Don't Depersonalize Climate Change

Individual actions matter more than ever.

Starbucks made me do it.
Starbucks made me do it, blame them not me.

In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images

Ever since Kate Yoder wrote her Grist article, "Footprint Fantasy," there's been a deluge of stories and articles calling carbon footprinting a pointless corporate plot. Or maybe it all started with s.e. smith in "The Personal Will Not Save You." More recently, Whizy Kim in Refinery 29 writes "Individuals Can’t Heal The Climate When Capitalism Is The Virus." Michael Mann, George Monbiot, everyone is saying this, that our carbon footprints don't matter. I discussed this earlier in "In Defense of Carbon Footprints," but given all the noise lately, I am going at it again.

In one of the most extreme editions, Lauren Thomas of Queens University writes "Stop The Narrative That Climate Change is Caused By You & Me."

"Personal accountability for the climate crisis isn’t just irrelevant; it was designed and implemented by the world’s biggest polluters."

She argues that we have all been deceived and distracted, and that "a vote for green energy will do more to save the planet than any attempts to reduce one’s singular footprint ever could."

"Litterbugs will be eradicated once all single-use plastics are federally banned. Individual carbon footprints will be legitimate once renewable energy powers our cities. Meaningful climate action will be an accessibly attainable goal once we clear the air of maliciously confusing tactics created by the fossil fuel industry and start holding them responsible."
They trained us to buy disposables and then pick up their garbage.
They trained us to buy disposables and then pick up their garbage.  Screen capture

Ok, I know the "don't be a litterbug" and recycling campaigns were all started by the corporations that sold single-use packaging, but does this mean that until it is all banned I can just throw my Starbucks or Timmy's cup on the ground? Of course not. So I carry a refillable cup and refuse to buy what they are selling. 

I don't want to pick on Lauren Thomas, she is just a little more extreme than some of the other writers. But it's like there is some coordinated campaign, some checklist: "Just 100 fossil fuel companies have produced roughly 70% of industrial greenhouse gas emissions." CHECK. "BP made us do it." CHECK "It's the recycling scam 2.0" CHECK. 

I am sorry, you made the decision to fill up your SUV and burn gasoline, not Shell Oil. Unless you are boiling rocks in Alberta, these are downstream emissions that come from burning fossil fuels, not making them.

Of course, Whizy Kim is correct in the article originally titled "Saying Consumers Can Stop Climate Change Is a Scam," when he notes that governments and industry kind of made us do it, they encouraged us. Take the car. Please. 

"The post-WWII era was dizzy with incentives, policies, and mass infrastructure projects that made owning a car much more feasible and attractive than in other nations. To this day, a stunning variety of laws help maintain a landscape where having your own car is either the safer, cheaper option, or the only option."

It's all the fault of those "100 fossil fuel companies producing 70% of emissions." CHECK. So instead of trying to ride a bike and not buy their gas, we have to join the fight of our lifetime. "The best way to lower your carbon footprint is to stop being an individual and become a part of a movement."

"BP made us do it!" CHECK Then there is the new study that climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe pointed to, "‘Don’t Tell Me What to Do’: Resistance to Climate Change Messages Suggesting Behavior Changes," in which three Georgia State researchers did a survey and concluded that even suggesting that people change their behavior is counterproductive and sends them running in the other direction. Suggesting personal changes makes their interviewees really, really unhappy. They would rather somebody else do it. 

"Messages that imply the need for individual sacrifices in living style that will be required to reduce emissions are thus translated into a negative response to the entire message, including an increased skepticism about climate science and trust in climate scientists. Messages about policies that would affect others, such as taxes on industry and business or on carbon emitters, are more palatable and do not result in such a negative response."

And here is a surprise: there is a political divide, and one side doesn't trust scientists. "In general, support for various actions and pro-climate beliefs was stronger among Democrats than among Republicans" and "Republicans and Independents tended to respond more negatively in certain conditions if the message was attributed to a climate scientist." And when I complain to my neighbor that I hate his pickup truck and they should be banned, he reacts negatively too. 

It's all so silly, but there is some sensibility out there. Annie Lowrey wrote a great article in The Atlantic, "All That Performative Environmentalism Adds Up," (with the subhead "Don't Depersonalize Climate Change" which I borrowed for my title.)

"The critics are right that focusing on individuals is a grave error if it obscures corporate culpability and systemic solutions. But I’m not about to get rid of my canvas bags and mason jars, buy a second car, or start taking short flights again. Talking with economists, climate scientists, and psychologists convinced me that depersonalizing climate change, such that the only answers are systemic, is a mistake of its own. It misses how social change is built on a foundation of individual practice."

She reminds us that if we want laws to change and governments to regulate, it helps to lead rather than follow. "Generally, research indicates that laws and regulations often work better when they reflect what a populace is already doing or how it is already changing, rather than trying to force a populace to change."

I know, there is an election coming up in the USA. Maybe people are just trying to stress the importance of voting for the greener guy, and don't want to scare anyone off with this personal responsibility thing. It is absolutely true that voting for the party which believes that "climate change poses a real and urgent threat to our economy, our national security, and our children’s health and futures" is more important than skipping a hamburger. Annie Lowrey gets this too and concluded:

"The Senate and the Supreme Court—heavily politicized, antidemocratic, and counter-majoritarian bodies—are the most potent obstacles to drastic, immediate climate action. Calling your swing-state senator to press for the abolition of the filibuster, getting out the vote in purple states, donating to pro-climate candidates: These might be among the most important things that individuals can do."

But, she concludes that you should enjoy your coffee in a reusable container while doing it. We have to do both.