Shrinking our Carbon Footprint

As a senior citizen, I’ve become increasingly concerned about the threat climate change poses for future generations, and I’ve decided to learn and act. Last fall, I joined a weekly Zoom discussion and action group for members of my undergraduate class (Harvard-Radcliffe 1971). Our class has a passion for collective quantitative introspection in the form of exhaustive quinquennial surveys of all aspects of life, including the most intimate, undertaken before and discussed at major reunions. Our fiftieth reunion was scheduled for early June this year.

Worthwhile Canadian Initiative

My worthwhile Canadian initiative was to survey my classmates, virtually all of whom are American, about their political stance and personal action regarding climate change. This survey would be sent out after the usual pre-reunion class survey and would be much shorter – 10 minutes rather than 60 or more. My classmates in the Zoom group helped develop the questions and my classmate John Posner, a talented technical writer, coded it on SurveyMonkey. The class survey went out to 1136 classmates last February and garnered 470 responses. The climate change questionnaire went out in March and generated a very respectable 240.

You can download a 19-slide deck (linked below) showing both the qualitative results of the questionnaire and a sample of the comments we received. We selected comments that were representative, thoughtful, and snarky, the latter being a habit of mind long cultivated at Harvard.


In this post I’ll summarize the main themes of the survey, with the hope that you’ll explore the more detailed deck.

The classmates who completed the survey are mainly retired (as would be expected of 1971 graduates), financially well-off, overwhelmingly vaccinated and boosted, and strongly, but not entirely, Democratic in their politics [slide 3].

Political Footprints

As an economic externality the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide depends crucially on government policy, so we begin with political preferences. Sixty percent of our class state that political candidates’ records or platforms regarding climate change influence their votes a great deal and 81 percent support a climate tax (already in place in Canada) [slide 4]. The comments on voting and the carbon tax [slide 5] indicate that climate change competes with other urgent priorities and that some classmates differ sharply with the majority on the issue and the proposed remedy. We should have asked for classmates’ party affiliation to determine whether this difference fell strictly on party lines.

The group strongly supported using carbon tax revenues to fund climate change programs, but some took the position that the money should be used in whatever way makes its enactment possible. The Canadian experience is relevant here. The federal government has enacted a carbon tax that is implemented by the provinces, with federal power to oversee provincial plans for the tax. For the provinces that didn’t have acceptable plans – primarily those with conservative governments (Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, New Brunswick) – the federal government imposed a carbon tax accompanied by a per capita rebate. In Canada, too, getting support of those who are reluctant is crucial.

Three-quarters of the group have contributed money to environmental organizations and a third have at some point volunteered [slide 6]. The comments show some classmates playing major roles, such as running organizations, contributing substantially, and planting thousands of trees [slide 7].

Individual Footprints

We asked a group of questions about behavior that contributes to individual carbon footprints. A quarter of the class drive either hybrid (18 percent) or electric automobiles (7 percent), far higher than the 5 five percent of all US drivers who drive either. Air travel is a major contributor to carbon footprints; only a quarter of the class have resumed air travel at pre-pandemic levels [slide 8]. Food choices, another aspect of individual carbon footprints, indicate that a majority of the class describe themselves as pescatarian, vegetarian, vegan, or at least as trying to eat less animal protein. Three-quarters make it a priority to buy locally [slide 10]. The comments about lifestyle choices [slide 10] convey considerable wisdom and snark.

Community Footprints

In many areas, choices affecting your carbon footprint depend on the options made available by local or state government, the result of both market forces and political decisions. Forty percent of classmates never use public transit, many reporting it is unavailable. Virtually every community classmates live in recycles plastics, metal, glass and paper and almost two-thirds recycle yard waste and bulky items, but fewer than a third recycle food waste [slide 11]. Their most common home heating source is natural gas (64 percent), but thirteen percent have solar heating, far higher than the US average of four percent [slide 12]. We asked classmates how their electrical utility generates power; among the two-thirds who knew, the most frequent source was natural gas. Thirty percent of the class report purchasing “greener” power from their utility, and half of those at increased cost [slide 13].


While relatively few members of our class have taken courses on climate change, read recent books, or calculated their carbon footprints, most have seen movies, especially An Inconvenient Truth and, recently, Don’t Look Up, and have done reading on their own [slides 15 and 16].

Urban-Rural Differences

We asked whether classmates live in urban (towns or cities greater than 25,000) or rural (towns under 25,000 or rural and unincorporated areas) settings and compared answers by urban and rural residents. We thought that our rural classmates would be less active on climate change, perhaps reflecting Republican domination of the rural US. We were surprised to discover our they are more active in terms of support for politicians with strong environmental records, support for environmental organizations, and food consumption [slide 17].

Climate Change Matters to Us

My Harvard classmates are obviously not representative of the US population as a whole. And my guess is that they are more supportive of political and personal climate change initiatives than people who share their demographic characteristics.

The Harvard class is an extraordinary group and I’m proud to be a part of it. The climate change activism we discovered in this questionnaire – political preferences, organizational engagement, and lifestyle choices – is another source of pride. Some of my classmates are true climate change leaders, and I hope they will continue to lead. Their challenge is to bring their compatriots along.


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