BFM's Environmental Sustainability Group Concern for Earth What to Do? Spiritual Resources Education and Witness

What to Do

Note: Up-to-date guidance can be found in the guide Brian Berger prepared for BFM’s household energy efficiency workshop in February 2017 (Available as a Word Doc or a PDF).

BYM's two-page list of Next Steps is also a good compact guide.

A. Introduction

Climate change presents us with enormous challenges. The use of fossil fuels has altered our atmosphere, heated the planet and posed threats to our planetary future that are appearing sooner than climate researchers had anticipated. In the coming decades, the threats include melting glaciers and rises in sea levels that may be measured in feet.

Though the international community has been frustratingly slow to take action, a response is beginning to take shape. In October 2016, 55 countries representing 55% of emissions, including former holdouts China, India, and our own U.S.A., accepted the Paris Climate Agreement.

While international agreements may slow the effects of climate change through reductions in fossil fuel pollution, to many climate change feels overwhelming, and we as individuals can at times feel helpless. But there are significant steps we can take, as individuals, families and communities, to reduce our contributions to atmospheric carbon, mitigate the effects of climate change and help save this small planet.

B. Strategies and Carbon Calculators. Where best to focus?

A good first step is to "follow the carbon" by asking which of our activities, individually or collectively, burn the most of it. A carbon calculator such as Berkeley's CoolClimate calculator can be a great way to understand how activities around your home contribute to global warming. These sites allow you to enter info from your own house and life, then they calculate your carbon footprint (which in turn, implies a proportional climate impact). Baltimore Yearly Meeting asks Friends to calculate our carbon footprints and provides a factsheet with extensive guidance, including a calculator for congregations. The graph below illustrates contributors to the footprint of an average 4-person household in the United States.

The first thing to notice is the enormous quantity of CO2 we generate: about 16 TONS of CO2 per person per year. That is a lot of gas!

The second thing to notice is the sources: travel is the biggest category, followed by home, then food, and finally purchases of goods and services. Car fuel consumption is by far the largest component — though families that fly regularly will have a much larger air travel component than this chart might suggest. Home electricity use is the second largest category.

Average Carbon Footprint for a 4-Person Household in the U.S.

Source: Berkeley CoolClimate

So now we know where to look first for efficiencies: our car and our home energy use, followed by our food consumption. How can we do better? Are there ways we can reduce our footprints without sacrificing the joy of life?

C. Travel

Our Car

We can reduce the carbon footprint from our car in two ways: by driving less, and by driving more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Driving less could involve bundling multiple errands into a single trip, car-pooling with friends, or using other transportation such as walking, train, bus, or bike.

In terms of more efficient cars, we live in a time of exciting opportunities. Since 2000, hybrid cars have offered higher gas mileage than conventional vehicles. The leading hybrid model, the Toyota Prius, is rated at well over 40 mpg. Since 2011, plug-in hybrids like the Chevy Volt have offered even higher efficiencies, beyond 60 mpg. In theory, if you recharge your electric car using electricity generated from wind or solar power (see below on switching your home to clean electricity), then you are a rare wonder of the road, a sustainable driver!

2011 also saw the introduction of the all-electric Nissan LEAF, rated at the equivalent of 99 mpg. All-electric options have rapidly improved since then. In the luxury market, the Tesla Model S has become the top seller in the United States. The middle market will soon have at least 2 offerings providing long range at moderate cost. The Chevy Bolt, with a range of 238 miles, will be available for about $38,000 by the beginning of 2017. The Tesla Model 3, at about the same price, is expected to reach full production during 2018. At the low end of the electric car market, a used Nissan LEAF can now be purchased for less than $10,000.

One common question is whether the large amount of energy involved in manufacturing a car outweighs the efficiency benefits available from buying a new one. While making a car certainly requires a lot of energy, CoolClimate indicates that fuel consumption far outweighs the production footprint. Therefore, switching vehicles is likely to cut your overall footprint if your new car gets higher mpg or has electric drive.

Links to More Information about Environmentally Friendly Cars

Long Distance Travel and Vacations

Our culture knows the thrill of speedy long distance travel and especially air travel, an ancient human dream realized. Many of us must fly among distant cities for our jobs. Jet airlines have been around for long enough to seem normal, but they contribute an outsize climate impact (described here), due to altitude. Moreover the large energy requirements make it unlikely that widespread jet travel will become sustainable soon. Therefore adjusting our lives and culture to no longer hold flying-for-pleasure as normal and benign, becomes a candidate for a gift we can give the earth.

D. Household

Home Energy Audit

Here’s a quick place to make a difference and potentially save hundreds of dollars a year. It largely involves tubes of caulk, other inexpensive sealing materials for doors and windows, and attic insulation.

Many companies, municipalities and the US Department of Energy offer home energy audits for about $300 - 400. Some municipalities offer subsidies for low-income households. Maryland PEPCO customers can request a free ‘Quick Home Energy Checkup’, where an energy analyst spends about an hour at your house.

An energy audit is conducted by someone who has completed a certification process (important to ask before contracting someone.) It involves walking through your home, often with a thermal-gun, looking for drafts, the tell-tale clues that your home is wastefully losing energy. They look at fireplace flues, windows, doors, walls, ceilings and floors. They look in your attic and basement. More sophisticated audits involve creating vacuum seals in a room to more precisely measure heat loss. The contractor then draws up a report they send you with their findings along with specific recommendations to make your home more energy efficient. A few hundreds of dollars of simple work can save you as much as thousands the first year. It can also reduce your energy use dramatically, giving you boasting rights with your grandchildren about what you did to save the Earth.

The ideal auditing company is independent of the contractors who may carry out the work, to avoid a conflict of interest. Ask lots of questions large and small.

Brian’s family had a total of three energy audits, of differing levels of skill, and one conclusion was that it’s better to conduct an audit in the winter when there is a more pronounced difference between inside and outside temperatures. Then, it may be preferable to await the Spring thaw to tackle certain energy-saving tasks such as caulking the outsides of windows, as the caulk does not adhere as well in cold temperatures.

Sealing and Insulating your House

Much of our home energy use goes to heating and cooling. Sealing and insulating your house will improve efficiency and often improve comfort at the same time.

Perhaps the biggest savings will come with adding blown-in insulation in the attic, which can be done during any season. Brian’s family added 17 inches of insulation atop the old matted down stuff already there, and witnessed a precipitous drop in the energy bill.

Many older houses leak like sieves. Caulking and weatherstripping around doors, windows, and utility openings eliminates drafts while saving energy.

If your house has old single-pane windows, consider upgrading to more efficient double-paned windows. However, this is a relatively expensive upgrade, so should not necessarily be your first step.

Although our modern Western gas-powered culture has made it the norm to maintain buildings at a fixed temperature of perhaps 70 degrees, this consumes a lot of fuel, so it paradoxically destabilizes our climate. Even a slight change in this accustomed pattern, say, allowing our living rooms to be 5 degrees colder in winter and 5 degrees warmed in summer, could save a lot of carbon. This is an instance of a relative luxury enjoyed by people in temperate climates that is lacked by most people in the tropics, which is also where climate impacts generally hit the hardest. It is objectively unfair, although when I sit in my house, I do not feel that I am harming anyone. We have an opportunity to help by weaning ourselves, little by little, from this seductive but unsustainable expectation. For example, turn off furnace or AC during spring or fall days when the outside temp is moderate, or set thermostat higher in summer and lower in winter, perhaps compensating with fans, windows, sweaters, blankets, etc.

Furnace, water heater, AC, etc.

Companies today make very high-efficiency gas furnaces, which require retrofitting new intake and exhaust pipes. Some double as hot-water heaters. They generally claim about “95 percent efficiency.” Old houses that use electricity for heating and air conditioning can often benefit greatly (both reduced footprint and save money) from modern upgrades. Generally, a home that uses electricity for heat, AC and hot water will benefit the most from upgrades. However, these are expensive projects, costing in the thousands, so it is wise to speak to several heating/AC contractors to help estimate the cost, benefit, and savings, to determine whether such an investment makes sense.

Some high efficiency gas furnaces have variable speed blowers that automatically adjust air movement to maximize both comfort and efficiency. Such 'smart' furnaces can save with both gas and electricity. After installing a Carrier Infinity furnace several years ago, Keith’s family saw electricity usage during Spring and Fall drop about 30% — these savings may be unusually large, because it replaced an old and poorly maintained furnace.

But as any home energy auditor will point out, it doesn’t make sense to consider such an investment before the vastly simpler step of properly sealing up the house.

Other High-Efficiency Appliances

Efficiency standards for many major appliances have improved greatly in recent years. If you have an old appliance, consider replacing it. Refrigerators and front-loading washing machines in particular have gotten much better.

Choosing your Source of Electricity

As more wind farms are built, the cost of wind power has been slowly dropping, and in 2016 is only a few percent over the price of coal-based electricity. Wind power costs a little more, but it helps bring the needed economic shift toward clean energy.

Utilities have a challenge with wind power: unlike burning coal, which is easy to control, the wind is controlled by God, or Nature, and it rises and falls, sometimes dying on a still day, sometimes making so much electricity that a part of the grid may be locally overwhelmed and unable to use that power (since no one has yet developed a good way to store it!). This is the "intermittency problem" that complicates both Wind and Solar.

Due to the intermittency problem, switching your home to only 50% wind power costs nothing. This is a simple, winning deal available from Arcadia Power. Any home in the US can switch today to Arcadia's Free 50% Wind plan, replacing half of their electricity with Wind Power at no cost. For anyone whose home is currently using only the standard (coal- or gas-based) electric service, this is a simple way to make a big difference at no cost. For 100% Wind, the lowest rates are from Groundswell. Here is a summary of Wind Energy Options in suburban Maryland (the options in DC are similar).

Four easy ways you can start saving home energy today

While some energy saving steps require either a contractor or a liberal dose of elbow grease, there are a number of quick ways to start saving energy without either. Here are a few:

  1. Switch your lighting to LED. Last century's incandescent lighting (as inefficient as it was hot) gave way to "CFL" (compact fluorescent, which uses a small amount of toxic mercury), but more recently the clear winner is LED lighting. Prices at stores like Home Depot and Lowes are now less than $2/bulb. For example, you can currently buy a 16-pack of standard bulbs at Home Depot for $28.46. They still cost a little more than older types, but they use so much less power, and last so much longer, that they pay for themselves in less than 2 years. Because they generate less heat, you’ll also save on air conditioning.

    LED prices have dropped quickly: this 4-pack was $7.97 at Home Depot

  2. Lower your water heater setting from 140 to 120 degrees F. This will save energy and reduce the risk of burns, especially for kids and the elderly.
  3. Replace your furnace filters regularly. Clogged filters make your air blower work harder.
  4. Use low-flow, 1.5 gallon-per-minute shower heads. To replace a shower head, just unscrew the old one, wipe the area clean, wrap the threads in teflon tape, and screw on the new one. Keith’s family has been pleased with the Pfister Eco-Friendly shower head, which provides a pulsing action for good pressure.
More Information about Home Energy Efficiency

Yard and Garden

Make your own yard/garden a miniature pattern of the Beloved Community! Let it be a sanctuary from toxic chemicals, a safe space for pollinators and birds. One of the key hopes for earth's climate is to allow the soil to absorb more carbon, which healthy soil does. Simply allowing a vacant patch of land to grow green is constructive; to grow trees or to grow food, for humans or for friendly animals, is even better.

Most of us are not farmers, but most of our food comes from farms, and how they treat the soil in producing our food, affects the climate. Natural soil is teeming with microscopic life, which accumulates carbon. Some of your carbon footprint can safely return to the soil/earth, but this depends on healthy soil.

More info about the crucial interactions of soil and agriculture with our climate, and ways to help, can be found at:

E. Food

Our food choices can have a real impact on our carbon footprint. As with Travel, some carbon-intensive habits are also actually opposed to good health, nutritionally. Most Americans could eat healthier, reduce their carbon footprint, *and* save money by one simple change: eating less meat.

Beef and lamb have especially large footprints; eliminating just those two things has a large effect; cheese also has a large footprint. Reducing meat consumption in general will reduce your carbon footprint. Red meat produces a hundred times more CO2 per calorie than vegetables, and 20 mores more than chicken. If you do eat meat, prefer pork over beef, chicken over pork, and fish over chicken.

In terms of health, meat and cheese made more sense in the diet of our ancestors, when they served as human fuel, before fossil fuels took over so much of our work of living. Meat can serve as fuel, but the strength of a deer, horse or ox proves that vegetarians can be strong too! Today, most meat is produced in confined factory-like operations with artificial chemicals, raising health and ethical concerns, while more humane and healthy meat tends to have a higher carbon footprint.

Healthier diets tend to be plant-based, and some of history's great minds have spoken in support of a vegetarian diet ( Pythagoras, Buddha, Thoreau, Franklin, Tolstoy, Paul McCartney, etc.).

Links to More Information about Food

F. Government and Commercial Engagement

Changes at the individual and family level are important, but most of the climate disrupting emissions are from commerce and industry. Those emissions are produced partly to serve you. As long as there is economic demand, companies will try to profit by meeting the demand. Along with individual changes, it is important to be strong advocates to government, and to stores and corporations, for changes in policy that consider the earth and reduce carbon pollution. This becomes particularly important in view of the recent changes in governance of the United States and the likely weakening of environmental regulation in this country. One effective economic tool we hold is Divestment. Money talks! When many people move their money and business away from fossil fuel investments and towards green and sustainable enterprises, impacts can be profound. (see more by googling fossil fuel divestment or visit

Many local and county governments hold public hearings where citizens can speak concerning key council votes and initiatives,. Most government offices receive citizens' phone calls and emails, and actually reply to written letters. While it is hard to measure the effect of these actions, they usually get counted and probably make a difference, especially when many people deliver the same message.

Groups that lobby for restriction of carbon emissions and for use of safe energy sources (e.g. no fracking, no tar sands) include: