APU Environmental Exploring STEM Podcast

Fighting Climate Change, One Personal Choice at a Time (Part 1)

Podcast by Dr. Bjorn Mercer, DMA, Department Chair, Communication and World Languages and
Dr. Kristin DrexlerFaculty Member, School of STEM

Climate change is a global problem, and the solution lies in the choices of every individual. In this episode, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to professor Dr. Kristin Drexler about the power of personal choice, taking more personal responsibility, and changing your mindset to be more resourceful and less wasteful.

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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. And today we’re talking to Dr. Kristin Drexler, full-time faculty in the STEM school. And today we’re talking about individual ways to fight climate change. And so welcome, Kristin.

Dr. Kristin Drexler: Thank you very much, Bjorn. It’s so great to be back.

[Podcast: A Conversation about Climate Change (and What to Do at the Local Level)]

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. I’m excited about this conversation because oftentimes when we hear about climate change, it’s doom and gloom. Even our last podcast, it was very difficult because there’s just so many big things that are going on. And so we really want to talk about how we as individuals can fight climate change individually and at the local level. And so what are some individual ways to fight climate change?

Dr. Kristin Drexler: That’s such a great question, and you’re absolutely right. Our last podcast, we were talking about the IPCC Report and the COP26 meeting in Glasgow, and where all the nations were getting together and discussing climate change and what we could do at a global level. And a lot of times, it’s so overwhelming. And so like you were saying, doom and gloom.

The climate change issue is a real issue and it’s impacting us day-to-day, but it’s really, really important for us to identify ways that we can be empowered as individuals and people living in the same household, people living in the same community, in the same municipality. It’s important for people to know that they can do, that they have power to do something, to be part of a solution rather than just part of the problem.

We keep hearing that we’re part of the problem, problem, problem, but what we can do is take small steps. And if collectively we do that, we can make a difference.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I’m glad you said that because as long as I’ve been alive and living in the U.S., living in a, I guess you can say industrialized country, having a computer, having a car, flying places, basically whenever I’ve looked into this, it basically said my carbon footprint is terrible and I’m part of the problem. I want to be part of the solution.

When we look at how can we be part of the solution, well, we can’t go back to 200 years ago and live on a farm and everything like that, some people can, but the vast majority of us can’t. What are some things we can do, say in the back yard, in our travel habits, and ideally with our work habits?

Dr. Kristin Drexler: Very good question. Maybe we can’t go back 200 years, but maybe we can go back 50 years, for example, in our mindsets. And thinking about lessons we learned from our parents and grandparents about conservation. We can learn about, not just conservation, but how do we use resources wisely? How can we be more resourceful with the materials that we have, and sort of not be a throwaway society. “It’s not working, let’s just pitch it, let’s throw it.” That’s not how people did things back in the day.

So, why don’t we just all take a step back in the day and remember how we can be resourceful, how we can be the spry, resourceful people. And in that way, I think we use a lot less resources, we make a lot less waste, and that’s a big help, actually.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s a great comment because, obviously, again, we can’t go 200 years ago, there’s a lot of things that 200 years ago were not great. In a sense, back in the past, it wasn’t a consumable or throwaway society just like you said. We didn’t say, “Hey, this is broken. I’m just going to throw it away and go get something new.” People used stuff their entire lives, or they used something for many, many years, and that really helped have a smaller impact on, say, the environment around, if you talk about fast culture or clothes that you just buy and throw away. There’s an actual environmental impact to different things like that.

Dr. Kristin Drexler: Yeah, absolutely. And knowing that our population is growing, we have to do that more than ever now. Being more responsible, taking more personal responsibility with how we use and reuse, and repair. We used to call it three Rs, reuse, reduce, recycle. Well, there’s eight of them now, seven or eight of them now, and maybe even 15 by now.

And we’ll talk about that too. We’ll talk about those numbers, and I think it’s good for us to visualize how we’re going to respond to different pieces of information that we receive, or different situations that we encounter. So with the seven Rs, or with a mnemonic to help people remember what they can do locally to make a positive impact, to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.

This mnemonic is called “COWRIITE.” And I think it’s interesting because it implies a collective, something we’re doing together, which is exactly right. And it involves several elements that I’ll describe here in just one second, but I think the first thing, when we’re talking about what we can do locally, at the local level, what is it that we can do to make an impact on a global issue like climate change?

[Related Article: Local, Daily Actions Can Influence Climate Change (Part 1)]

It seems too overwhelming. It seems doom and gloom. We hear all about the doom and gloom in the news, but we have to remember that we are a part of not just the problem. We’re part of nature, we’re part of the system, we’re part of earth’s system. And as such, we have a role to play. We’re part of it, not apart from it, so we have a role to play in sustaining it.

And it’s not that we can save things, or fix things, and we can fix little things. We can’t fix global things, but what we can do is make the conditions better for us to exist on the planet, and that’s what we should be really focused on. The first thing we have to do is we have to remind ourselves why global issues like climate are important, why they matter?

So, we look at climate action, activists around the globe talking about what we can be doing at local and global levels. That’s important to listen to, it’s important to act on. So climate action and sustainability matter. It’s a global problem, sure. It’s a systemic problem. So we’re talking about, again, the socio-ecological system.

I bring that up in the podcast in the past, and its important thing to remember that we have an impact to global issues. So, in the effort to be part of the solution and not only part of the problem, there are several things that we can do as individuals to help fight global issues like climate change.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent, and really well said. And so, what are some things that you would recommend, if possible, that people could do, say with their work?

Dr. Kristin Drexler: Working from home has its benefits. It’s one of the reasons why I love working at APU, is that your carbon footprint is naturally a lot lower because we are cutting down on our transportation, our sitting in traffic, our fuel consumption, and all the things that are associated with all of those things.

So we are using our home resources, so we’re not using another building, and electricity, and lights, and things. So we are in a better position being able to work from home. However, people that go into the office can also carpool. If they live close to their office, they can walk or ride a bike.

There are different things you can do to reduce your carbon footprint, and that’s one of the things I wanted to talk about today, ways that we can reduce our carbon footprint and locally make an impact and be part of the solution for climate change.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I’ve read different articles where if you have to drive into work, try to take the bus. That’s not always possible when you live in large cities like Phoenix or Houston, where mass transit isn’t the best as far as connecting different parts of the city, you have to have a car. And so, if you can, have an electric car. If you can, have a small car versus a very large car that basically just burns a bunch of gas, but then again, people have preferences, and so they might have a large car.

Dr. Kristin Drexler: We have to acknowledge our sort of attitude about what is it that we can do. We can recycle, sure, but what impact does that make compared to people that were flying in their private jets, and who have the affluence and influence? How does that compare? If you look at the positive aspects of what we can do, not the things that we are not doing or can’t do, but look at what we can do, that’s what we really need to lean into.

First, it’s important to remember that we’re part of earth’s system. And so no matter what we do, we’re going to be impacting all of the major spheres, the biosphere, the geosphere, the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, the cryosphere. I named those five because they’re sort of the main ones. There are several others, but let’s just focus on those five for a minute.

So the biosphere is where we live, on the planet Earth. Geosphere is kind of, you think of rocks, bedrock. Atmosphere, we know what that is. Hydrosphere is oceans, waters, and cryosphere is the glaciers. So, these spheres are what compose or comprise the planet Earth. We live in part of that system. We influence all of these systems, but for the most part, we live on the biosphere.

So knowing that we have all these systemic impacts to all of these spheres and cycles, carbon cycle, hydrogen cycle, we have to act accordingly. We have to understand that we’re part of it, not apart from it. And in doing so, we have to act accordingly. We have to find ways that we can make positive steps, contributions, towards solutions, and not just the problem.

But the good news about all of this is that we can. There are ways, there are things that we can do, big things and small things that will make an impact. So, it’s important to focus on those things and do what we can to do the things ourselves, and to influence others to also do the same.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Very well said, but hopefully for those people, they think a little bit more of like, “Well, my job is a very high carbon producing,” and sometimes they are. “What can I do to counterbalance that?” And that’s on an individual level, and hopefully they’re thinking about it. Their friends are thinking about it, and they’re helping them in different ways. Just like you said, that we can each individually help.

Dr. Kristin Drexler: How do you influence people to behave in certain ways, sustainably, for example? So, one way to make a bigger impact, so we’re as individuals, we can make small impacts. We can make small choices, household behaviors, for example. And I’d like to talk about several of those in a bit here, but first, you had asked about bigger impacts. How we as individual can make a bigger impact?

So think about things that influence other people. What are ways that you as an individual can influence other people to behave and do things that you would like them to do? We do that all the time through social media, through discussions, getting together with friends, watching films, having a company have sustainability measures, that’s really important. So if you’re curious what your company is doing, ask to speak to their sustainability office, or somebody that can speak to sustainability measures of the institution or company that you work for, and then help contribute to that. So, for example, do you see recycle containers? If not, get right on that.

You can also educate, too. As an educator myself, I feel like I have a voice, I can influence the minds of younger and older people. Our students are most diverse and greatest students ever because they bring in so many different experiences into the mix. And, as we know, it’s not just the teacher that you’re learning from, but it’s the whole class and their collective experience that we’re learning from as well.

So, being an educator or contributing to the education of others is a super influential way of getting people, not just to understand the issue, but to strive to be better, to innovate, to examine, and to find solutions.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. I completely agree. And so my next question is, if we live in a house or like in an apartment, and you have access to say a community garden, what are some different things you can do in your backyard to help with climate change?

Dr. Kristin Drexler: Well, the first thing I like to do is once we understand that we’re part of the system, once we understand that we can, and we do make an influence and make an impact on the global system, once we understand those things, and that we have influence over other people and how they behave through film and social media networking, we can start to make a sort of a pact or a contract.

So you’re asking what we can do at home, and I’m getting to that. It’s an important thing to do whenever you have a goal or something that you’re striving for, it’s important to write it down and stick to it as if it’s a contract to yourself.

So, what I do is I challenge my students to do a 30-day challenge. If they want to do something differently, reduce their carbon footprint in a very specific way, which we’ll get to here in a second, can they do this one behavior change? Can they make this lifestyle change for 30 days?

And if you can do it for 30 days, it’s sort of habit forming. And you begin to maybe see the benefits of doing something for 30 days. For example, if you’re using less electricity, if you’re turning off lights, or if you’re not running the water while you’re brushing your teeth, does it make an impact on your bill, for example? You may begin to see that economically or financially, you’re seeing the benefits of that.

Going back to your question about what we can do in our backyards and what we can do in our homes, this is good. What I’m testing here is a mnemonic called “COWRIITE.” Co-write, it’s a word. And each of those letters in COWRIITE means something that we can do on the individual household level that can contribute to a solution and climate action.

So, the first thing is C. C stands for choice. So when we think about choice, we think about all the choices we have in our homes and in our backyards. We think of about consumption, for example. Bjorn, are there ways in your household that you can make choices to reduce your consumption? Can you give an example of one thing?

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Sure. That’s a great question. Toys for the kids. Kids are getting older, but they’re still kids. And so, instead of always say, just buying a new toy, we try to go to secondhand stores and buy used toys or buy used books, encourage the kids to play with the toys they already have, especially plastic toys, because a lot of times, if a plastic toy breaks, it’s just going trash. And so we really did try to reduce our consumption of disposable plastic items.

Dr. Kristin Drexler: Very good. That’s great. That’s number one on the list. In fact, when I was teaching a course in Colombia, in Bogota, on sustainable development, the top sustainability issue from the students in my class, the very top sustainability issue on their radar is plastic waste. How to reduce plastic waste? How do you reduce it is by consuming less plastic or purchasing less plastic, choosing to not use single-use plastic.

So, that’s very good. Yeah, absolutely. I like how you brought that in. You ticked off several things on my list here. One was consuming less plastic, not buying new things, reusing what you have. So these are really great, because you’re avoiding waste, you’re reusing, reducing. Absolutely, these are great things.

So, the choices that we have in our houses and in our backyards, those are important choices. We can choose to be efficient. We can choose to be smart. We can choose to be resourceful and avoid waste, and sort of live like the people who lived before us, and they survived the Dust Bowl, and they’re scrappy and resilient, and resourceful. And they’re one of the best examples of conservation of resources that we have. We can model our behavior on them.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I like how you said that, there is a choice. We could continue to do what we’re doing and it’ll be a negative, but the better choice is to really think about how we live in this world, just like you said. We could wait for the government just to make a bunch of rules and the government’s just telling us what to do. But the better choice is to do things because it’s important to you, and this isn’t a right or a left issue. Just like you said, it’s living with nature.

As humans, we’ve done so many wonderful things, like food is not an issue anymore. It still is in many places, but for the most part, living in many countries in the world, there’s too much food. And then which people eat too much, or climate for many places doesn’t impact us as much. I live in Arizona. Somehow we live in Arizona because up to 120 some degrees, but we humans can live here.

And so humans have “conquered” a lot of the issues, but those issues are still there, and living with nature is still there. So what are some other aspects of your mnemonic device?

Dr. Kristin Drexler: Those are great points. The O, the next thing in COWRIITE, and one of the reasons why I love this COWRIITE so much, this mnemonic is because it implies that we’re working together to co-write a script, to co-write a new narrative. So, if we think of it this way, it’s a collective choice. So it’s individual choices, but it’s also a collective choice.

And remember how we were speaking about how we can be influencing other people. If we do this, and if collectively we are able to sort of shift the ship a little bit, we could be making better choices to sustain our own human existence, and those of wildlife and other critters on the planet. We could be sustaining our existence on the planet by working within the boundaries of the spheres that we live in among, the spheres being the biosphere, geosphere, et cetera.

So, to continue on the mnemonic, we’ve talked about the letter C standing for choice. O stands for offset. We’ve all heard about carbon offset. What does this actually mean? What does carbon offsetting actually mean? Is it something that only corporations do? No. It’s something that we can also do individually.

Offsetting is basically the money that you pay for a project that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, for example. So forestry projects, carbon sequestration projects. So, that means planting trees or protecting a forest, also means renewable energy, wind farms, things of that sort.

So, an important thing of offset too, is that it ties directly with Sustainable Development Goals that are global Sustainable Development Goals. And these are designed by the United Nations, and they include amazingly a lot of human systems. Things like inequality, justice, poverty, education, not just natural systems like water, life above ground, life below.

It’s not just nature and the environment that we’re talking about when we’re talking about sustainability and climate change, but it’s also poverty, justice, and education, and all these things influence an entire system of things. Whereas if you don’t have a robust entire system, where one or five elements are just completely failing, how can you have a strong, robust whole system?

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It’s difficult, for an example, India, huge country, beautiful country, beautiful culture. Hundreds of millions of people are poor in India, desperately poor, and it’s not a judgment. They have a very large population of people whom are poor. And it’s very difficult for people who are struggling for survival to say, “You know what? I’m going to help the environment,” when their number one goal is to just, “I need to help myself and my family do better and have more resources.” Resources in the sense, money and opportunity. It’s very difficult when you have millions of people in a country that are struggling to do better.

And so, it totally makes sense because if a government is basically consumed with that, it’s very difficult to say, “You know what? We’re really going to work on the environment.” and it’s very difficult to do that.

Dr. Kristin Drexler: Absolutely agree. A couple years ago, I helped produce a short film called Yochi, Y-O-C-H-I. This is a film about two brothers, but the younger brother is protecting a nest of yellow-headed parrots. Yellow-headed parrots, in Belize, especially, but all over, are endangered, to the degree of like 90% decline over the last 30 years or something to that effect.

So, it becomes a conversation about “us versus them.” So them being the poachers, “the bad guys,” but the issue is it’s not that issue at all. You have to kind of look at why people poach? People poach because they need money. They need money, why? Because they’re not employed, there isn’t the economic development that should be happening in certain regions, whatever the reason is.

But the thing is that there are reasons and it’s really up to us to not demonize other people because of their situation, their poverty situation, or resource degradation situation. It’s not up to us to demonize that, but rather, sort of understand that and work with it, to lift up that aspect of the system, and to contribute to a solution rather than compounding a problem.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Perfect. Perfect. What are the other letters of the mnemonic device?

Dr. Kristin Drexler: The other letters, thank you for asking, this is fresh off the press, by the way. Let’s see. We are at C-O-W. So W, I’m using for water and food, at an individual level, how to impact climate action. We can do so with our consumption and choices of water and food. So water, you live in Arizona, so reducing our water use. We could be using a drip form of irrigation rather than flood irrigation. There are all sorts of ways we can be conserving water. In our households, we could be choosing efficient faucets and shower heads. We can be using reusable containers rather than buying individual plastic containers of water. And we can be innovating, and I’ll get to innovating here as soon as we get to the I in COWRIITE.

Those are some ideas for water, conservation, food. You’ve also identified several things as well, Bjorn, with food. The choices we make for food, gardening, keeping and growing trees, supporting local farmers at your farmer’s markets, buying seasonal and local foods reduces transportation, which is a carbon footprint. You can be buying organic foods that have lower inputs, can be meeting your farmers and understanding their farming systems, can be cutting beef, cutting your dairy intake or eating more grass-fed beef.

You don’t have to cut beef all together. If you really love beef, choose to purchase a little bit extra expensive, perhaps grass-fed beef. By the way, the more people buy grass-fed beef, we can expect to see that the prices will adjust accordingly.

And then of course, you mentioned this before, Bjorn too, is reducing food waste. These are ways that as individuals, we can be addressing those things. Any examples in your household, Bjorn?

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It’s challenging because there’s so much with water and food. I always recommend people becoming more vegetarian. I’ll say they have to become vegetarian, but the average American, as about 2021, 2022, ate about 220 pounds of meat a year. And for industrialized Western countries, that was about the highest out there. And so cut that down. You don’t have to eat that much meat. That’s the average American. And so just cut it down and replace that with vegetables, and that would reduce meat consumption.

And so, those two things are good. Have a food forest in your backyard. If you don’t have a backyard, try to go to a local garden, a shared garden. And so, there’s just all these little things. Again, each of these is not going to fix any problem, but all of them together will contribute to a potential fix.

Dr. Kristin Drexler: Yeah, absolutely. To know that we can identify the problems and work towards a solution, that’s hugely meaningful. If you see a company that’s watering their grass and it’s in Phoenix, and they’re watering their grass at 2:00 PM in that blazing sun, well, you can make a call. You would like to speak to their sustainability office, please.

And if they don’t have one, then maybe that triggers some conversation they have within the company. Maybe you can start that conversation, write a nice letter. Being kind and nice is always a good approach. We’ve learned that from our parents and grandparents. Keep that going. We can learn a lot from them, talking back in the day, right?

And then realize that there is some power that you have to influence people into making the right decisions for collective climate action.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Perfect. And what’s the next letter?

Dr. Kristin Drexler: The next one is R. And this is where we’ve talked about this a little bit before, but these are the seven or eight or 15 Rs. I like these ones though. Rethink, refuse, reuse, repair, regift, recycle, and reduce. So in any order, I guess you could. There’s also recover, refurbish, but it’d be kind of cool for you to think about ways and sort of write it on a piece of paper or in the dirt or wherever, and just remember that these are things that we can be doing, to be a contribution towards the solution.

So refusing, for example, think of scenarios and how you will respond to these different scenarios. And I like to think about, you’re at a restaurant with friends and the waiter brings your water and all these straws. He just puts them on the table. So, what’s the first thing? Hand those straws right back.

There are some things that you can do to visualize your response to certain things. So just realize what those things are that you can do, and then sort of rehearse or practice in your brain what you’re going to do. And if-then scenarios, “If this happens, then I’m going to do this,” and then stick to it, you know? Stick to it, start these goals.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I really like that because whenever we go out, we don’t use straws. Of all the things in the world that people don’t need, are straws. It sounds funny saying that because I think we’ve all lived with straws our entire lives, but the only people who need straws are people who need it medically. There’s something that they’re struggling with and they need a straw to actually get liquid into their mouth. Everybody else doesn’t need a straw.

Now, if individually, we stop using straws, will that save the world? No. If everybody stops using straws, if everybody stops using disposable plastic cups, if everybody stops doing X, Y, and Z, then yes, that will dent into a huge problem. And then going back to one of the things you said before with reducing plastic waste, if people start demanding different products, then companies will then respond.

And so, if we started demanding like, “Hey, can you actually produce some things that are recyclable?” Then they will. And if you stop purchasing things that are non-recyclable, then they will. Now, if you passively just don’t think of anything and don’t change, then they won’t. And it takes thinking, just like you said, it takes concentration, and it takes that responding to all those different stimuli that we’re so busy and, “Got to get the kids here. I’ve got to work my full-day. I’ve got to work out somehow. I’ve got to be healthy somehow.”

It becomes a lifestyle. It sounds really funny saying that, but it really does, and it’s not a bad thing because I’m a parent. And if you think of, do you want your family and your kids, or your nieces and nephews, do you want them to inherit a world that they can look and say, “You know what? I’m going to live a long, healthy life?” Of course, no matter where you are, no matter Republican, Democrat, anybody, you’re going to say, “Of course, I want that.” And so it all takes work together.

Dr. Kristin Drexler: Couldn’t have said it better myself. That’s exactly right, Bjorn.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And so, so far, Kristin, this has been an absolutely wonderful podcast. And so we went over your mnemonic device about how to remember ways we can help out. And can you tell us what have we gone through so far?

Dr. Kristin Drexler: Sure. Yeah. This is specifically about what we can do as individuals to be a part of the solution for climate action and sustainability on the planet that we live on. So we have gone through C-O-W, and R. We began speaking about R, and I think next time we can pick right back up in our COWRIITE mnemonic.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Perfect. So in part two of this podcast, we’ll go over the I-T-E, which is very exciting. So we’ll complete this COWRIITE mnemonic device about helping. Any final words for this podcast?

Dr. Kristin Drexler: It’s so important for us to realize what we can do as individuals to impact, to be part of a solution for a global problem. It’s not all doom and gloom. If we are able to understand our role, our place in the system and take action, even better collective action to work towards solutions, then we are securing a place on the planet for us and our future generations. So it’s absolutely worth having this discussion.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Perfect. Today, we’re speaking with Dr. Kristin Drexler and we’re talking about individual ways to fight climate change. And of course, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and thank you for listening.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music in his spare time.

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