Can individuals make an impact on climate change? Here’s where local experts say to start

CHARLOTTE — Issues as big as climate change or plastic pollution can seem insurmountable, especially because the individual waste or greenhouse gas emissions of a single person are impossible to compare to that of fossil fuel companies.

Still, there are dozens of organizations across the state looking to make meaningful progress in mitigating climate change, and they believe there are plenty of ways individuals can help.

Understand the Issues

Daisha Wall from CleanAire NC said the first step most people should take if they want to make a difference on climate change is to make an effort to understand the issues on a global, national, state, and local level and who can drive policy.

For example, if you’re worried about a clean energy transition, try to connect with groups that advocate for solar and wind. From there, Wall said they can help point you to local issues or show you how to make your voice heard in front of the state utilities commission.

“The more that we’re educated the more we can speak out against injustices the more we can learn about the proper channels we can take to address these issues with our city councilmembers with our board of commissioners,” she said.

Limit Consumption

Envision Charlotte aims to limit waste and promote a more circular economy. Amy Aussieker, the executive director, said that starts with refusing to buy or use something you’re going to throw away almost immediately.

“If you go to the grocery store and you buy one or two things, don’t take a bag, just refuse,” she said. “Limit food waste.”

Aussieker advocates for repairing rather than replacing clothing or goods whenever possible and especially in the case of organic waste, consider composting rather than throwing it out.

“When organics go into the landfill they don’t get enough oxygen and they off gas methane into the atmosphere,” she said. “In Mecklenburg, you can compost with Crown Town Composting, but there are also lots of options for you to put machines in your kitchen.”

What you do buy, buy efficiently

When it comes to some appliances, however, buying new can mean going greener. Jack Scheff, an earth sciences professor at UNC Charlotte, explains your HVAC system, dishwashers, and laundry appliances account for most of your home’s energy usage.

“Just getting that new dishwasher that uses way less energy and washes your dishes more efficiently can make a huge difference in terms of lowering how much energy you use at home,” he said.

Even investing in better insulation, he said, can make a huge difference when it comes to your heating and air conditioning bill.

Currently, there are homeowner tax credits available through the Inflation Reduction Act to offset the cost of some of those upgrades.

Drive less

Cars are the number one greenhouse gas emitter in Charlotte and across the country.

Both Meg Fencil with Sustain Charlotte and Sarah Hazel, the city’s chief sustainability and resiliency officer, say replacing some of our car rides with public transit or a walk or bike ride can dramatically reduce both emissions and air pollution within the city.

“It helps to keep our air quality healthier, so we’re not breathing in the ground level ozone or the particulate matter that hurts our bodies,” Fencil said.

Conserve land and plant trees

As you might expect, Trees Charlotte believes in planting trees across the city. Not only do trees serve to take CO2 from the air and store it, but they also help filter air pollutants. According to Jane Myers, the nonprofit’s executive director, the best time to plant is October to March.

In the spring, she recommends taking actions to help make the urban canopy more resilient by planting pollinator gardens.

“They help draw pollinators to our community and help with biodiversity,” she said.

The Southern Environmental Law Center works on a number of projects across North Carolina, but one of their biggest land conservation efforts has to do with our wetlands.

“Wetlands are crucial to the wellbeing of our communities,” Mary Maclean Asbill with the SELC said. “Especially as climate change causes more frequent and intense storms, wetlands can provide flood protection by absorbing excess water.”

They encourage anyone interested in helping conserve wetland habitats to check out their work and learn about ways they can help support the effort.

Advocate for change

Environmental nonprofits and organizations often spend most of their time advocating for policy changes that favor environmental regulation, a clean energy transition, or public transportation and they encourage anyone interested in those issues to reach out to them and learn how you can help do the same.

There are also policy levers to pull when it comes to local development and as Scheff explains, often those projects go under the radar, quietly getting approval unless someone voices their support or more often, their opposition.

“One reason we’re not transitioning to clean energy really quickly is there’s a lot of, you know, ‘I don’t want this new electricity line right where I live, I don’t want a wind farm right where I live, I don’t want this solar farm right where I live,’” he said. “So if you happen to be a neighbor of those sort of, maybe embracing that change and thinking of that as a positive future.”

Scheff also acknowledges housing development can be a climate issue. He said dense housing often means shorter commutes and more efficient buildings, those high density projects often attract a lot of local pushback.

“People are wary of, you know, ‘I don’t want that new building right next to me.’” He said. “So figuring out how we can compromise on that.”

Find partners

For anyone overwhelmed at where to start, these organizations are open to answering questions. Some are looking for volunteers for direct action. Some are happy to help draft a letter to your local representatives. All believe there are ways to help combat climate change and if anyone is interested in joining that effort, they believe there’s a place to start.

VIDEO: NC recycling facility ramps up to become a hub for solar panels

Michelle Alfini

Michelle Alfini, wsoctv.com

Michelle is a climate reporter for Channel 9.