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5 Ways to Fight the Climate Crisis in 2020

Climate
5 Ways to Fight the Climate Crisis in 2020
We need to generate a lot more renewable energy to replace old, dirty energy and slow down the climate crisis. Pixabay / Pexels

By Carla Ruas

A brand new year is upon us and the future is full of possibilities. We have the chance to do better — especially when it comes to tackling the climate crisis.


The year 2019 will go down in history for being hot. Scientists estimate it was the second-warmest year since temperature recordings began in 1880. And we certainly felt the consequences in the U.S. — from wild weather swings in California to a shortage of fish in New England.

Unfortunately, the excessive heat is mostly caused by humans. The Global Carbon Project found that 43.1 billion tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide were emitted into the atmosphere last year – a 16 percent increase from 2018 and an all-time record. Most of the gas came from the burning of fossil fuels for our consumption, from energy to transportation.

If we continue down this road we’re in big trouble.

As we enter 2020, the planet has already warmed 1.8°F since the pre-industrial era. We're also off-track to meet the Paris Agreement goals of keeping global temperature below 3.6°F in the next decade.

If nothing changes, the future with climate change will be harsh — especially for communities of color, lower-income communities and immigrant groups that are more vulnerable to impacts from extreme weather events such as heatwaves, flooding and hurricanes.

The United Nations recently warned that we need to be more aggressive in implementing climate solutions. That mostly means reducing climate emissions and boosting clean energy. In order to do that, we need to look beyond the usual tactics; we need to prioritize the needs of local communities over oil companies and rethink how we use our shared lands and waters.

Here are five ways we can tackle the climate crisis in 2020 and beyond.

1. Cut fossil fuel extraction on America’s public lands.

This may come as a surprise, but American public lands are a huge source of climate emissions. More than 20 percent of the country's total emissions come from oil, natural gas and coal extracted on those sites. The federal government can easily turn this around by tightening leasing rules and charging fossil fuel companies a fair price for these lands. Right now, the Trump administration often gives acres away for the price of a cup of coffee.

2. Use damaged land to boost clean energy.

We need to generate a lot more renewable energy to replace old, dirty energy and slow down the climate crisis. And we know the perfect places for new projects. A lot of public lands across the country have been abandoned after being used for mining, landfills and coal plants. These lots are perfect for clean energy sites, since they've already been disturbed in some way and won't impact new wildlife habitats.

3. Protect and expand natural carbon sinks

Have you ever heard of carbon sinks? They are natural landscapes that have the power to absorb the heat-trapping gas carbon dioxide. The Tongass Natural Forest in Alaska is the most prolific carbon sink in the country. From its trees to the underlying soil, it stores more carbon dioxide than any other forest in the country. We should take steps to preserve and expand the Tongass and other forests in the new year instead of opening them up to roads, logging and other development.

4. Bring local communities to the table.

The climate crisis impacts some communities more than others, mostly lower-income and communities of color. Hispanic immigrants, for instance, have more than three times the risk of dying from heat-related illnesses likely due to outdoor working conditions and limited access to medical care.

Communities of color are also disproportionally impacted by the air pollution that stems from fossil fuel sites. African Americans are exposed to about 56 percent more pollution than then they generate, while Hispanics bear the brunt with 63 percent. Dirty air has been associated with lung disease, heart disease and premature death.

If we're going to be successful in tackling climate change, these communities need to be a part of the conversation from the start. Their first-hand experiences and input are essential to make sure that we're not leaving anyone behind as we implement solutions.

5. Support new climate legislations.

We can't move forward with any of the tactics above without having legislation in place that establish the right framework.

We're thrilled a bill that was introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.). This historic bill would reduce and offset emissions from fossil fuel developments on public lands and waters. We're grateful to Chairman Grijalva for working to harness the power of our public lands to address the climate crisis and hope the Senate will do the same.

Laws to ensure that our climate lands are part of the climate solution are exactly what we need in 2020 to face the massive challenge that is climate change.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

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With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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