The Systems Change Versus Behavior Change Debate Is Getting Really Old

Recent heatwaves have ignited an age-old debate about what individual citizens should do about the climate crisis.

Steam and exhaust rise from different companies on a cold winter day

Lukas Schulze/Getty Images

As Western Canada and North Western United States saw record-setting temperatures—some of which were shattering previous records by as much as 8.3 degrees Fahrenheit (4.6 degrees Celsius)—it caused even some seasoned climate watchers to freak out. These types of anomalies are at the extreme end of what has been projected, and scientists and activists are rightly sounding the alarm for urgent climate action. 

If anecdotal experience is anything to go by, a growing number of people are listening. In fact, in the past few days, I’ve had several conversations with folks who were well aware of the threat of climate change before, but are now beginning to see it as a crisis. From one friend in British Columbia who is making a wildfire evacuation plan for the very first time to another who works in insurance and is beginning to grasp the possibility of entire regions becoming uninsurable, there was a palpable sense of urgency. 

And this has ignited an age-old debate about what we, as individual citizens, should actually do about it. On the one hand, CNN pushed out yet another story, on another report, suggesting people cut their meat consumption and reduce how much they fly. On the other hand, a number of people pushed back on these suggestions—arguing that it is only systems-level, political and economic interventions that can ever get us where we need to be: 

The truth is that neither of these extremes is particularly helpful. I’ve spent the last couple of years writing a book about the role of individuals within the climate crisis. And the conclusion that I’ve come to is this: It’s bloody complicated. 

Most of us are never going to slash our carbon footprints to a sustainable level. That’s partially because we’re forced to interact with systems that, through employment opportunities and tax codes, planning laws, and investment priorities, make high emissions lifestyles the default. And it’s partially because we are human, and we are subject to the same flaws, impulses, and consumer-driven desires that our neighbors and friends are subject to as well. (Families, by the way, can complicate this further.)

Yet just because we can’t (or won’t!) slash our footprints to zero, it doesn’t necessarily follow that reducing our footprints doesn’t matter. After all, reducing and/or eliminating how much we fly is a strategic intervention that helps promote alternatives. Cutting back on meat consumption—whether through going vegan or tweaking menus—helps shift patterns in both demand and production, and also sends a signal out to policymakers.
Too many people have taken a very astute observation—“I am unlikely to achieve a perfect carbon footprint”—and they have extrapolated that to a very unhelpful conclusion: “I am therefore going to not even try.”

Renewable energy expert Ketan Joshi took to Twitter to sum up the problem: “The counter-swing against the fossil industry's 'personal responsibility' narratives has now swung so far in the opposite direction that it's doing the same type of disempowerment. We aren't *responsible*, but through our actions we are *powerful*, and can cause change.”  

I couldn’t agree more. We don’t have to accept the false choice of either going all-in for personal sacrifice or alternatively carrying on as if nothing needs to change. Instead, we can each identify where in our own lives—we have power, influence, leverage, or agency—ideally a combination of all four—and then we can focus our efforts there. 

If you’d like to read more about how to thread this needle, "We’re All Climate Hypocrites Now" is available for pre-order, and it will be printed on recycled paper. But also, for heaven’s sake, please don’t forget to vote.