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Maybe the most frequent question we have gotten this century at the Museum is what people can do personally to mitigate the effects of climate change. Frank Lowenstein from Rare's Climate Culture Boston gives a short list of big-impact actions.
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ERIC: From the Museum of Science in Boston, this is Pulsar, a podcast where we search for answers to the most frequent questions we get from our visitors. I'm your host, Eric. And one of the major topics that we're constantly covering at the museum is climate change. While a lot of the ways to mitigate effects like sea level rise and increasing storm intensity have to be taken on at the city or country level, or even a worldwide effort, our visitors are always asking what meaningful actions they can take in the effort to address climate change. My guest today is Frank Lowenstein, the Senior Director of Rare's initiative called Climate Culture Boston. Frank, thanks for coming over to the museum today.
FRANK: Hi, Eric. Thanks for having me here today.
ERIC: So the mission of your organization is right there in the title, climate culture. And that kind of gets at the idea that to address climate change as a society, our culture needs to shift and kind of be aligned with that goal.
FRANK: Yeah, our culture has to become a place where taking action to defeat climate change becomes something that enriches our lives, and that we value, that we want to do these things.
ERIC: And there are a lot of things that will help even at the individual level. And part of what you're doing is helping people focus down to the actions that are the most useful.
FRANK: We have to figure out the right things to do in the right order to do them in. So I have a good friend, a wonderful guy who's been doing energy efficiency contracting for decades. And he recently realized that it's actually a lot cheaper to just get his customers to put a whole lot of solar panels on their roof, and not worry as much about, you know, absolutely airtight insulation, and, you know, foam into all the cracks and all, that you can waste a little energy if it's coming from the sun. And so I think that that piece of understanding: what are the things we need to change? And changing the most important things first, that's key.
ERIC: So how did this whole endeavor come about? Can you talk about the beginnings of this project, how it started?
FRANK: Rare is an organization that's all about behavior change. We've run about 500 behavior change campaigns in sixty countries. And about four years ago, we realized that all of the investments we've made in working with communities around the world, for our entire fifty year history was at risk if the worst predictions about climate change aren't avoided. So we said, well, what can we do with our behavioral perspective? And so we partnered with a research institution in California to sort of analyze: what are all the different actions that people could take, and then say, which ones would make a difference. And what we came down to is that there's four areas of people's lives where they can make some pretty simple shifts: your transportation, your energy, your world, and your food. And if an additional 10% of Americans, call it 31 million people, started taking those actions, it would reduce US emissions by about 7%, which is equivalent to the entire emissions of the world's fifthp-largest economy, the United Kingdom.
ERIC: Now, how did you come up with exactly which areas and which actions you would focus on? Which ones have the most impact?
FRANK: We had a whole set of criteria that we applied. One of them was, if someone adopted this behavior, how much impact would it make in terms of the amount of carbon removed from emissions? And there's a huge, huge range. The next one was, it has to be pretty reliable technology. We didn't want to be steering people to something that's super cutting edge, and next week, it's going to catch on fire. And then which ones are there not sort of a social stigma or barrier to. Which ones are, you know, something that people see as a good thing already? And finally, Rare's behavioral approach is all about social norms, right? Where do we get those social norms? Well, we get them from the other people in our network. It's: what does our mom and dad do when we're young? It's what do our friends do? It's what do our neighbors do? You know, it's what does our community do?
ERIC: So really looking for that cascade effect, where the total amount of carbon you can not put into the atmosphere by say, installing solar panels is small, but the impact of talking about your solar panels to your family and your friends is big, because they talk to their family and friends who might decide to get solar panels, and that chain reaction can have a bigger impact than just your own footprint change.
FRANK: Yeah. And it's not just for solar panels. That's a really great one because it's not just you talking to your friends and family and neighbors, it's the fact that those solar panels are on your roof, and your neighbor across the street is going to see them and say, hmm, oh, Eric put solar panels on his roof. Maybe I should be thinking about that.
ERIC: And that's true. I mean, you drive down the street now. And you see way more solar panels on roofs than there were 10 years ago. It used to be you'd see solar panels on a house, and I would think, like, that's so futuristic. Wow. And now it's just kind of normal.
FRANK: Yeah. And what's really interesting from a behavioral point of view is, whether you're not you want to put solar panels on your house, the best predictor of that is not your income, or your education level, or politics, or your race, or any of the other things that we think about. It's whether your neighborhood has a higher level of solar panels. The more solar panels that are already in your neighborhood, the more inclined people are to take the step of putting them on themselves.
ERIC: So that's some data right there that shows your actions can have impacts beyond themselves, benefits beyond the carbon they themselves keep out of the atmosphere.
FRANK: Right. And you know, I can remember just a few years ago, when I saw my first Nissan LEAF, which I think was the first sort of fully electric modern generation of cars, I was like, oh my gosh, it's an electric car. Nowadays, you walk down the street, you see Teslas, yesterday I saw the new Toyota electric, you know, Chevy is coming out with their third generation of electric cars, you know, it's like, they're everywhere. Like solar panels, electric cars are highly visible.
ERIC: So energy: solar panels or community solar programs. Transportation: looking into an electric car. What about the next area, food. Can you talk a little bit about what kind of change you're advocating for there?
FRANK: The biggest change that consumers can make, and it makes a big difference, is to eat less meat. And in particular, to eat less meat from ruminants: cows, sheep, goats. Ruminants, as they're digesting grass and grain, they burp methane. And methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas. It's relatively short-lived, but we have a really short timeline to change things. So the fact that it's around for the next 20 years, i.e. short-lived, is still a big deal. So if you can, you know, convince yourself: instead of having a steak, I'm gonna have a pork chop. Instead of having beef five times a week, I'm gonna have it three times a week, or one time a week. You know, that makes a huge difference. So we are encouraging people to eat less meat, eat more veggies, look to explore new cuisines that are veggie-forward. And therefore, you get to enrich your life by trying new flavors and new recipes. And at the same time, help the climate.
ERIC: That last bucket you mentioned is world. That sounds pretty big-picture, what kind of actions are you promoting there?
FRANK: What we're thinking about there really is nature. Nature does so many wonderful things for us to help cope with climate change. Among the most important of those is, various types of natural systems actually absorb carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, and take care of our problem for us. Trees are cleaning our atmosphere without us worrying about it. Coral reefs are removing carbon dioxide from our atmosphere without us worrying about it. Salt marshes, same thing. So how do we sustain and support those? And maybe if, you know, you're not in a place where you can buy an electric car or lease an electric car, you could take a little bit of money and put it into play to support natural systems. And there's actually increasingly markets to do this. Carbon offset markets, they're called. You can offset the average emissions of an American for $240 a year. And if you just want to offset your morning coffee, what's that cost? Around $10 a year, two cups of coffee. The carbon impact of producing that coffee, transporting it to your pantry, and then making the coffee. Yeah. So if you wanted to offset some impacts that you can't, for whatever reason, make a change on right now. That's a place that we think is important. And that's what we mean by your world, is sort of how do you support the natural world in helping to clean up our mess?
ERIC: For our listeners who want to get started on these actions, where can they go to learn more?
FRANK: So we have information on our website, rare.org. And if you want to, /boston, we have a specific page for our work here. That page also has what we call on it an action hub that will lead you to information about how you do each of these behaviors in your your own life. Climate Culture Boston is on social media, on Instagram, on Facebook, you can follow us there, but you don't have to come to us. There's different resources, really for all these different types of activities. One I'll just point to is if you're thinking about solar energy, and you're confused about that energysage.com is a great resource that was actually founded here in Boston that enables you to compare different options for solar energy. We have great groups here in Boston that are working on this, the Green Energy Consumers Alliance, MassEnergize, those are other resources that are out there. But think about the four areas: your food, your ride, your energy, and your world.
ERIC: Well, hopefully, this conversation leaves our visitors more hopeful for the future and more confident that they can inspire and enact real change,
FRANK: We often don't realize how influential we are. Each of us has a tremendous influence over our friends, over our family, and over our neighbors in our neighborhood. And you can tap into your power and your influence by taking simple actions that will actually reduce your carbon impact, reduce your carbon emissions, help avoid future climate change a little bit just on their own. But will make a really big difference when other people that care about you see that you're making this change and they start to change too.
ERIC: Well, Frank, thanks for telling our listeners what they can do to fight climate change.
FRANK: Yeah, thank you again, Eric. It was great to be here.
ERIC: On your next visit to the Museum of Science, stop by the Gordon Current Science & Technology stage for daily presentations that often include the latest innovations that will help us fight climate change. And while you're home, visit mos.org/climate for online content and resources. Until next time, keep asking questions.
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