Chesapeake PSR

Taking personal action on climate change

Climate Change and EnergyTimothy WhitehouseComment

by Yousef Zarbalian, MD

Medical and health organizations throughout the world have recognized climate change as a serious global health threat. At Chesapeake PSR, we are working across the mid-Atlantic region to support government policies and programs to promote clean renewable energy and to reduce and eventually eliminate our use of fossil fuels. In our work as medical professionals and health advocates, however, we should not overlook the effects our personal actions can have in addressing this problem.

Individual lifestyles have a collective effect on climate change. One recent study found that the richest ten percent of the world’s population is responsible for about fifty percent of the total lifestyle consumption emissions, while the bottom ten percent of the world’s population is responsible for only about ten percent of the emissions.   

There are long-term, high-impact lifestyle choices that can reduce emissions, such as having one fewer child, living car-free, buying a more energy-efficient car or using an electric car, buying green energy, eating a plant-based diet and avoiding unnecessary airplane travel.

Convincing Americans to confront climate change by taking personal action means treading a fine balance between hope and complacency. Too many people have erroneously concluded that mitigating climate change requires a Herculean effort – and is therefore hopeless. One role health professionals and health advocates can play is to let people know that lifestyle and household decisions do make a difference in the fight against climate change.

Changes in consumer behavior can lead to big reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, particularly in the areas of transport, housing and food. One study found that people in the U.S. could realize emissions reductions of as much collectively as 123 million metric tons of carbon per year by taking certain household actions. In the U.S., household changes could reduce individual household emissions by 20 percent and U.S. national emissions by 7.4 percent. For instance, people can start by weatherizing, upgrading HVAC, installing low-flow shower heads, installing an efficient water heater and home appliances, reducing washing machine water temperatures or line-drying clothing and lowering thermostat temperatures. Many states require electric utility companies to offer programs to help homeowners improve energy efficiency.

While efforts to reduce carbon emissions require large-scale effort by governments – such as changing our energy sources and land use patterns – others steps can be taken by individual homeowners and drivers. We can make an impact on carbon emissions – both one-by-one and together.

• • •

Dr. Zarbalian is a member of Chesapeake PSR's Virginia Advisory Group.