The Climate Crisis Is Driving New Home Improvements
Subscribe to Threshold to listen to their upcoming season about taking decisive action this decade to prevent a global 1.5 degree Celsius temperature rise.
A lot of the changes that need to happen to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius need to happen at a huge, international level. But nearly a fifth of carbon emissions in the U.S. come from our homes. Are there things we can do at home to help the climate crisis? And how effective are individual actions?
Threshold is a podcast telling stories about our changing environment. And as their fourth season explores what it will take for the world to keep global warming under the crucial 1.5 benchmark, reporter Nick Mott explores what individuals can do to decarbonize their homes.
Mott talks to Ira Flatow about his own home improvement project, in a preview of Threshold’s next episode.
Subscribe to Threshold to listen to the full episode, coming Tuesday, March 22.
Invest in quality science journalism by making a donation to Science Friday.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.
To those of a certain age, the spike in oil and gasoline prices is deja vu. I’m talking about the oil embargo of the 1970s, when not only was gasoline expensive, it was rationed. The Carter administration asked everyone to fight back by saving energy, with President Carter calling energy conservation the moral equivalent of war.
Well, here we are again, with energy conservation the single biggest action you can take to save money. With climate change long preceding the current moment’s high prices, I’ve been trying to make changes in my own energy life. I’ve taken advantage of credits my state and utility offer to insulate my home and buy high-efficiency appliances.
Reporter Nick Mott, at the podcast Threshold is of the same mind, setting out to find ways he could save energy the moment he became a homeowner.
NICK MOTT: On the balmy first day of summer 2021, my partner Leah and I sat in a fancy office room in a town called Livingston, population about 8,000, in southern Montana.
A stranger was guiding us through signing a slew of documents that would change our lives forever.
SETTLEMENT OFFICIAL: We’re going to start off with the settlement statement.
NICK MOTT: We were buying our first home. Leah and I were excited. We both loved our house and the town. But I was also feeling the weight of this new stage in life.
SETTLEMENT OFFICIAL: And then, if we can just get you to sign and date that one, please.
NICK MOTT: By the end of the signing, some of the documents started to sound straight-up absurd.
SETTLEMENT OFFICIAL: This is our agreement to be agreeable.
NICK MOTT: This one’s agreeing to agree.
SETTLEMENT OFFICIAL: Agreeing to agree. If only we could use those more in life.
SETTLEMENT OFFICIAL: There are your copies.
LEAH: Oh, wow.
SETTLEMENT OFFICIAL: Thank you.
NICK MOTT: Awesome.
SETTLEMENT OFFICIAL: Congratulations.
NICK MOTT: We own– we’re both homeowners now?
We were. And we had a fat packet of papers to prove it.
Nearly a fifth of carbon emissions in the US come directly from things we do in our homes, as in how we collectively heat up our houses, cool them down, and keep the lights on. But my house is one of more than 80 million single-family homes across the country.
It is a grain of sand in a vast desert. But I am now directly responsible for that grain of sand. And I think home is this really interesting place to discuss climate change. Because eventually, we’ll all confront the climate crisis. And the place where we’ll most personally feel its effects and grapple with how to respond is at home, with our loved ones, where we let our messy, imperfect selves show.
So after that frenzy of signatures, I was thinking, if we need to cut back on carbon in the global economy in a major way, what’s that mean for one single house right here? Where could I, an overwhelmed and underprepared new homeowner, even start on this journey?
Let me introduce you to our home. Behind our creaky gate lies a creamy yellow one-story house with red trim, built about a century ago. Somebody who is seeing it for the first time might call it quaint, which I think might be code for old, but in kind of a cute way. We love the house, and it’s very livable. But look anywhere, and you can find something that needs taken care of.
But Leah and I, we’re interested in making changes with climate and emissions in mind, which is why I invited Chris Dorsi over to look at the place.
Hey, there Chris?
CHRIS DORSI: Nick, I’m Chris Dawson.
NICK MOTT: Hey, nice to meet you.
Chris is the head of Montana State University’s Weatherization Training Center. And he says that Training Center is kind of like–
CHRIS DORSI: A high school shop class for grownups. Central to our mission is to give them skills they need in order to move us a little bit closer to sustainable housing for all.
NICK MOTT: Weatherization means preparing a house for anything nature throws at it– rain, wind, heat, cold. And weatherizing also keeps your appliances from working overdrive, cutting down on both utility bills and emissions.
Chris and I sit down at the dining room table and immediately he says, my place is off to a good start because it’s small, which is a compliment, I guess.
CHRIS DORSI: So there’s no amount of money you can spend on photovoltaic panels and smart home controls and expensive construction and build a 5,000 square foot $2 million home and call it efficient. It does not exist. They’re mutually exclusive terms. So in terms of impact per person, the best thing you can do is build yourself, or find and buy, or remodel, a modest, a small, a simple home.
NICK MOTT: The science backs this up. Studies show, the more space you have, as in the bigger your house, the more energy it tends to use. So we’ve got one thing going for us. Our house is small.
But Chris had a lot of ideas for things we could do to lower emissions from our home. When we bought the place, I was excited about giving the kitchen a big makeover– new countertops, cabinets, the works. But Chris said, it’s what’s behind the ugly cabinets I wanted to get rid of that could make all the difference, the spots we don’t normally go or pay any attention to, as in the insulation, the stuff that keeps hot air in the winter and traps cool air in in the summer.
Some of these fixes can be relatively small investments that go a long way towards making your house more efficient, and set the stage for bigger upgrades down the road– things like crawling around in the attic to spray foam into gaps that could leak air from the main house below, or blasting more insulation into the attic, or more insulation on the walls.
CHRIS DORSI: Nobody sits around at a cocktail party and brags about their insulation. It’s kind of a non-issue. It’s a piece of hidden infrastructure, right? But it’s that hidden stuff which really is most critical in how homes tend to operate.
NICK MOTT: He said there’s sort of two categories of changes we could be talking about– tweaking what we already have so it uses less energy, or investing in new stuff, like fancy efficient appliances, even things like solar panels. So in simple terms, make what we have use less carbon, or buy new stuff that uses less carbon, or both.
He said those changes can make a real difference in quality of life, too. Studies over the last three decades or so suggest Americans spend on average 90% of their lives indoors. And since we spend that much time inside–
CHRIS DORSI: The impact of your home on human health is huge.
NICK MOTT: In fact, one recent study said the air in many homes is so toxic it would be illegal under federal law if it were outside. But there’s no legislation like the Clean Air Act that applies inside your home. And for indoor air quality, natural gas, which often powers furnaces and stoves, is a particular source of trouble. Gas stoves especially can create air quality comparable to secondhand smoke. Kids are most at risk. And studies show a correlation between cooking with gas stoves and asthma.
The same pollutants can make people more vulnerable to viruses, like the coronavirus, and have higher rates of respiratory illness and cardiovascular disease. Luckily, at our home, we’ve got an old electric stove. It’s not necessarily all that efficient but it is one step above natural gas.
That doesn’t necessarily mean we’re off the hook in terms of indoor air quality, though.
CHRIS DORSI: Among the hidden hazards would be the discussion about basements and crawl spaces. What the heck is down there? And do you really want to breathe that air? Do you really want to be a part of that biological community which is in your basement or crawl space? So I think you and I are going to go to your basement and take a look–
NICK MOTT: Let’s do it.
CHRIS DORSI: And address some of these issues. Because there’s a lot of options out there.
NICK MOTT: Yeah. Do want to do that now?
CHRIS DORSI: Let’s do it.
NICK MOTT: Let’s do it, yeah.
CHRIS DORSI: Here we go.
NICK MOTT: Chris opens our cellar door, and we walk down the steps. We enter a small, dark room, with ceilings just low enough to need to hunch over. Chris turns his attention to what looks like an ancient, oversized filing cabinet in the corner of our crawlspace, our furnace. About half of homes are heated with natural gas in the US, mine included. Keeping houses warm is far and away the largest source of emissions from homes.
And in our case–
CHRIS DORSI: I don’t know how many generations of spiders have lived and died in this thing. How often do you change your furnace filters?
NICK MOTT: We can’t find our furnace filter.
CHRIS DORSI: That’s a trick question then.
NICK MOTT: Yeah.
CHRIS DORSI: Let’s look for your furnace filters.
NICK MOTT: Yeah.
We couldn’t find it, because the whole device had been seriously jerry-rigged to fit our house. There wasn’t even a slot, like in a normal furnace, where a filter belongs. Our whole house had been kind of built that way, a little bit, over time, making do with what already existed. But Chris wasn’t deterred by that.
CHRIS DORSI: I’m going to pop this cover off and take a look.
That there’s a sound for radio.
NICK MOTT: That’s just what I was thinking.
CHRIS DORSI: There’s your furnace filter right there.
NICK MOTT: Oh, yeah?
LEAH: Oh, not too hard to find.
CHRIS DORSI: Yeah.
NICK MOTT: Not hard to find at all.
CHRIS DORSI: No, it’s laid down, and it is completely, perfectly, utterly useless. So what this means is that every bit of dirt and [INAUDIBLE] that gets sucked into the return grills in your house comes down here and gets heated and harmlessly just pumped back upstairs for you to breathe and re-breathe, and so–
NICK MOTT: Oh, wonderful.
The furnace was installed in the 1960s. So a new machine would be orders of magnitude more efficient. Unfortunately, Chris said, in Montana, there are woefully few incentives that could help us replace the thing.
Chris left us with a much better sense of what we could do to start decarbonizing, but figuring out how and when to make those changes, and in what order, was up to us.
I wanted to put our little place in the bigger picture nationally, and see if that could help isolate one or two things we might begin with. So I called Leah Stokes, a Professor of Political Science at the University of California Santa Barbara.
Yes, there are two Leahs in this story, one’s my partner, and the other is a professor.
This Leah was quick to answer how homes can fit in with the kind of massive national transition we need to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. She says the systems change we need can be boiled down to two things.
LEAH STOKES: Clean electricity, plus electrification.
NICK MOTT: In Leah’s eyes, electrification, meaning converting all the stuff that runs purely on natural gas and other fossil fuels into electric, is a major part of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change. In terms of houses, she means converting almost everything in our homes to run on electricity, especially the big draws, like furnaces and hot water heaters.
Right now, the grid we plug all that stuff into is pretty dirty. It varies based on where you’re at in the country, but nationally, our grid is about 60% fossil fuels. So she says, at the same time that we’re electrifying everything we can, we need to be quickly increasing the amount of renewable energy on our electric grid.
And if we make all the changes we need, she says–
LEAH STOKES: It turns out that between clean electricity and electrification, we can cut carbon pollution by probably 75% economy-wide.
NICK MOTT: Leah is actually working on electrifying her own home right now. And she told me, that spurred her to ask all kinds of questions about if it still makes sense to convert to electric, even when you’re pulling from a dirty grid.
LEAH STOKES: It turns out, based on research from the Rocky Mountain Institute, that it makes sense to switch to electric appliances pretty much everywhere at this point in time.
NICK MOTT: That research shows that converting everything in homes to run on electricity substantially reduces carbon emissions, even if those homes are connected to grids powered by fossil fuels. And in most cases, electrification leads to lower utility bills, too.
Leah mentioned a couple all-electric technologies that can be key here to replace their gas counterparts– induction stoves, which use electricity and magnetism to get your food cooking; and heat pumps, which are kind of like air conditioners that also run in reverse, extracting heat from outside, condensing it, and bringing it inside.
It’s interesting to me to hear that you’re trying to electrify your own home. When you’re thinking about it, do you wait till the end of life to replace stuff? Like what do you replace first? I’m also personally grappling with this. Like, we just bought a house, and it’s very old. Where do you start.
LEAH STOKES: Well, Rewiring America, which is this great organization that does a lot of thinking on this, they say you definitely want to do it at end of life.
NICK MOTT: One study suggests that we need to replace 80 million appliances in 50 million households over the next 10 years. I immediately thought of my own aging home and appliances. Our spider-filled furnace was more than 50 years old. So I thought, my house, with its ancient, ratty, ready-to-fail appliances, is also sort of an opportunity.
I’m going to have to change things out anyway. And as I do, I can try to decarbonize and electrify every step of the way. But making those changes, it turned out, was much easier in theory than in practice.
IRA FLATOW: That was reporter Nick Mott, and his podcast Threshold, talking about his adventures in home energy efficiency, on Science Friday, from WNYC Studios.
Nick Mott is here with me now, joining me from Livingston, Montana.
Hi there, Nick.
NICK MOTT: Hey, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: I can sympathize with your efforts to save energy in your home. And I take issue with your home expert saying, no one ever talks about how much insulation they have in their house. I talk about it all the time.
NICK MOTT: I’ve definitely become the kind of person that talks about insulation at cocktail parties. And also on radio shows, apparently.
IRA FLATOW: How else did things turn out so much harder in practice? Of course, everything looks great on paper. And when you start to do it in practice, right, it’s got to be harder than you imagine.
NICK MOTT: I really, really want a heat pump. And that’s one of the biggest struggles we’re having right now. So we did find one really promising person with a bid that’s possibly doable, but it’s still super-duper expensive. And even though we want to electrify, because it’s Montana and it gets super-cold here sometimes, it’s looking like we might still need to have some gas backup.
Another thing is just the order of how we should do things. So an example is, we want to put insulation in our attic. That seems easy. We got a bid for it. But there’s a bunch of stuff I had to do up there before we could even take that step. So one of those things was, I crawled around up there and sealed a bunch of holes into the house, just to keep the house more contained.
Also, I needed to replace the bathroom fan and the range hood, and I need to vent those through the roof. One contractor, who was looking at our place, said, like, anything we do is kind of like polishing a turd. Like, nothing’s going to be perfect here. That’s what I’ve really learned. But we’re going to keep trying to make it better and better.
IRA FLATOW: You’re a homeowner. I’m a homeowner. Have you looked into how renters can make these kinds of changes, or what they can do to save energy?
NICK MOTT: I have. And first off, I’m a white, relatively middle-class homeowner. So looking at just my house leaves out all kinds of people in different scenarios, not just renters. But renters are a particularly tricky area. So if you’re renting, you’re often the one paying the cost for your leaky house or your inefficient furnace. But the owners are the people who can actually make those changes. And they don’t feel that same pressure in their pocketbooks.
But whether you’re a renter or a homeowner, low-income communities, and especially low-income communities of color, also pay a disproportionately high ratio of their income on utility bills. That’s tied up with the history of redlining and segregation. And there are these federal programs that work to help weatherize low-income households. But research shows that those programs often miss some of the people that need it the most, and that it leaves out other people who make too much money to qualify, but don’t have the financial history to qualify for loans they might need to make bigger changes.
When you start digging into making houses more efficient and sustainable everywhere, all across the country, what you quickly start talking about is also justice and equity.
IRA FLATOW: Absolutely. And when we talk about what we should do as homeowners, it gets me thinking about the role of the individual in confronting climate change, and the role of the government, or collective, in getting us to where we need to be.
What did you learn about what we’re obligated to do as individuals?
NICK MOTT: Absolutely everybody I talked with for this story also ended up talking with me about climate guilt– getting throwaway coffee cups or plastic bags at the grocery store, or driving too much even when you shouldn’t– basically, just being an imperfect human.
And one thing I learned, and that I think about a lot, is that climate action isn’t just this either/or thing between the individual or the collective. It can be both of those things at once.
One of the more tangible takeaways somebody told me– and this is from Leah Stokes, who you heard, a Political Science Professor at UC Santa Barbara– is that one of the most powerful things you can do is look for structural change on the individual level. That could be something like putting in a heat pump, for example.
You compare that to something like giving up meat– that’s something you have to make a conscious decision about every time you eat food, but if you put in a new appliance like that, that’s a one-time decision that stays around for decades. And if you move, that’s also something that affects the next homeowner there, too.
One part of the equation is just states helping out or the federal government helping out, things like subsidies or rebates. It could also mean utility providers helping out. Another thing we need to do is prioritize cleaning up our grid, getting more renewables online that could power all those heat pumps or induction stoves and electric cars, as they’re adopted everywhere.
IRA FLATOW: Well, Nick, I wish you good luck with your house, and especially that furnace.
NICK MOTT: Well, thank you so much, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: Nick Mott, reporter for the podcast Threshold, which is focusing this season on climate change and the effort to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
And for the full-length version of the story he just told us, that’s coming next Tuesday. Check out our website for more information. And you can subscribe to Threshold wherever you get your podcasts.
And we want to know what you are doing about climate change in your home, in your community. Send us a voice memo on the SciFri VoxPop app. Tell us what improvements you’ve been making to reduce your fossil fuel emissions and saving energy. That’s on the SciFri VoxPop app, wherever you get your apps.
John Dankosky works with the radio team to create our weekly show, and is helping to build our State of Science Reporting Network. He’s also been a long-time guest host on Science Friday. He and his wife have four cats, thousands of bees, and a yoga studio in the sleepy Northwest hills of Connecticut.