A Monday report from U.N. scientists forecasts a bleak future for the planet if people continue burning coal, oil and gas.
“This report must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels, before they destroy our planet,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement.
Scrolling through such gloomy projections can lead to a sense of “climate despair,” a condition of feeling helpless against impending doom.
But, people are not powerless. An individual in Berkshire County cannot singlehandedly stop climate change, an effort that will require action from governments across the world. But, local organizers say, there are actions that everyday people can take to shake off defeatism and hold those in power accountable.
Organize with a group
Pauline Banducci, of Monterey, says she always has been “concerned” about climate change, although she previously didn’t know much about what she could do about it.
“I waited until I retired, but I wish I’d done it sooner,” she said. “If two years ago you asked me what are carbon emissions and where do they come from, I would have looked at you blankly.”
In 2019, at the recommendation of her sister, Banducci joined the new Berkshire County chapter of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, an international nonpartisan advocacy group. That group seeks to build political support for climate action by holding conversations between constituents and their elected officials.
Working with a group is a way for people to become educated about actions they can take, but it also can help build the collective power necessary to make change, said Judy Gitelson, a longtime member of the Berkshire County node of 350 Massachusetts, an international group.
“That’s the only way we’re going to get anything done, by getting people together,” Gitelson said. “It gets tough because the people against us have a lot of money and they have the ear of powerful people.”
Contact government officials
Through Citizens’ Climate Lobby, Banducci now helps other people make calls to their elected officials for the first time.
“I’ve held their hand through it, and people who have been nervous have felt that it’s a lot easier than it might seem,” she said. (A template is available for writing emails to Congress.)
Citizens’ Climate Lobby members have pushed for a “carbon fee and dividend” proposal, which would charge a price on fossil fuels when they first are sold into the economy and distribute that money to households as an energy subsidy. Gary Rucinski, the group’s state coordinator, expressed hope that the Monday report would encourage constituents “to flood Capitol Hill with requests” to include a version of that proposal in the infrastructure bill before the Senate. The infrastructure bill cannot be blocked by a filibuster.
Jane Winn, executive director of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team, said she agrees about the importance of engaging with the democratic process.
“I really appreciate all the little things that people can do in their own lives, but really the most important thing people can do is vote,” Winn said. “And after you vote, stand up to that elected official. Make sure that they’re doing what they promised to do.”
Rosemary Wessel, the director of BEAT’s No Fracked Gas in Mass initiative, added that it also is necessary to hold state agencies accountable. BEAT frequently submits testimony to the state Department of Environmental Protection, which is charged with reviewing emissions permits.
After finding a local power plant on the list of Berkshire County’s top polluters, BEAT leaders penned a letter to the owner of Pittsfield Generating, asking about the possibility of switching to clean energy. The company did not respond, and BEAT members and allies have protested from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. every Friday since July 2 at Dalton and Thorndyke avenues.
The campaign since has gained the support of more than 20 local groups, including the Lee Select Board, the Berkshire County branch of the NAACP and several boards of health, including Pittsfield’s. BEAT is counting on the public display of opposition to pressure Hull Street Energy, which owns the plant.
“Showing up at the rallies, and having people honk as they drive by, takes away the social license for Pittsfield Generating to keep polluting our air,” Winn said.
Change individual behaviors
Several calculators are available for people to estimate their “carbon footprint,” a measure of how their lives impact greenhouse gas emissions. But, that tool was popularized by oil giant British Petroleum as part of an effort to shift responsibility away from companies and onto individuals.
Although few individuals can create change at the scale that is possible for large companies, individuals can play a role in decreasing emissions by taking such actions as limiting food waste, reducing energy use or switching to an electric vehicle — if they have the resources to do so. People also can choose to spend and invest less in high-emissions companies, although individual actions alone are unlikely to change industries such as fashion.
Winn said the state also should boost its incentives for people to install solar panels on rooftops and that utility companies can do better with programs for weatherization of homes. Those reforms, she said, can help make it financially viable for people to make changes as they would like.