There’s been no letup in the debate over whether and how individual pathways matter in the fight against climate change.
There’s been no letup in the long-standing debate over whether and how individual pathways – as opposed to decisive policy at global scale – matter in the fight against climate change. If anything, the new year has seen a resurgence of climate science and policy experts weighing in.
On the one hand are people like Morten Fibieger Byskov, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Warrick in the United Kingdom. His recent article argues against making it the responsibility of individuals to deliver the “climate fix,” and places the burden on corporations and governments.
“Take public transport instead of the car or, for longer journeys, the train rather than fly. Eat less meat and more vegetables, pulses and grains, and don’t forget to turn off the light when leaving a room or the water when shampooing,” Byskov writes, reciting the litany of advice to climate-aware citizens. “The implication here is that the impetus for addressing climate change is on individual consumers.”
That’s not where it belongs, he says, pointing to a widely cited Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) report that found just 100 companies, most of them in the fossil-fuel and extractive industries, have caused 71 percent of carbon emissions in the last 30 years. Corporations are accountable for their climate impacts, Byskov says, while governments are charged with crafting and enforcing policies to protect a sustainable future.
Individual choices play a role, but especially in the developing world, it’s wrong to expect the least equipped people – people facing climate challenges they didn’t cause – to shoulder the burden of planetary repair. “Appealing to individual virtues for addressing climate change is something akin to victim-blaming because it shifts the burden from those who ought to act to those who are most likely to be affected by climate change,” Byskov concludes.
On the other hand are the myriad advocates for individual responsibility, with campaigns across the planet, insisting that people, their consumption and their lifestyles need to be dramatically different – and fast. That’s an entirely rational view too, considering that all collective action rests by definition on a consensus of individuals. The power to force change from politicians and CEOs is embedded in each cell of the collective decision, and humans will act on the basis of the investment they’ve made.
There’s also plenty of social science research to document the importance of climate-friendly personal choices when they set an example, influence others, reach a critical mass in society and set a desperately needed “new normal.” In one U.S. apartment complex, for example, residents conserved more electricity when a consumption “leaderboard” displayed their real-time energy use in the lobby and inspired friendly competition.
“All solutions depend on individuals choosing to invest their time, energy, finances, and thought to reaching drawdown,” write the scientists at Project Drawdown, which promotes ideas and takes its name from the future point when the planet’s atmospheric greenhouse gases begin their permanent decline. “Each individual decision can make a difference, whether that is a consumer or board member.”
It’s fair to say that it’s not either-or. Scientists like Byskov, or Michael Mann in the United States, make a valid point when arguing that shifting the weight to consumers absolves companies of their climate crimes, and shifting the consequences to citizens is poor government or worse. Not to mention that the scale of systemic change to drive successful climate transition vastly exceeds the life choices and impact of any one individual.
Perhaps much of the problem lies in the sense that climate-friendly personal decisions, at least for much of the developed world, sounds too much like austerity and privation. Individual choice does matter and should be encouraged, but people are more likely to make smarter climate choices when they view them as enhancing their quality of life: The cars, cuisine and communities change because they make our lives better, and that’s all.