May 13, 2008 -- You are staring into the face of one thing you can do to fight climate change: Leave the cow alone.
According to the United Nations, 18 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions come from sending beef and dairy products to your kitchen table.
Cows are fed corn and soy, which are grown using fertilizers made from fossil fuels. Cow feed then has to be transported to the cows, which requires loads of fuel. Then there's even more fossil fuel burned in the process of slaughtering those cows and getting them to the supermarket and finally get to your table.
It sounds funny, but cows also pass a lot of gas -- specifically methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
"It's a very high energy process from beginning to end," said Michael Pollan, author of "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto." "And you know the basic problem is we've turned the modern dairy and beef cow into a fossil fuel guzzler."
You don't have to give up quarter pounders, but even if we all reduced our beef consumption by a quarter, we'd be helping the environment and and improving our health.
Here's a second way to help the environment while helping yourself: Get an energy audit, in which a contractor or technician evaluates your home's energy efficiency. Some power companies offer these audits for free. If yours does not, you can hire a qualified home contractor to do it for a few hundred dollars. In many cases, following the advice of the contractor will save you enough on your energy bills to cover the costs of the audit or any needed repairs in a very short time.
Audits can help you conserve energy by giving you tips like unplugging your electronics instead of just turning them off. Those little lights and clocks eat up a lot of power. If we all did this, it could save the output of 17 power plants a year. If you have a refrigerator made before 1990, buying a new one would save enough energy to light the average home for four months. And we've all heard about light bulbs, but if we all changed just five bulbs in our homes, that would save the equivalent of the emissions from 10 million cars.
These three steps alone could save you up to $300 a year. And those savings are good for the environment.
"We don't want to waste any of our natural resources. Electricity generated by any fuel is a scarce resource," says Dan Welklin, an energy specialist with Duke Energy. "If we [are] successful in our conservation, we do not need as many new plants or as large a power plant."
You can learn more about energy audits by visiting Energy Star, a government-sponsored program of the federal Environmental Protection Agency. And one of the simplest things you can do to conserve energy: buy appliances that have the Energy Star label.
Climate scientists are quick to point out that there is no feel-good, easy solution to global warming. It is such an enormous problem that it requires that governments all over the world attack it.
But one person can contribute. This problem is so big we may all have to make changes.