The belief that personal responsibility through limiting one’s own “carbon footprint” can significantly mitigate effects of climate change has become popularized in the mainstream climate narrative. “Stop using plastic straws! Take shorter showers! Invest in solar panels!” These are just some of the common advice we’ve all heard over the years.
However, how true is this notion? The issue of climate change is more nuanced and complex than many adhering to this current narrative seem to give credit for. For example, in one NIH study conducted in China, the greenhouse gas emissions produced when building two meters of asphalt road was found to be similar to creating a gasoline car, according to the YouTube channel Kurzgesagt. If everyone bought an electric car or invested in other beneficial individual actions, it won’t significantly create change because the scale of the issue is so large.
According to the Washington Post, drastic change can only be achieved with major governmental action through implementing carbon taxes and investing in renewable energy infrastructure, among other structural changes. Therefore, putting the responsibility and guilt on individual people to solve the climate crisis is not only a false notion, but an irresponsible one. One report released in 2017 revealed that 70% of the world’s greenhouse gases produced over the last two decades can be allocated to 100 fossil fuel companies, as reported by the BBC Future.
Reports like these explain why the term “carbon footprint” was popularized in 2004 by an oil company called British Petroleum, whose goal was to place the blame on individuals and away from the primary contributors like themselves.
So if the general public is incapable of solving the climate crisis on their own, what can be done?
Firstly, this doesn’t mean that everyday people are exempt from any responsibility. It’s not that personal action can’t make an impact, but rather that it isn’t the complete solution. Becoming a so-called “conscious consumer” is vital not only because the little differences still matter, but since it can also create social change.
For instance, the Atlantic reported in 2020 that electricity use notably decreased among customers when told how it compared with the usage of their neighbors. This idea of positive peer pressure can be crucial toward the goal to mitigate climate change. Taking individual action can create a society in which people not only support environmental policies and other climate action, but also view themselves as climate advocates.
However, beyond that, we should continue to emphasize making these changes while also understand that this isn’t enough.
It is vital for people to use their voice and ballot to vote in people and policies targeted toward creating meaningful change on a large scale. When enough pressure and responsibility is applied onto politicians, they can be kept accountable to pass major environmental laws and regulations. These same politicians can additionally hold oil companies and other major polluters responsible for their actions to ensure that significant progress can be taken toward achieving a more sustainable world.
We cannot grow complacent just because we decided to stop using plastic straws or started to eat less meat. Solving the climate crisis requires consistent participation and putting pressure on each other and the people that are both most accountable and can create the most effective changes.
Therefore, rather than view the fight toward climate change with guilt or a lost hope, understanding the nuance of this issue can help us realize the limitless and urgent actions we can play — not as individual people, but as a collective and total society.