Plus: Am I killing the planet with my old beater pickup? And how can I make my diet more sustainable without giving up all the good stuff?
Welcome to Temp Check, Mic’s new climate advice column. The news about climate change can be extremely overwhelming, we know, so we enlisted Devi Lockwood, author of 1,001 Voices on Climate Change: Everyday Stories of Flood, Fire, Drought, and Displacement from Around the World, to help. She’ll be part ethicist, part knowledgeable friend, here to guide you as we all try our best to prevent a climate apocalypse. Read on for this week’s advice, and then submit your questions to email@example.com.
Dear Temp Check,
My parents turned 70 this year and they’re getting ready to enjoy their retirement by going on a series of cruises. Now these aren’t the big Carnival type cruises through the Caribbean, but smaller cruises to smaller ports in the Mediterranean and Northern Europe. I think there are 70 to 100 people on the cruises they’re planning on taking, and an equal number of crew.
Now I know cruises are bad for the environment — but how bad are they really? By going on smaller cruises, are my parents being more environmentally friendly in their retirement? Or are they still part of the problem? Is the worst part of cruising the size of the boat, or the number and location of the ports? Is there a way I can steer them toward taking a cruise that’s more environmentally friendly? Or should I just let them enjoy their boomer golden years in the nightmare world their generation hath wrought?
You Cruise, You Lose
Dear You Cruise, You Lose,
Yes, cruises are bad for the environment. One cruise ship can emit as much particulate matter as a million cars. Many have been known to dump sewage, fuel, and trash directly into the ocean, which can damage fragile ecosystems. Engine noise can be hazardous to marine life, and then there’s the risk of animal collisions to worry about. While aboard a cruise ship, each passenger’s carbon footprint is roughly three times what it would be on land.
So, yes, the ideal would be to talk your parents out of a cruise, and into an on-land excursion. You might consider asking them what exactly they love about cruises. Is it the chance to be by the water? The fancy dinners? An excuse to dress up? Epic sunsets? Music? Social time with others in their age group? Many, if not all, of these things can be replicated on land and close to home, even omitting the need for a carbon-intensive flight. Understanding their motivations for booking a cruise might help you suggest other activities that satisfy those same impulses, but are less harmful to the planet.
If they are still dead-set on taking a cruise, there are some ways they could minimize their impact. In some cases, smaller cruise ships can be more sustainable, but it’s important to dig deeper. Friends of the Earth, an environmental advocacy group, issues a Cruise Ship Report Card that evaluates specific lines and ships. The score is based on sewage treatment, air pollution, water quality compliance, transparency, and criminal violations. Certain companies, like Lindblad Expeditions, have a better reputation and have won awards for not only sustainability, but also for giving back to communities on their route.
As for how to square letting them enjoy their hard-earned retirement with the climate disaster we’re living in, well, it’s the future of the planet we’re talking about here. You might remind your parents of the long view — and this is where philosophy can help. How do they want to be remembered as a good ancestor? And what actions can they take now that will ensure that they are viewed as a good ancestor in the long run? Yes, enjoyment is important, but their great-great-great grandchildren will care much more about the viability of the planet they inhabit than whether their ancestors were able to live it up on a boat.
Dear Temp Check,
I recently bought a used pick-up truck. It’s a real piece of crap — a 2000 Ford Ranger with a rusted out bed. I debated buying something newer, but because I live in New York City and don’t drive very often (the truck is mostly for beach trips and camping upstate) I went with the cheapest thing I could find.
I’ve told myself that this is a defensible decision from an environmental perspective because even though new cars might be more fuel efficient (or electric), when you factor in what it takes to construct a new car — materials, shipping, emissions from the car factory, etc. — it feels like driving something older for as long as possible is, in the end, maybe about the same, global warming-ly speaking? Is that right, or should I have just sold a kidney and bought a Tesla?
Trucked Up Conscience
Dear Trucked Up Conscience,
Your 2000 Ford Ranger gets around 20 miles per gallon. That’s not quite as bad as, say, a brand new 2021 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 with four-wheel drive, which is one of the least efficient trucks out there at 17 miles a gallon.
But it’s still not great.
Ultimately, what car you buy is a personal choice, and cost is a big part of the equation. Whether there is merit to driving a car longer and extending its life versus purchasing something new depends a whole lot on how much mileage you’re putting on the machine. It’s not as simple as wearing a sweater from 1985 or repairing your grandmother’s hand mixer to make it last longer.
If you want to get into the nitty-gritty of the numbers, the Department of Energy’s Vehicle Cost Calculator lets you compare the total cost of ownership and emissions for makes and models of most vehicles based on how much you drive. It might be wise, when weighing this kind of question in the future, to run various makes and models of cars you are considering to determine which choice is the least harmful.
Also: You live in New York City, which is consistently rated one of the most walkable cities in the country. Having a car in NYC is a pain for a billion reasons, one of which is the gridlock. Fuel efficiency dramatically decreases in this kind of environment; most cars are their most efficient at around 55 miles per hour, not in stop-and-go traffic. And then there’s parking. The city maintains some 3 million spaces on-street parking spaces, but vehicle registrations in the city jumped nearly 40% in 2020 alone. Driving is on the rise in part thanks to people’s hesitations about riding public transportation during the pandemic, but air pollution from traffic can be deadly, and congestion pricing will soon put a toll on drivers who enter the busiest parts of Manhattan.
It boils down to this: Ultimately, the decision to own a car isn’t just a you thing. You have to put your clunker in the context of everyone else who acted on the same impulse to purchase a set of wheels during the pandemic. Many people making the same decision at once inevitably impacts the places we live and call home. This is a good example of how some climate choices aren’t just individual decisions but systemic ones.
The good news is that American pickups are notoriously absurd and have gotten worse over time. So if you’re comparing your ancient pickup to a newer model of the same size, chances are that your older one will win out for minimal use and the occasional outdoor adventure.
Dear Temp Check,
Let’s assume, for the sake of delicious argument, that I’m not going to stop eating meat, or processed foods in general, anytime soon. Is there a way I can keep doing so, while still maximizing eating green — or at least minimizing the damage I’m doing otherwise — without totally breaking the bank?
Want More Green Without Having Less Green
Dear Want More Green Without Having Less Green,
You’re right to zero in on food as having a big impact on our individual carbon footprints; some estimates show that food accounts for as much as 30% of a household’s carbon footprint. Eating less meat in particular is a climate adaptation measure because it reduces pressure on land and water due to the intense amount of resources required to maintain livestock. There’s also the pesky problem of methane emissions from cattle, the number one agricultural source of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.
Fortunately, not all meat is created equal when it comes to the climate. Red meat is the worst in terms of emissions per pound of protein: Beef’s greenhouse gas emissions per pound are 7.2 times greater than chicken’s, for example. If you’re curious about how other types of meat measure up, check out this climate change food calculator created by the BBC. You can help offset your impact by choosing more sustainable forms of protein more often.
Local meat will also have a lower environmental footprint than meat that has been shipped from far away, so hit up your local farmer’s market and buy from there if you can. If you don’t have access to a farmer’s market, you can try to suss out where the meat at your grocery store is coming from and choose accordingly. Researchers at Oxford studying what prompts people to reduce their meat consumption have found that small strategies can really help, so you might try reducing the portion size of meat that you eat per meal if you must eat meat, or making one meal per day vegetarian.
Finally, you can consider other ways to reduce your impact on the planet if you simply must remain carnivorous. Flying less is a great place to start — a round-trip flight from London to San Francisco, for example, would emit 5.5 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per person, which is about equal to 500 hamburgers. If you’re curious about the various aspects of your own environmental footprint, check this out.