Your most pressing climate questions
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Are traffic circles better for the environment than four-way stops? Will the oceans be too hot for fish to survive? Is green hydrogen a thing?

Over the past few years, we here at the Climate desk have received hundreds of smart, often highly specific, questions from our readers about what they can do in their daily lives to affect climate change. To answer some of these questions, this week we’ve launched “Ask NYT Climate,” which is dedicated to exploring how climate intersects with your life.

Our first edition is about the perhaps counterintuitive idea that buying stuff online can actually be better for the planet than driving to a store. And if you’ve got a question you want us to answer, send it via the form at the bottom of this page.

To get a sense of how the biggest issues in the climate world intertwine with our lives, I also turned to our reporters and asked them two things: “What’s the most common question you hear from readers?” and “What are the biggest questions your sources are trying to answer right now?”

“When I tell people I write about science and the natural world, the questions, I think, kind of stop,” said Raymond Zhong. He was only half-joking.

He writes about what climate scientists are thinking and researching. But on the core issues of climate change, he pointed out, the science is largely settled.

“A lot of the most basic questions people have about climate change were answered by scientists long ago,” Zhong said. We know what’s warming the earth: emissions of carbon dioxide, largely from human sources. And we know stopping global warming requires moving away from fossil fuels.

That said, the question he most often gets is some version of “What can I do?” (These are the kinds of tricky questions — which kinds of personal choices matter more than others — that will be a focus of Ask NYT Climate.)

Many of Zhong’s sources in the scientific community are investigating a somewhat different question: What role have we all played in this year’s record-breaking heat, and what that might tell us about the future? To answer that, some of them are looking back to the ancient world.

“The question, broadly, is: Has something deeper in the climate system changed?” Zhong said. We know many of the reasons the planet was so hot last year, but scientists are trying to discern the exact effect of other variables, including El Niño, or of aerosols emitted from ships’ smokestacks, which in a twist can have a cooling effect on the planet.

“Is 2023 the harbinger of something worse? That’s a deep question,” he said, “and it’s challenging the notion that we’ve already solved all the big questions.”

Coral Davenport, who covers climate change policy from Washington, also says she gets the “What can I do?” question a lot. In fact, it’s the most common thing our reporters hear from readers.

Individual actions can add up, of course. For example, food choices do have consequences. Earlier, we answered your questions about the climate implications of what we eat.

But Davenport said she often has to remind people of the sheer scope of climate change. Moving the global energy system away from fossil fuels is a gargantuan undertaking.

“As a problem, as a policy issue,” Davenport said, “it is arguably the most gigantic problem in the world.”

Climate change, she said, “absolutely cannot be solved unless it’s by gigantic entities working together. It has to be massive and global.” Davenport has recently covered things like the Biden administration’s pause on building a new natural gas export terminal, Republican attacks on electric vehicles and drilling regulations.

What do Davenport’s sources want to know? Many say they simply want to understand what the government’s rules will be. “I hear a lot of frustration,” Davenport said, “from companies caught in a regulatory whiplash” between Democratic and Republican administrations.

Automakers and electric utilities in particular, she said, tend to complain about climate rules that come and go as political winds change in Washington. But those changes, and those complaints, have become more extreme than in the past, she said.

“One question I get is, ‘Is there any hope?’” said Catrin Einhorn, who covers biodiversity, wildlife ecosystems and nature. She’s covered things like ocean protection treaties, vanishing kestrels and the decline of California salmon.

The Climate desk has written about the hope vs. despair debate extensively over the past few years. We’re coming off the hottest year on record, but there are growing reasons to think the world can make significant progress, perhaps even quickly. “There are many pathways, spelled out by rigorous research. Each has tradeoffs,” wrote Somini Sengupta in our interactive Climate FAQ, which is built around the questions people ask of it.

Many of Einhorn’s sources, meanwhile, are focused on quantifying biodiversity loss and finding ways to slow it down. Globally, the rate of species extinction is currently at least tens to hundreds of times higher than the average over the past 10 million years. “Climate change is actually an easier problem to solve than biodiversity loss,” Einhorn said. “Biodiversity loss is even more sprawling and also harder to measure than greenhouse gas emissions.”

And, she says, her sources are obsessed with the big question of how we can reorient our economy — and a growing population that consumes more and more — in ways that don’t take as severe a toll on the natural world.

Glaciers are shrinking, coral reefs are in crisis and last year was the hottest on record. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, have passed a dangerous new threshold as people continue to burn fossil fuels. Is anyplace making progress on climate change?

The short answer is: It’s complicated, but yes.

Uruguay has pivoted in less than a decade to generating almost all its electricity from a diverse mix of renewables.

In China, an electric car that costs just $5,000 is suddenly one of the biggest sellers.

Paris is transforming itself into a city of bikes. The percentage of trips taken by bicycle within Paris more than doubled between 2020 and 2024, from 5 to 11 percent, thanks in part to new bike lanes set up during the coronavirus pandemic.

Steps like these, taken individually, aren’t enough to avoid the most serious consequences of climate change — worsening droughts, intensified storms and human suffering. Still, they show how some places are pulling off significant local changes very quickly. Read more here. Delger Erdenesanaa

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