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I'm Ready to Act on Climate. Do I Start Big or Small?

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two children cut out waves on asphalt court outside
Nora Gell paints waves on paper as she takes part in an event to make art for the September 20 Youth Climate Strike on Sept. 15, 2019, in New York City.  (Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s an all-hands-on-deck decade for the climate. But before you roll up your sleeves, you may be wondering just where to start.

Do you begin at home, by reducing your personal contributions to global warming, like flying less, driving less or eating less meat? Or do you start on the larger, systems level, by pushing for better public transit options, electric vehicle charging infrastructure and other policy changes?

The debate is active in the climate community, too, so let’s go through the arguments on both sides.

The argument for systems change: Climate change is a math problem

Many of the causes of greenhouse gases are outside of individual control, like where your energy comes from, how good public transit is where you live or how much housing is available near where you work, potentially forcing you into a car for a long commute.

Let’s say you want to bike to work instead of driving, but your city has unsafe streets for bikes, and no bike lanes. You’ll make the safe choice and drive. The work is to push the city to create more bike accessibility — a change at a systems level — so you can then make a change individually.

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As climate writer and activist Bill McKibben said on the podcast A Matter of Degrees, “Climate change is a math problem, and the numbers are very large.”

The U.S. emitted the equivalent of 6.6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2019, roughly 11% of global emissions, and equal to the annual output of 1,653 coal-fired power plants. The average American emits about 16 metric tons a year. Changing your behavior, even if done perfectly, is just a drop in the bucket.

There’s also the question of time. Gradual, individual behavior change would have been helpful if we had decades, advocates say, but our timeline to avert the worst impacts of climate change is short. Organizations like the World Resources Institute argue that the U.S. must reduce emissions by half by 2030.

“So job one is to organize, job two is to organize your friends and neighbors and job three is to organize. And if you have some energy left over after that, by all means, check out every light bulb in your house,” McKibben said.

Keep big polluters on the hook, activists say

Climate activists argue that a fixation on individual actions alone lets major polluters, who obscured the threat of warming for decades, off the hook.

An investigation from Inside Climate News found that the Exxon Mobil Corp. pioneered climate change research and warned top executives of possible catastrophe from global warming, but that the company later funded climate change denial groups that led efforts to block solutions (the company pushed back on the investigation, saying the reporters “cherry-picked” statements from documents).

Oil and gas company BP circulated the phrase “carbon footprint” in the 2000s, according to reporting from Mark Kaufman in Mashable. He writes that the company “popularized the term” with a calculator that could “assess how their normal daily life — going to work, buying food, and (gasp) traveling — is largely responsible for heating the globe.”

Science historian Geoffrey Supran argues this was a strategy to turn the blame away from the company, and onto individuals (the company disagrees; spokesperson Josh Hicks told KQED in a statement that BP takes responsibility for their emissions and plans to hit a net zero emissions target by 2050).

This is not a game of who’s more righteous

Focusing on individual actions can quickly turn into a holier-than-thou competition with others, and who wants to feel judged?

And as Michael Mann argues in his book “The New Climate War,” the idea of what some see as personal sacrifice may further push moderates and conservatives away from climate action.

The argument for individual changes

“If you live in a rich country, and especially the richer you are, your individual actions really matter,” climate scientist Kimberly Nicholas writes in her book “Under the Sky We Make.” They matter both  in reducing carbon, and in changing the perception of the good life from one that uses excessive carbon to one that does not.

More than 70% of global greenhouse gas pollution can be traced to how people get around, their diet, and the heating and cooling of homes.

The richest 10% of Americans, who have annual household incomes of above $201,000, emitted 50 metric tons of carbon in 2015, according to a study from European economists; that’s roughly equivalent to the energy needed to power nine standard homes for a year. Much of these planet-warming gases came from travel by plane.

To keep warming in check at 1.5 degrees Celsius, each person’s carbon emissions would need to fall to 2.5 metric tons by 2030. And research shows this is an achievable goal with a good standard of living for people (meaning decently sized homes with heating and cooling, hot water, washing machines, refrigerators and access to health care and public transit).

Aligning your actions and values

Environmental psychologist Renée Lertzman says most people participate in a system that worsens climate change, and are aware of the impact of those changes, and that can create stress, or “psychological pain” (even if your contribution to the problem is far less than an executive at a fossil fuel company, for example). That pain, she says, can lead a person to step away from taking action on climate.

Aligning your actions with your climate values can help to reduce that pain, and build momentum to catalyze you into larger actions.

When you couple individual action with talking about why you’re doing what you’re doing, you have the potential to create a change larger than yourself.

Research from Yale’s climate change and communication program shows that the majority of people who care about climate change rarely or never talk about it with family and friends, often assuming there are more people who deny climate change than there actually are.

When changes become a social norm, it becomes more attractive for politicians and companies to take action.

Research shows just 25% of a population is needed to create a “tipping point” change in popular opinion.   

So which side wins? Well, both

Larger greenhouse gas emission reductions are possible through changing systems, but it’s valuable for individuals to make personal changes, too, especially in wealthy countries like the U.S.

And it matters which actions you take, as research shows that some actions, like calling your representative and cutting down on driving, are far more effective than others, like fretting about your plastic straw. Read more about how to take the most effective actions to address climate change.

Climate scientist Mann writes in his book that the debate between systems vs. individual change is being exploited by companies to create a rift among those with a common goal: reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

What’s important is to remember that everyone who is working to make a change is on the same team, regardless of where they start.

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