Climate Change – Our Impacts and Our Roles


Last week, we were asked to take an ecological footprint quiz. Many students in the class were surprised, and perhaps a little disappointed, about their scores despite their efforts to be more environmentally and socially conscious. Some shared that their lifestyle here in Berkeley is different from where they were living before. For some, the change has enabled them to incorporate more sustainable behaviors, such as bicycling or using public transit rather than drive. Others shared that their current lifestyle as a student has made living sustainably more difficult – some must travel longer distances to visit home, and some shared that they are more tempted to buy packaged and processed foods due to constrained time and income. As Kolbert and Vitousek et al. discuss, human actions significantly impact the environment. However, this exercise made me consider the ways in which the environment impacts our actions, and how we must adapt to our environment. In light of the constraints and challenges that we experience in our current lifestyles, how can our actions and behaviors contribute to climate change mitigation and sustainability goals rather than exacerbate climate change?

From individual behavior changes to larger scale shifts in how we produce energy, design our transportation systems, and construct our housing, everyone can play a role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Climate action plans provide a framework for local, state, and regional governments to set benchmark goals, devise and implement a plan for reaching the goals, and set up a mechanism for monitoring progress. Wheeler brings this one step further by arguing that in addition to mitigation, we need to put more attention into adaptation and how we will cope with the inevitability that the earth will continue to get warmer.  He provides some examples of adaptation strategies such as moving development away from possible flooding and rising sea levels, preparing for drought and increased risk of wildfire, designing buildings to remain cool in hot weather, diversifying crops in agricultural areas, and preventing food shortages in the developing world. I would like to add social cohesion as another adaptation strategy that can help ensure that the most vulnerable populations, which are often times low-income and/or under-resourced, are not disproportionately impacted by climate change. Wheeler draws a connection between climate change action and social equity, stating that “…if poor people simply have more adequate and secure incomes they will be able to cope with climate change in ways similar to better-off individuals” (Wheeler, 2013, p. 115). I think that while alleviating poverty can help address some of the root issues of climate justice, the social ties and access to community resources that a person has can also go a long way in climate change adaptation. For example, during extreme weather events such as hurricanes and heat waves, support from neighbors can be the most important method for survival, especially when external aid is not available. In the case of Hurricane Katrina, many residents were not able to evacuate because they lacked access to transportation or alternative shelter. Similarly, during heat waves, seniors who are socially isolated are more vulnerable to adverse health effects.  If they are not affiliated with any community organizations such as a church or senior group, neighbors may not know to check up on them when emergency events occur.

While the consequences of human activities and global warming will have long-term effects, Vitousek et al. emphasize that there have already been serious immediate impacts on our land, oceans, air, and wildlife. Climate change mitigation and adaptation is an urgent issue, not just one of the future, but the challenge, as Wheeler points out, is that it is not a high priority for most people.  What does it take to instill a sense of urgency? Are there opportunities to shift the awareness, sense of responsibility, and political will of this generation and future generation?


8 thoughts on “Climate Change – Our Impacts and Our Roles

  1. aldotudela7

    Thanks for this thoughtful post. I guess this made me think what needs to be promoted more in current planning strategies, mitigation or adaptation? Is it too late for mitigation efforts? Should we concentrate now on how to survive only? These are only question that raised to my mind while reading this post, any comment you want to give me would be great.

  2. jennamhahn

    Everyone can play a role – but sometimes the institutions aren’t even set up to allow for that. We are lucky in Berkeley that we have so many options of disposing of our waste to include composting and recycling. However, when talking to some friends in other states, they don’t have any of those options, and it is actually commonplace for residents or businesses to just burn their own trash – talk about environmental and health disaster! But for them, when visiting California, they were shocked by everything we are doing. There are so many things that are out of our control for what makes our ecological footprint so large. Having basic services such as electricity, sewers, freeways, etc. demand energy and resource use at a large scale. It obviously is ideal to begin finding alternatives, however, the biggest “bang for our buck” probably isn’t going to come from individuals. It is probably going to come from organizations and institutions of scale. For example – a company with 100,000 employees may make a choice to convert to all LED light bulbs – a seemingly simple choice – however it saves thousands of megawatts per year. Getting large-scale changes, however, does in fact start with the individual – from creating consumer pressure on companies, and voting for more progressive policies. So there definitely is value in teaching individuals about sustainability, so we can all incorporate changes, but I think the real value comes when individuals are empowered to make system-wide changes – a luxury not every country has. Getting everyone on the same page will be difficult – as we continue to see in the international sphere – but cities are beginning to collaborate and take adaptations into their own hands, understanding many of the direct climate-related challenges they face.

  3. I definitely agree. I was some of the people who realized how much my air travel to go visit home impacted my ‘eco-score.’ Growing up in Europe I have always biked, walked, and used public transit to reach my destinations within the city, i.e. for my daily routine. Even after moving to the US, and living in a small town in Texas and the midwest for five years, I never bought a car. However, I would need to get rides with friends often and thus used private vehicles as a mode of transport for my everyday routine.
    On the other hand, I grew up eating all sorts of food, never realizing how much what we eat also impacts our environmental footprint. Once I moved to California, I became more aware of these things, and started eating much less meat and seafood. Although these changes were also due economical reasons, it is very interesting to see how changes in our environment, changes of the people around also change our ecological footprint in many ways.

  4. frobertsgregory

    Thanks for your thoughtful response. First, I would like to say that I am always disappointed in my ecological footprint quiz results. For that reason alone, I can see why some individuals would find working from home or telecommuting promising or attractive. Most of my unsustainable behavior comes from traveling to and from school using uber cabs when I could easily stay at home and watch lectures online…..and I agree that the university system as a capitalist endeavor extracts all it can from its’ students so that many of us turn to unsustainable behaviors in order to save time and money in the short run….. I think individual actions to reduce ghg emissions are important, but individuals aren’t emitting ghg like oil companies and other corporate players. Adaptation for me must include reducing current levels of consumerism and switching to a zero waste, carbon neutral economy. I also agree that social cohesion is important as well as anti-oppression training for communities to facilitate social cohesion. There can be no climate justice without gender justice. Unfortunately, I also agree that more people will likely die and investments will be lost before a greater sense of urgency is found in the USA. Schools and evangelical churches might be the key to re-educating a critical mass of the public if we could ever find common ground……

  5. This post really resonated with me. As I was reading your section on social cohesion, I started thinking of the heat wave in the 1990s in Chicago…and then you brought it up! Social cohesion is HUGE for equitable sustainability. Humans are social beings and I believe that alleviating poverty must include rebuilding trust and connections not only between communities, but also between communities and governmental entities. In considering climate change and natural disasters – trust and respect between the community at risk or in danger and the government (the primary entity responsible for launching a population level response) will be absolutely necessary for adaptation and also emergency responses. It is pretty difficult to alleviate a community of poverty without also rebuilding relationships that have been damaged from legacies of oppression. This social component impacts the how we learn, work, play, travel, etc.

  6. Your post is very interesting and relates to a lot of the things I question in planning, especially “this exercise [Ecological Footprint] made me consider the ways in which the environment impacts our actions, and how we must adapt to our environment.” I grew up in Staten Island, NY and once I had a car, I pretty much drove everywhere (despite taking buses and transit beforehand). Once I went to college that pretty much stopped and suddenly anything less than 2 miles became walkable, I started taking transit again, and I got a bike, and this behavior has continued throughout my move to DC and to Berkeley. However, it all disappears again as soon as I step foot in Staten Island. I constantly wonder why? What is it about the physical fabric of my hometown that makes a half mile suddenly seem like a distance to drive vs. walk? Or is it just as much the culture as the planning? I am attracted to sustainability because I think we can embrace it as a positive change in our lives, like not needing a car, and as planners, we can even trick people into changing their behaviors (maybe), and they can be happier for it instead of relating it to a restriction on personal freedoms, or needing to be hot in the summer because AC is bad, or something that is only for hippies.

  7. caitlintouchberry

    I’d like to highlight one of the pessimistic views in that it may take extreme events for climate change mitigation and adaptation to become priority and an urgent issue. For example, PlaNYC, which we briefly discussed in class and is arguably one of the most progressive planning efforts in integrating climate change mitigation and adaptation, became that way after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The storm demonstrated the need for a long-term resiliency plan in which the City responded with a report called A Stronger, More Resilient New York. Unfortunately, it may be too late if actions are not taken before extreme events occur.

  8. niavila

    I enjoyed reading your post and I really like that you brought up the subject of “urgency”. I think one way of promoting a sense of urgency with climate change is changing the social narrative. Stories about daily impacts of climate change, like floods and droughts, remove the sense of invincibility that I think plagues most of us today especially in the developed world. We are shielded from the consequences of our actions. One way the narrative has been changed is through this series: “Years of Living Dangerously”. Check it out at

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