortably familiar with the incredible power of droughts and hurricanes, and the more subtle impact of rising electricity bills that energy production and consumption trends exacerbate.

Last year, 2022 was the sixth warmest year since 1880, when global climate records began. Burning fossil fuels, like gasoline, diesel, and coal, and deforestation contributes almost 11 billion metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere each year. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change highlights food production losses and a decrease in crop and livestock productivity and quality, water scarcity, malnutrition, and economic and health impacts as localized effects of climate change that are hitting certain global communities particularly hard. As these impacts are felt locally, they can exacerbate issues that transcend borders like pandemics, conflict, and the displacement of peoples. Though global warming is and has historically been viewed through a global lens, it is crucial to understand how global warming impacts individuals and our local communities and what they can do to combat its effects.

Local Actions to Address Climate Change

Local examples of climate change’s impact are beginning to proliferate in the United States. For example, Minnesota is experiencing more frequent and intense storms with parts of the southern state seeing an increase in annual precipitation contributing to flooding. Due to rising temperatures, northern Minnesota has lost ice covers on its lakes impacting fish and lake health, and local economies. Additionally, the United States National Centers for Environmental Information keeps track of climate and weather disasters around the country that exceed $1 billion (U.S. dollars) in damages. In 2022, eighteen events exceeded $1 billion (U.S. dollars). Some of those events include flooding in Kentucky and Missouri, a drought and heat wave spanning several western states, and a winter storm in the northeast and the Great Lakes. These challenges are not limited to the United States; other nations are experiencing similar issues.  

At a local level, steps like adopting electric vehicles — taken not just by consumers, but also by corporations and industry — can advance progress in addressing global warming and improving our energy systems. This includes electric trucks, school buses, and transit vehicles, in addition to personal vehicles. Electric vehicles produce none of the tailpipe emissions that add to overall global greenhouse gas emissions, decrease local air quality, and increase the risk of respiratory illnesses and cardiovascular disease. As the adoption of electric vehicles increases and other transportation options like walking and biking are prioritized, less emissions are released, local air quality is improved, and our public health is elevated. The University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine conducted one of the first reports that measured the actual impact of electric vehicles rather than estimated projections. Collecting data at the zip code level, researchers found that for every twenty additional electric vehicles per 1,000 people, asthma-related hospital visits dropped by three percent, and nitrous oxide emissions dropped too. This personal and collective action plays a part in mitigating the impacts of global warming and improving our overall energy systems. As more renewable energy sources like solar and wind are utilized on larger scales and the materials for batteries are recycled instead of mined, electric vehicles will only get cleaner.

Another action at the local level involves incentivizing communities to use solar and wind power. These sources of power produce zero greenhouse gas emissions and have been a source of economic development for many communities around the world, especially rural communities. In 2022, the number of people globally without access to electricity rose to almost 775 million people. The Rocky Mountain Institute highlights several benefits from wind and solar projects in rural communities: tax revenues for local governments, construction jobs, lease payments to rural landowners with wind turbines and solar panels on site, and jobs in operations and maintenance contributing billions of dollars in wages and economic impact by 2030. Wind and solar expansion not only benefit local environments, but also appear poised to benefit local economies. The solutions to combatting climate change happen locally and through strategic cooperation provide energy and economic benefits.

Recognizing Our Impacts and Embracing Our Roles to Stop the Climate Crisis

The impacts of global warming are personal, and so are the solutions. Improving our energy systems and reducing emissions makes our communities more resilient, economically uplifted, healthier, and more accessible. Cleaner technologies in transportation and power generation produce zero greenhouse gas emissions, and the more investments made into these technologies by countries individually and collectively, the more acutely local communities will feel the benefits from reduced emissions. If greenhouse gas emissions from human activity were completely stopped, natural processes would remove excess greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere and global temperatures would decline. Completely curbing emissions may be unlikely in the near-term or even long-term, but seeking global and local solutions to harmful emitting activities is an important step that can be taken now.

To achieve the benefits of reduced emissions and to combat global warming, we must recognize that we are all stakeholders in the successes or failures of our local and global efforts to tackle climate change. Global warming’s impact is felt world-wide, but it is experienced differently around the globe and within our communities, too. It is crucial that stakeholders at every level are actively and intentionally engaged. These range from international bodies and national governments, state or administrative governments, cities and counties, private companies, and non-governmental organizations, to individuals at the grassroots level. Coordination within and among each of these groups is critical to our success in addressing food production, managing flooding and droughts, adapting to natural disasters, improving our public health, and lowering rising electricity costs. We all feel the impacts of climate change, and to ensure accountability and progress, we must recognize our contributions and embrace roles in alleviating its effects on each of us.

Additional pieces on each of the stakeholders mentioned above and their roles will follow soon.

Justin Brightharp is YPFP’s Rising Expert for Energy . He is a Senior Program Manager with the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance, leading the organization’s energy-efficient transportation priorities and initiatives. You can find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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