Dear Umbra,

If an environmentalist has about six hours per week to devote to activism, what should the person do to make the biggest, most positive impact? Some people (like myself) think that climate protection is a key leverage point — but is it? If yes, why, and what is the best way activists can help protect the climate? (And what’s a leverage point anyway?)

Graton, Calif.

Dearest Ann,

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Such a good question, and so important that I asked a real expert about it. Dr. Allen Hershkowitz is a senior scientist at Natural Resources Defense Council, as well as a contributor to and avid reader of Grist. He doesn’t look particularly old despite his senior status and I think his mind is still clear enough that his suggestions can be taken seriously.

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Looking for transportation alternatives.

Photo: Nicholas Sales.

Dr. Allen put his suggestions in two categories: urban and non-urban. In urban areas, he suggests prioritizing “transportation alternatives,” which is the environmental movement’s attempt to come up with a politically neutral way to say “getting rid of cars.” Join your local transportation-alternatives coalition or form one if necessary, and work toward building funding and support for public transit and non-motorized traffic. That’s a climate-protection initiative if I’ve ever heard one. Forming a coalition may seem daunting, so don’t start until you’ve phoned a few existing coalitions, perhaps in politically or demographically similar municipalities. (You can search on the web for good candidates.) Not only will they have useful tips about how to start, but they’ll give you pep talks and a feeling of camaraderie.

For suburbanites and ruralites, Dr. Allen is quite passionate about zoning ordinances and development restrictions. And he’s equally passionate about couching these hot-button ideas in politically palatable euphemisms. I’ll quote him here: “Call them water-protection ordinances or historical-preservation ordinances. But you should work on getting enacted zoning regs that incorporate a 150-foot buffer between any water body [wetlands, streams, lakes, rivers, etc.] and any development. Also include in that a prohibition on building any structure on slopes steeper than 15 degrees, since steep slopes are vital for wetlands protection, too.” He adds that you can get model legislation from the town of Lewisboro, N.Y., which recently adopted these types of ordinances.

Hershkowitz’s other emphases in non-urban areas: creating conservation advisory councils and land trusts and passing open-space bond referendums. I see these actions as climate-focused as well: Zoning and development restrictions reduce future sprawl and lead to denser settlements where mass transit and reducing reliance on automobiles are at least possible. And, in case you still have a few minutes of those allotted six hours left, or in case your area has covered all these bases: Be sure your local government is buying green products and shrinking their waste stream through reducing, reusing, and recycling everything.

Hopefully Dr. Allen answered part of your question. (Thank you, Dr. Allen.) I can answer the rest. A lever is a device that moves a weight on a fulcrum. The leverage point is the precise location where the lever is most effective in moving the weight. A seesaw illustrates the concept perfectly. When you’re dislodging your seesaw companion, it’s more effective to bounce from the very end of your side than it would be to bounce close to the fulcrum. The best leverage point for environmental change is in the eye of the beholder. Dr. Allen advocates for involvement in civic culture and politics. Others might advocate for monkey-wrenching. Either way, there is no doubt that climate change deserves the focus of your energy.