6 Ways Our Team Is Taking Action on Climate Change—And How You Can, Too

Scientists and staff within the Earth Institute share some of the ways they’re shrinking their carbon footprints.

Sarah Fecht
September 25, 2018

It’s Climate Week in New York City, which means businesses, non-profits, and academic institutions are working across the city to raise awareness and keep climate action at the top of the global agenda.

Climate Week comes once a year, but researchers within Columbia’s Earth Institute work year-round to refine the science behind global warming and develop solutions to help preserve the planet for future generations. And they don’t just talk about how to make a difference—they’re also taking action at a personal level. Here are just a few of the ways folks within the Earth Institute are shrinking their carbon footprints.

1: Eating Less Beef

maureen raymo
Maureen Raymo, a paleoclimatologist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, reduces her carbon footprint by eating less beef. In this photo she’s enjoying some delicious chicken instead.

“I don’t always eat meat, but when I do, it’s chicken or pork,” jokes Maureen Raymo, a paleoclimatologist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, referencing a popular beer commercial.

Calorie for calorie, beef generates five times more greenhouse gas emissions than other types of livestock. While switching to a plant-based diet is a great way to help fight climate change, Raymo and her colleagues created HoldtheBeef.org to spread the word that if you can’t or don’t want to go all-veggie, you can still make a big difference just by eating less beef.

“This is such an easy lifestyle change to make, and I made it,” she says. “It’s literally easy. Just don’t eat beef as much as you do now. Treat it like lobster.”

Curbing your beef consumption could have other positive effects, too; Raymo and her colleagues recently found that if America were to cut its beef consumption by 60 percent, the beef industry could become significantly more sustainable and ethical.

Paulina Concha Larrauri
Paulina Concha Larrauri, a researcher at the Columbia Water Center, sports a cute dress she bought at a thrift store. Buying second-hand clothes helps to avoid carbon emissions associated with making and shipping new clothing.

2: Shopping at the Thrift Store

Paulina Concha Larrauri from the Columbia Water Center originally started shopping at thrift stores because she didn’t have a lot of money. “Now I do it because I’m very conscious of over-consuming,” she says. “And I find great clothes there.”

A lot of the products we buy leave behind a big footprint, and that includes clothing.

“If you look at entire supply chain of a shirt—producing the cotton, then transforming it into the fabric, then having to produce it into a t-shirt, then shipping it from someplace, probably in Asia, to here—[throughout] the supply chain you’re adding and adding carbon emissions,” Concha Larrauri explains.

By buying used clothing, you can help to avoid a lot of those emissions, while also helping to reduce waste and save money.

Concha Larrauri’s advice to thrift store newbies: “You’re going to find really unique things, but you have to take your time to find what you like.”

3: Setting a Carbon Budget

Some people count calories, but Lamont-Doherty climate scientist Robin Bell counts carbon emissions. She has set herself a carbon budget for the year, aiming to limit her emissions to seven tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, and she keeps track of how much she “spends” getting to and from work, flying to do field work, or heating her house.

robin bell in sailboat
Climate scientist Robin Bell snaps a selfie from the mast of her sailboat. Rather than flying to vacation destinations, she and her husband curb their carbon emissions by sailing instead.

She does this, she says, because “when people ask you what they should do [to reduce their carbon emissions], it’s so variable per person.” Someone who lives in a city, for example, will likely use fossil fuels differently from someone who lives in the suburbs. Tracking your own carbon emissions can help to reveal the areas where you can most improve.

For Bell, who pays for solar power through her utility company and uses a wood stove for most of her home heating, air travel is her biggest problem area. Keeping track of these emissions has encouraged her to find alternatives to flying to conferences, such as calling in or driving instead.

The alternatives can be fun, too. Instead of flying somewhere for vacation, for example, Bell and her husband might take their sailboat out for a spin. “We just head down the Hudson River and turn whichever way we wanna go,” she says.

Bell uses a spreadsheet to track her emissions, but there are also many carbon footprint calculators available online.

4: Installing Solar Panels

When Alison Miller and her husband moved from the city to the suburbs, they worried their carbon footprint would expand because of driving more and heating a large house. So they bought an electric vehicle (the 2018 Nissan LEAF) and installed solar panels on their roof this summer. The system should generate 10,000 kWh per year, enough to power their entire household as well as about 11,000 miles of all-electric driving.

alison miller
Earth Institute deputy director for management Alison Miller and her husband recently installed solar panels on their home to charge their electric vehicle.

“It feels good knowing that you’re not making climate change worse—especially when you spend your day job trying to make things better,” says Miller, who is the deputy director for management at the Earth Institute.

Miller admits it was a big financial commitment upfront—their family decided to forego updating the bathrooms and kitchen in favor of installing the solar panels—but she mentions that there are several different financing options available. Plus, with lower energy bills, the system will eventually pay for itself. For Miller, that should happen within seven years.

“Once you make the decision to do it, it’s really easy,” she says. “There are so many companies and organizations out there that can help guide you through all the federal, state, and local resources.”

5: Planting Trees

Deforestation is on the rise in Colombia. The South American country loses nearly 900 square miles of forest to agricultural and industrial development. “In a way, I’m trying to reverse the process by planting trees,” says Daniel Ruiz Carrascal, an adjunct researcher at Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society.

Ruiz-Carrascal and his wife own a parcel of land, about nine acres in size, bordering a nature preserve. The land was once clear-cut to make way for livestock grazing, but the pair bought it with plans to restore its original forest cover. This will bring ecological benefits while also helping to slow climate change.

daniel ruiz carrascal
Hydroclimatologist Daniel Ruiz Carrascal, an adjunct at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, has planted 1,000 trees on his plot of land in Colombia. Here, he is assisted by the dog Merlín.

Experts agree that avoiding the worst effects of climate change will require finding ways to pull carbon out of the air. Trees do this naturally through photosynthesis, and as long as they stay alive, they provide long-term carbon storage. “They’re going to suck up some of the carbon that I have emitted in different activities,” says Ruiz-Carrascal.

He estimates that they’ve planted 1,000 trees so far, including 465 different native species. And they aim to plant about 10,000 more in the years ahead.

If you don’t have the option to plant thousands of trees, planting just a few could help to shield your home from sunlight and wind, helping to curb climate emissions (and costs) from heating and cooling.

6: Commuting by Bike

michael burger
Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, bikes to work 3 or 4 times a week. He says that while his own individual impact on the climate may be relatively small, his actions help to pave the way for a wider culture of alternative transportation and carbon-cutting choices.

Michael Burger, executive director of Columbia’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, has been a bike commuter for decades. As a person with two kids and a busy job, biking to and from work several times a week gives him a chance to exercise and capture a few rare moments of peace.

Biking generates zero net greenhouse gas emissions, but Burger could technically take the subway and the emissions would still be quite low. The subway would also be safer—Burger has been injured in two collisions while biking—but he loves riding, and he also feels like he’s making a difference in another way.

“The climate benefit of my individual choice to ride the bike versus take the subway is relatively small, he says. “But I think that my participation in a broader movement towards increased access to streets for bicyclists, and the increased visibility of transportation alternatives … there’s a chance for it to have a more extensive impact.”