APU Environmental Exploring STEM Podcast

Fighting Climate Change, One Personal Choice at a Time (Part 2)

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

There are plenty of things individuals can do to have positive impacts on the planet. In the second part of this series, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to APU professor Dr. Kristin Drexler about the value of acting individually and locally and how when done collectively, can have a huge impact on a global scale. 

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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello. My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer and today we’re talking with Dr. Kristin Drexler, full-time faculty in the School of STEM. And today we’re talking about how individuals can help fight climate change, tips on how to reduce your carbon footprint. And so, welcome, Kristin.

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

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. And this is actually part two. We already recorded part one of this podcast of ways in which we individually can help. You like to use a mnemonic device, correct? Called COWRIITE. Can you give us a brief overview of what we already talked about with the C-O-W-R?

Dr. Kristin Drexler: Yes, absolutely, I’d be delighted to. Actually, this mnemonic or acronym, COWRIITE, was actually built, it was inspired by our podcast here. Instead of being depressed about climate change and the bleak outlook that we heard about last year during COP26, instead of thinking that this is a global thing that’s unsolvable, we need things that we can do, that we can do locally, individually, and collectively to make a difference. How do we do that? This is a big challenge. We know already some things to do, but I figured why not create an acronym to help us remember what we can do locally to influence global climate change.

And so, I created a mnemonic device called COWRIITE, as in, “Let’s co-write our climate future.” And COWRIITE outlines the daily local steps that we can do to reduce our carbon footprint. And, as long as we do this as individuals, as locals, and collectively, we can make an impact to a global issue.

The first part of COWRIITE is C, choice in conscientious consumption. The C being consumption, smart consumption. And O is offset, as in carbon offset. W is water and food. R is for the seven Rs. So, we can review a little bit about what those are.

So, the C in COWRIITE stands for choice and consumption, so being conscientious of our consumption habits. As consumers, we have choices to consume less or in more sustainable ways. A lot of our climate impact and our carbon emission is related to the money that we spend, so how do we do that in a smarter way? You can include things like consuming less, especially fewer or no single-use plastics, re-using containers instead of buying new. Buying reusable things, not buying new clothing, for example, or buying a lot less new clothing, consuming less fuel, carpooling more. Things like that. Riding your bikes.

I was listening to a podcast the other day, if I could interject this bit, this was really interesting. The whole idea with co-writing our climate future is reducing carbon impact, right? And so, to do that, we may want to consider, and I would highly recommend considering a climate calculator. One I just learned about on a podcast I listened to is CoolClimate. If you Google CoolClimate calculator, you’ll get something from the CoolClimate Network out of Berkeley. This asks you a bunch of questions. You can just type in your answers right into the interactive website and it’ll give you a climate calculated comparison of individuals in your area, the same or similar economic situation, household situation. So, it’s really interesting to be able to compare your climate footprint to others so that you know what it is that you can do to have the most impact.

That climate calculator was built by Chris Jones. He’s the director of CoolClimate Network and also the architect of this calculator. So that’s the first thing, is to be able to know, to have the data, to be able to speak to, “Okay, this is my carbon footprint. These are the things that I’m buying. These are the things that I’m doing that are creating the most impact.”

So getting a climate calculator and understanding how you compare to other people, that’s the first things can do, and you can do that right from your home. So, once you understand that, you understand what you can be doing to make an impact to reduce your footprint, that’s important. That’s an important part of the equation. When we’re trying to reduce our carbon footprint, it’s important to know what our footprint is, right?

So the second part of that, the O is carbon offset. What can we do to reduce or offset the carbon that we’re emitting? And in this context, it’s not just offsetting, it’s attaining a balance, being carbon neutral as much as possible.

So globally, this is a concept of compensating for our greenhouse gas emissions by funding an equivalent carbon dioxide saving somewhere else on the planet. So, a carbon offset project is more of an investment that you make in a project somewhere else on the planet. That’s really what that is.

Offset projects could be participating in certified forestry projects for carbon sequestration, for example. Planting trees or protecting forests or supporting wind farms that don’t necessarily happen or occur right where you are locally, but that’s what generally carbon offsetting means. It could also be social projects, investing in education and employment, or reducing income and inequality and alleviating poverty. And you wonder like, “Wait a second, how does poverty or income inequality, how does that play into the overall factor of reducing climate change impact, or even our carbon footprints?” And it does, it actually does.

The W in COWRIITE is water and food. So food security is probably the hottest topic on the planet right now. How is it that we are going to be providing food and water for an almost 8 billion people in the planet right now? In the past 10 years, we thought, “Oh, we’ll get to 9 billion at 2050.” Nope. It’s going to happen way faster than that.

So, how do we deal with our consumption of food and water? How is it that we provide this for a growing population on the planet? Examples of how we can reduce our water consumption could include drip irrigation. Last time we talked about xeriscaping, fixing leaky faucets, things of this nature.

How to manage our food consumption and really focus on diet, looking at eating less meat and dairy, eating less beef and dairy, right? Eating organically, purchasing from local farmers markets, things of that sort. These are the things that people can do to empower themselves to reduce their carbon footprint, which has a global climate benefit.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And we could go on forever and I’ve had a podcast with a different faculty about food consumption, and it’s very complicated. It’s extremely complicated. And it goes much more beyond, Oh, I should just do X or Y. It goes into how you were raised and your background and your family and what you’ve been exposed to. There’s so much to it, but, continue.

Dr. Kristin Drexler: Absolutely. Yeah. And the idea here, what we talked about on part one last time was that if we are able to identify and remember to do these local household activities, collectively, maybe we influence other people to do the same. Maybe we influence our entire campus. And now we have tens of thousands of people doing the same thing, taking the same challenge to reduce our carbon footprint by these activities locally we do at home. Well, then, we’re making an impact if we do it collectively. So, there is reason to hope for this. There is reason to hope.

The R in COWRIITE stands for the seven Rs, actually. The seven Rs, if you’re looking at the University of Colorado’s Environmental Center, seven steps to live zero waste. These are the seven Rs: rethink, refuse, reduce, reuse, repair, regift, recycle. Rethinking plastic straws, reducing consumption, reusing shopping bags, repairing rather than throwing away, re-gifting items you don’t want. And then recycling as much as you can. And now we are at I, invest.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. And so I’m excited to hear, because I really like COWRIITE to me for a lot of individuals, when you go through the C-O-W-R and then you go, I-I-T-E, since there’s two Is, individually, it can be very overwhelming, like, “Oh my gosh, there’s so much I have to do,” but if you just focus on it and it becomes part of your habit, like any other habit we do in our lives, it’s something that we can do and have a positive, constructive outcome for not only ourselves, in maybe changing our diet or our different habits and things like that, but also for the world and our community. Yeah, I’m excited to hear about the latter part of COWRIITE

Dr. Kristin Drexler: The first I in COWRIITE is invest. So when we’re talking about climate action, we want to put our money where our mouth is. So that’s the invest part. How do we do this? How do we put our money where our mouth is other than by consuming less, but what do we put our money into to make an impact?

One way is by investing in what’s called ESG funds, which are environment, social, and governance responsible funds. So, if you have a retirement account, for example, you have benefits of this sort, you request your financial manager to invest in ESG funds that make a positive influence for climate change. So, the ideas behind this are that if you’re looking at environmentally conscious companies, you want to know what that company’s carbon footprint is, do they use toxic chemicals in their manufacturing process? What are their sustainability efforts? What’s their supply chain? Et cetera.

The social impact, how does the company improve its social impact in the community? Is there a focus on LGBTQ, racial, gender equality? Does this company advocate for social justice, equity, things of that sort, right? And we understand that this is all part of the multidisciplinary nature of climate change. You have to address all of these social, environmental, economic, governance, all of these types of things you have to incorporate in the system.

What we’re looking at, climate change is a system-problem so we need system-solutions. The governance part of the ESG funds is companies leadership. So driving positive change, workforce, diversity, how they respond to shareholders, things of that nature. So by investing in ESG funds and doing it collectively, that’s the second part, and doing it collectively, that’s going to make the change.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I’m glad you’re talking about investing, because for me, I always like to tell people that I’m an ardent capitalist, and so if you’re an ardent capitalist and you believe in say capitalism, and then you should vote with your dollars. And by voting with your dollars, you’re going to invest in the things that are important to you. And by investing into things that help the environment, that’s a good thing. And by investing in items and goods and services and ideas that help the environment, it’s also creating products that help people. So one can invest, even make money in things that are “green.”

Dr. Kristin Drexler: That’s exactly right. Yeah. The second I in COWRIITE is innovate and automate, so innovate and automate. I just wanted to plug this again. You all have heard this before, “The Science Talks with Dr. Drexler and Friends.” This is where I visited last year during COVID, the quarantine and when students had to go home and do homeschooling Zoom classes, they’re back in school now, but back then, not too long ago, I was invited to Zoom into a fifth-grade class in California. And I was really amazed at how smart these fifth graders were.

So, talking about innovation, that’s where we’re headed here, so an idea from a fifth grader, when we were doing the science fair projects, he was talking about and had engineered drawings and everything for a pitch that he was making for bathroom, shower water, reuse into the toilet to be used to flush the toilet instead of fresh, potable water to be used in toilets. And that makes sense.

If we think about 50 years from now, these future historians will look back on us and say, “Well, what were you thinking? You’re in the desert, you’re wasting potable water on lawn. Wait a minute.” That kind of thing. So we need new ways to innovate. We need to get common sense. We need to act locally and where we are. We need to be cognizant of where we are and how we should be acting in a sustainable way, and then listening to young people in their innovations and then teaching, also teaching how we want the world to be.

In fact, there’s this book I want to tell you about this book, so I’m going to segue into this book I just heard about. “The World Becomes What We Teach: Educating a Generation of Solutionaries.” The idea is to “create a more sustainable, equitable and peaceful world and we have to reimagine education and prepare a generation to be “solutionaries”, so young people with knowledge, tools, and motivation to create a better future”. That’s a little bit of the excerpt of that book description. But, this is exactly what I’m talking about when I’m describing the fifth graders in their innovation and engineering solutions. So, I think this is really great.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. I absolutely love that. And I really love the reuse aspect of it and how you talked about, I live in the desert and there’s lots of green grass around here and honestly, we don’t need green grass. And I’m not saying because it’s my own personal taste, but if Phoenix area wants a bunch of golf courses, great, let’s have green grass for the golf courses. And then everybody else can have xeriscape, like we talked about before. Desert landscaping is beautiful and you can literally plant a bunch of plants and not require any drip system.

And then if you want to have a food forest in your backyard where you’re growing some of your own stuff, absolutely wonderful, but really be cognizant of where you live. Just like you said, if you live in Michigan, there’s a lot of water everywhere, which is great. If you live in Phoenix, there’s not that much water.

Dr. Kristin Drexler: It’s our ability to adapt, isn’t it? To be conscientious of where we are and not trying to dominate or do something that’s unnatural, but really we have to be the flexible ones if we want to stick around on this planet. We have to be the flexible ones.

And, in this case, since climate change is human caused, the good part about this it’s not all doom and gloom, but the good part about this is because we are actors in it we can also be actors in finding solutions. So, that’s what this is all about. That’s what COWRIITE is about. This is about co-writing our climate future.

So, we have to feel empowered about this, but the second part of that is not just empowered individually and locally, but collectively. How do we get other people to do the same thing? So, it’s feeling knowledgeable, empowered, and proud enough to spread the word and get other people to do what we all know we should be doing, really.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And I think when it comes to climate change for a lot of people, for old, young, everything in between, it is very easy to feel like you can’t contribute because oftentimes the stakes are so high and the world going to end. And it’s one of those things where the world’s not going to end, actually. Humans might end. Humans need to do whatever they can to make sure that this earth is a place for humans to live because the planet existed billions of years before humans, and it’ll exist billions of years after, so even from a completely selfish perspective, we need to help the environment to help ourselves. And if you view it from that perspective, then it’s a very simple calculation. We need to help the environment to help ourselves. It’s absolutely wonderful. And can you walk us through the last two letters of COWRIITE?

Dr. Kristin Drexler: Absolutely, Bjorn, and thank you so much for letting me share this with your audience today. One of my hopes is that we learn and we remember, and we act on co-writing our climate future. So thank you for letting me share this.

So, the last two elements in COWRIITE are T and E. T for transportation and telecommuting. So, that’s a double one. The idea of green public transportation. So electric buses, vehicles fueled by biofuels, community e-bikes. These are the other types of innovation, but specific to transportation. So, we’re reducing our use of private vehicles. That’s actually the big thing. That’s the big thing. You’ll notice when you do your carbon footprint calculator, the first thing is cars.

In fact, there’s the Cs on the podcast I was listening to with Dr. Chris Jones, the CoolClimate Network, the four biggest areas of emissions are cars, first, coal, cows, and consumption. We’ve tackled several of those in COWRIITE so far, but cars being the first one. So that’s important. We have to get our transportation under control and by that I mean, our own personal choices in transportation under control.

Another part of this transportation puzzle is not just using our cars less, opting for electric or hybrid cars, something that has really good gas mileage, or maybe ride your bike. Another part of this is maintaining your car to maintain your car, having proper air in your tires, ensuring your engine is running and functioning well. Those are very important things to reduce your carbon emission, right? If you have a rack on your car, like a hitch rack versus a roof rack? That reduces the aerodynamic drag increases fuel efficiency, right?

Just little things that you know you can make better. You know you can make better, do it. It’s time to do it now. Good driving habits too. This is important. The good driving habits, avoid speeding on the highway. If you don’t speed, if you use the cruise control, you’re good, and not accelerating fast, accelerating fast is not good for a fuel economy. And then avoiding of course, heavy traffic.

Just a quick segue. I was in Bangkok several years ago with my sister. I was visiting her. She’s working at a university. Anyway, we were in Bangkok traffic, literally stuck for 45 minutes in this and it was a parking lot on a highway. Absolutely atrocious.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I love that you’re talking about cars because it’s the one thing that all Americans have to deal with. Most Americans, I should say. There are some places where you don’t have cars, maybe in New York City, maybe Chicago, but even Chicago I think most people have to have a car. And it’s one of those things that for me, I would love to throw the car out. I hate driving, but again, living in Arizona, there is public transportation, but it is difficult. And it’s one of those realities that with the recent war in Ukraine, where gas prices has shot up and people are all aghast with gas prices, and it’s one of those things where we should really look at ourselves as a country and be like, electric vehicles have been around since the eighties, we could have done something and transitioned a lot of our vehicles to electric by now, but we chose not to.

And so, to me, that’s where one of the choices today is pure economics. We can transition and then we’re not reliant upon gas as much, but we need to do it as a government and as a people, like you said, as individuals. People can buy Teslas and they can buy electric cars, but even then they’re not as available yet. So even then, if you wanted to, it still takes some time. And, unfortunately, with all this, it takes time.

Dr. Kristin Drexler: Yeah. Precisely our dependence on fossil fuels at this point, how is it that we are still… And it’s growing. I mean, our population’s growing. It’s something that we have to address. One way we can do it is by the… I guess, maybe one, small blessing of COVID-19 was that it forced a telecommuting thing, reduction of air emission impact from private vehicles. It was a short-term benefit. We’re back to where we were, but another side of that, but the argument against telecommuting is that you’re using a lot of electricity, PC power. That stuff is not free. That stuff is not carbon neutral or you’re not saving much with that because a lot of times in the place I live, coal power. So, unless you’re completely solar power or another type of renewable energy, then your carbon footprint is going to be… You’re going to show that on the carbon calculator.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Right. And that’s where it’s tough, because to me, ideally, you could telecommute or work from home versus having a commute one way 40 minutes, the other way 40 minutes. And yes, there is more electricity. And again, that’s where it takes time, where people could start slowly getting solar panels, more efficient solar panels. The solar panels today are so much better than they were 20 years ago. And then just imagine what they’re going to be like in 20 years from now. Every roof should be a solar panel. To me, that’s not illogical. But again, it takes time. And we’re to the last letter, I believe?

Dr. Kristin Drexler: The E is for energy, particularly green energy. So our dependence, again, we were talking about this just a second ago on fossil fuels. The fossil fuel production is expected to continue to rise. So we’re going to be reaching a new record in 2023. This has to do directly with our dependence on oil and other fossil fuels. So, transitioning to more renewable forms of energy, that’s what’s really important, not just for the environment, for social, economic, geopolitical factors as well. All of these things can be impacted by our use of green or clean energy. So, that includes what solar, wind, geothermal types of energy.

So, if you can, consider using solar, but other ways that you can be conscientious of your energy consumption, there’s probably like a thousand ways you can reduce your footprint in this way, but some things you can do at home are turning off your lights, unplugging your appliances that you’re not using. If you have an appliance plugged in just on your kitchen shelf or something, that’s drawing on electricity. So unplug that thing if you’re not using it. Unplug it and store it.

Having low pressure faucets and shower heads, energy conscious appliances, energy smart appliances, we talked about xeriscaping, automating your thermostats, composting your food waste, about 25% of the food we buy is wasted. So, buying what you need and then composting the stuff that can be composted. That’s great. So using those types of habits, developing those types of habits is really what we want to do to co-write our climate future.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. It’s all just habits. It’s all focusing your energy on things that you can change, and there’s so many things you can change. Even composting. We started composting, I don’t know, four years ago and it just becomes a habit and we’re able to create a lot of the nutrient-rich material that we use for our backyard, just from our own vegetable waste. And you do it for a year and then you have a good amount of really good compost material.

And again, everything is doable and this isn’t something that’s focusing on mainly young people or old people, because any grandparents out there I’m sure want their children and their grandchildren to inherit a world that is full of opportunity. And just like the kids today, the kids, as I say, young folk, they don’t want to mature into a world that they find is bleak and is deadly. And it depends on the messaging because there’s always a variety of different messaging coming from different people with different perspectives and different motivations, but, I’m always optimistic because even though there might be some short-term pain, as there always is in human existence, as long as we all continue to work on it, there will be a long-term solution. And that’s what we all have to hope for. Kristin, absolutely wonderful conversation. Any final words about COWRIITE?

Dr. Kristin Drexler: Well, thank you, Bjorn, again for letting me share it. And thank you also for inspiring this. This was something from our talk last year about COP26 and Glasgow and the United Nations getting together to talk about what we can and should be doing, what our governments can and should be doing to mitigate climate change and to respond to climate change impact and how that’s disproportionate in various areas of the world. It painted a bleak picture.

And so, when we talked about that late last year, about what was learned from COP26 it was this depressing conversation. Remember? And I came away from that thinking, “Gosh, there’s got to be something we can do locally.”

And there are. There are things we can do locally. And as long as we do them collectively and at a large scale, so not just the local scale, but community scale, and then city scale, and then nation scale, and then planetary scale, if we can start doing these things or continue to be doing these actions and getting other people… That’s the second part of this, right? Getting other people to do this with us, it can make a difference.

And the reason we want to do it, remember, is for human survival on the planet. We care about our continued presence on this planet. So, making it as easy as we can for as long as we can on the human race is really, that’s what we’re striving for. It’s worth doing, and it’s doable. We have to decide to do it, remember to co-write our climate future, remember those elements of COWRIITE, get other people to do it with you and then start measuring the impact.

Start with step one, is measuring your carbon footprint. So, find a carbon footprint calculator out there, compare your footprint to other people’s in your neighborhoods and in your local areas, see how you and your actions compare to other people in your area and start the conversation with friends, with family, with a network. Get involved in a community action organization to reduce climate change impact and reduce carbon footprint.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent and well said. And, today, we are speaking with Dr. Kristin Drexler 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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