When Peter Kalmus was in graduate school for physics, James Hansen, known as the father of climate change awareness, spoke to his class.
Atmospheric scientist Peter Kalmus has reduced his carbon footprint to one-tenth of the average person’s. Photo courtesy of Peter Kalmus.
Hansen told the students that the earth was going to keep warming until an energy imbalance was rectified. That was when the seriousness of climate change hit Kalmus, he said. Before that, “it felt like science fiction; it felt like something that wasn’t real, that I wouldn’t have to worry about.”
He thought ” ‘This is huge, why isn’t everyone freaking out?’” Kalmus said in an interview with Rewire. After that, he tried to spread the word about climate change. But a lot of people didn’t want to hear it, he said.
“I got a little preachy; I was trying to get my friends to care about it and they didn’t care.”
Hansen’s talk was a major turning point in Kalmus’ education—one of the reasons he’d go on to devote his life to reversing climate change.
Today, Kalmus is an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, speaking on his own behalf, and the author of a new book, “Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution.”
But his “preachy” phase also taught him that to help change the trajectory of the earth, he needed to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.
“As I was getting more concerned about climate change, I realized a lot of my anxiety and guilt was coming from knowing how bad it was and not changing my life, not reducing my use of fossil fuels, not doing everything I could do to raise awareness and speak out,” he said.
Through some strategic lifestyle changes, he was able to cut his carbon emissions down to one-tenth of the average U.S. adult’s.
Rather than doomsaying, “I want to shift the culture by telling a new story,” he said, one that centers individual changes as not only necessary to fix climate change, but also accessible and even enjoyable.
What can you do?
If you want to make a change, first use a climate calculator to figure out how big your carbon footprint is and what areas of your life are responsible for most of your emissions.
Here are seven things in our lives that typically create the most emissions, Kalmus said:
1. Natural gas use
2. Electricity use
3. Air travel
4. Driving gas-fueled vehicles
6. Buying new stuff, especially new cars
7. Putting stuff in landfills
In Kalmus’s case, air travel was the biggest culprit. To solve that problem, he no longer flies. When he and his family go on trips, they either drive in their recycled vegetable oil-fueled car (yes, for real) or take a train.
If you don’t travel by air much, most of your emissions could be coming from using a non-electric car, or from creating lots of waste, or from eating factory-farmed meat (check out our interview with climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe for more on this). Kalmus’s second-biggest area for improvement was food—so he went vegetarian and cut his footprint by half.
Everyone’s lifestyle is a little different. Using the climate calculator will allow you to see where and how you can trim back your own footprint.
Planes, trains and (no) automobiles
When he first got inspired to do something about climate change as a student, Kalmus began biking everywhere he could.
“That wasn’t a big one for me; even before I started biking I just didn’t drive that much compared to the average person,” he said.
Peter Kalmus’s son helps him fix the axle on the family’s car that was converted to run on recycled vegetable oil. Photo courtesy of Peter Kalmus.
Today, with two school-age kids and all the extracurricular activities that entails, the family also drives an ’80s Mercedes Kalmus converted to run on recycled vegetable oil. He and a friend collect the oil from nearby restaurants.
The car has 360,000 miles on it, making it a senior citizen of the veggie oil car community, Kalmus said. Keeping it running longer is keeping it out of a landfill, he pointed out.
“I feel kind of bada** working on my own car,” he said. But “I would gladly give up that car in exchange for there being no more cars on the planet.”
Not only do traditional, gasoline-fueled cars emit greenhouse gases, manufacturing them also takes a toll on the planet, Kalmus said. Even if you were to purchase a new, no-emissons electric vehicle, it would take years to offset the energy it took to manufacture it, he said. Buying used—no matter what you’re in the market for—can cut the emissions you’re responsible for.
Jump into reducing food waste
Dumpster diving might have been a past-time for the edgy kids at your middle school. (Or maybe that was just my middle school?) But it’s actually really good for the planet, taking totally edible food and totally usable products out of the waste stream. In the U.S., an estimated $162 billion in food is pitched every year, a lot of it still good. That’s a ton of food waste, and a ton of stuff emitting greenhouse gas as it decomposes in landfills.
The first time Kalmus dumpster dove at a grocery store, he found a box of completely spotless eggplants. So he made a huge amount of baba ganoush.
“Once you realize the carbon cost of producing that food, you put two and two and two together,” he said. “I said, ‘Wow, I need to find a way to save some of that food.’”
Since then, he and a friend have built a relationship with a local grocery store that passes on its spoils to them. They bring the extra food to shelters that need it, and Kalmus’s family eats from it too.
Want to get in on this, too? He encouraged making connections and building partnerships with businesses near you that want to cut down on waste.
“A lot of what I do causes me to engage with the community more,” Kalmus said. A lot of his green living techniques, like growing some of his own food, involve other people. “Know your community… You just have to be on the scene and keep your eyes open.”
More than cars and panels
When people think about reducing their carbon footprint, the first things that come to mind are often solar energy and electric vehicles, Kalmus said.
But installing solar panels and purchasing an electric vehicle have not been part of Kalmus’s strategy for getting his emissions down to one-tenth of the average. The most significant changes have not only been free, but “really (save) money, too,” because “I’m operating from the waste stream,” he said.
On top of that, he’s enjoying his life more than he ever was.
“The really important point and probably one of the main reasons I wrote the book, I started to realize just like with biking, this stuff wasn’t bad, it wasn’t a sacrifice, it wasn’t something I dreaded, it was all kinda cool,” he said. “I like the worm bin and the composting and I kinda like the dumpster diving, too. I like operating a car on veggie oil. It’s fun stuff, and suddenly I can talk about this stuff without being preachy, hopefully, because I’m actually doing it.”
“Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution” goes into more detail about how you can make changes to drastically reduce your carbon footprint. Proceeds from sales of the book will go to climate action organizations.
By Katie Moritz
Katie Moritz is Rewire’s web editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz and on Instagram @yepilikeit.