Recently I broke my own rule and read the newspaper before bed — never a good idea. A story on how California’s wildfires shed light on income inequality—some can afford to rebuild—stood out. So did a graphic map of cities that will be underwater in 2050. Meanwhile, the most shared article that day was a catty review of a beloved New York City restaurant.
I fell asleep grinding my teeth, thinking about my kids’ future.
The next day I asked Angel Hsu, a climate scientist and assistant professor of environmental studies at Yale-NUS in Singapore, how people could care more about restaurant reviews than climate. The air pollution there is frequently bad enough that she has to keep her 2-year-old son indoors. She plans to move to where she can breathe easier, and is quick to point out not everyone has this luxury. While Californians are acclimating themselves to life with masks during wildfires, “90 percent of the world is breathing unsafe air. This is an everyday reality for most of the world,” Hsu said. I think about this as I walk the woods near my home, greedily inhaling the crisp fall breeze.
Hsu is also the founder of the Data-Driven Environmental Policy Lab, a team of policy researchers, data scientists, programmers, and visual communicators. Their work is the missing link for individuals feeling that they can’t personally help the climate crisis. The Lab gathers evidence and data that prove specific actions taken by individuals, businesses, and local governments truly add up to measureable impact. “We know looking at the models that governments alone are not up to the task to meet global climate goals,” she said. “Before I started doing this work, there were anecdotes and storylines, but not one had done the quantification.”
Most of her quantifications are applied in a policy context, but Hsu is also translating her research to the public so they, too, can take data-driven action. “This is a really key strand in a lot of environmental literature: how do we personalize and individualize response to climate change? I am trying to communicate to policy makers, Hey, when people decide to drive less and eat less meat, this can have a difference. All of these actions, if we add them all together, they really do add up.” Her lab has quantified 6,000 actions in cities all around the world and 1,500 business actions, too.
Hsu has colleagues who believe counting carbon is counter to the climate change movement; they feel impact can only be made by political activists pushing for systemic change. “For every aspect and every dimension of the climate debate, there are opponents and proponents,” she said. For her, it’s not either/or. “We have to do everything. The science says we have to peak global emissions by next year and halve them by 2030 and we have to completely decarbonize by 2050. Protesting and lobbying can make a difference, but we also have to look in our own lives.” For people who can’t be politically engaged, as in Singapore, individual action also offers people a way to fight.
“I don’t feel discouraged very easily,” Hsu said, despite acknowledging there are “very few positive story lines in this work.” Her work feels more urgent now that she is a mother. “The stakes are higher.” She added, “The fact that there are these types of problems give us opportunities for solutions.”
While Hsu maintains no action is too small, The Lab’s data identifies the most impactful ones. Students on her campus recently mobilized to institute a plastic straw ban, which pales in comparison to taking one less transatlantic flight a year. Other impactful actions include having one fewer child, driving less and in an electric car, taking public transportation more, and eating less meat. “It’s harder to quantify engagement pieces that have no direct impact on taking carbon out of the atmosphere, like being politically active or educating your children. Do as much as you can.”
I’m working on it. Still, as Hsu said, “If Chevron or Shell would just choose to do something, or the United States would just step up, that would be a bigger change.” Indeed.