The Most Important Question in Tackling the Climate Crisis

As the world grapples with an emergency that is as complex as it is terrifying, we have a moral obligation to act.

Storm Christoph Brings Flooding and Snow To The UK
Flood on January 22, 2021 in Herefordshire, England. The increase in extreme weather events is directly coupled to the increase in frequency and severity of flooding and rapidly changing climate . Toby Smith / Getty Images

“Don’t bring me your plate until the food is all gone. There are children starving in Ethiopia.”

I was six or seven years old when I was guilt-tripped by a particularly unpleasant teacher. Live Aid was all the rage, and my "educator" seized an opportunity to teach me about the moral implications of food waste. Exactly what was on the menu that day escapes me. It might have been Spam, or gray and lumpy shepherd’s pie, or perhaps one of those strange desserts that my school in rural South West England seemed to think was a suitable fuel for aspiring young brains. I do, however, remember my earnest reply:

“Could you please just send it to them? I really don’t want it.”

This did not go down well.

I still think about this exchange sometimes. Not only was it inappropriate, and potentially harmful, to lay the burden of guilt on the shoulders of a child. It also served to fundamentally misrepresent the nature of an important problem to me at a formative age. Sure, as a seven-year-old standing in that breezeblock dining hall, it seemed like a simple enough solution for me to share my unwanted school meal. It also seemed fair to me at the time that I should feel guilty for wasting food while others went hungry.

Yet the real truth was that people were dying due to a complicated set of circumstances that had almost nothing to do with what I did or did not choose to do with the meal I had in front of me. The fact that an adult chose to place that burden on a child continues to rattle me to this day.
There are parallels here with the climate crisis. As the world grapples with an emergency that is as complex as it is terrifying, those of us with higher income/higher emissions lifestyles do undoubtedly have a moral obligation to act. Indeed, while me eating, or not eating, that food would make no discernible difference to the lives of Ethiopians, it’s undeniable that the choices I make to consume fossil fuels do – directly – contribute to misery elsewhere. The trouble is, they do so on such an infinitesimal level that any change I make is inconsequential. Unless, that is, I can bring others along for the ride.

Bringing others along for the ride, however, is easier said than done. It is hard to change behaviors. Not only that, but because the attention of the public is a valuable and limited resource, we constantly run the risk of distracting attention from other, more systemic topics of conversation.

Yet it doesn’t have to be that way.

Swedish school striker Greta Thunberg recently delivered an important lesson in how to approach this conundrum. While she, herself, has gone to considerable lengths to avoid aviation, eat a plant-based vegan diet, and avoid excessive consumption, she has also refused to center the personal choices of herself – or anyone else – as the most relevant topic of discussion. Asked about celebrities who decry the climate crisis and fly in private jets, for example, her response was characteristically blunt:

“I don’t care.”

It was an impressive demonstration of how to thread this needle. Yes, we can all take steps to live lower carbon lifestyles. Yes, it makes sense for us to celebrate those who do so. And yes, for those of us who are demanding climate action, it enhances our credibility if we are willing to "walk the walk."

We must also accept the fact, however, that real change will only come from systems-level interventions like banning gas-powered cars, legislating for a 100% clean energy grid, or taxing the living daylights out of the consumption of fossil fuels. And if we accept that fact, we should probably not focus too much of our attention on how we – or those around us – fall short. Instead, we should turn our attention to why we consistently fall short. And then we should work tirelessly to remove those barriers to action. 

The role that each of us plays in this effort is going to depend on who we are. That’s OK. In the face of an almost impossibly complex problem, we need a broad coalition of actors who are working – sometimes together, and sometimes separately – on different pieces of the puzzle. Ultimately, the most important thing each of us can do is to honestly and repeatedly ask ourselves one very important question:

How do I – given my unique strengths, weaknesses, privileges, and disadvantages – make the most meaningful difference with the time and attention that I have to offer? 

One day, I hope to find answers to this question that are a little more satisfying than those my teacher offered me. Climate essayist and podcaster Mary Heglar recently offered her own take on this during an interview with Yessenia Funes:

“I often say to people that the best thing that you can do as an individual is to stop thinking of yourself as strictly an individual and start thinking of yourself as part of a collective. And, now, how do you want to operate as a part of that collective?”

I couldn’t have put it better myself. Luckily, I didn’t really have to. Plenty of others have been thinking about this too…