You’ve seen the headlines, read the stories, and now “climate” has officially been added to the list in your head of important, intimidating issues society needs to solve ASAP.
You’ve also asked yourself the question “what can I do personally?”, which was quickly followed up by “and will it actually make a difference?”
The answer to the first question is fairly straightforward: besides voting and advocating for crucial policies (like a carbon fee and dividend), there are plenty of meaningful actions you can take personally—here’s a whole menu.
Answering the second question—”will it actually make a difference?”—is what this post is all about, because it’s both a valid and a vital question—and because the answer is being debated right now.
One answer to the question
Recently, leading voices like journalist David Wallace-Wells and climatologist Michael E. Mann have issued urgent pleas asking those of us who are concerned about climate change to NOT focus so much of our attention on changing our personal behavior. They argue we should instead use our limited energy and resources to tackle the broader, political impediments to the clean energy transition—including obstacles like the deeply entrenched policies that protect the fossil fuel industry.
This line of thinking argues that the only effective solution is large-scale political organizing: to elect decision makers who can leverage their authority to bring about meaningful change more quickly. These thinkers urge that 100 percent of our attention and resources be directed toward the political realm—a focus they say would be far more effective than making individual lifestyle changes like buying outdoor solar lights or cutting back on meat once a week. All these other actions, in their view, are a “toxic distraction.”
In a recent New York Times opinion piece, Wallace-Wells concluded that “conscious consumption is a cop-out, a neoliberal diversion from collective action, which is what is necessary.” While he conceded that people should “try to live by their own values, about climate as with everything else,” he said the effects of individual lifestyle choices are “ultimately trivial compared with what politics can achieve.”
Writer Bill McKibben, a longtime climate advocate, has offered similar thoughts on what’s needed to really make a difference. Rather than relying on economics and consumer demand to shift the world to a less-risky trajectory, he says, we need to change politics and invest in the growing climate movement.
“Unless the industry’s political power can be broken, the transition away from fossil fuel cannot happen at the pace that physics demands,” McKibben wrote in an April op-ed. And “unless we goose the pace with government action, the world that we someday power with clean energy would be a dirty world, a broken planet.”
Scaling behavior for greater impact
So, should we should stop advocating for behavior change among individuals and communities? Generation 180’s answer is a respectful but emphatic “no!”. Our view is that individual and community behavior change AND major policy action AND continued technological innovation are all required if we want to get to the livable, clean energy-powered future we want to see.
Individual action—if it’s scaled to the point where it becomes collective action—can have a potentially profound impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, more than you might expect. For example, in a recent report, researchers from Rare’s Center for Behavior & the Environment looked at Project Drawdown’s list of 80 “ready to deploy” solutions to climate change and found that at least 30 of them depend in large part on individual behavior change.
Behavior change AND major policy reform AND continued technological innovation are all required…
These 30 solutions are for the most part in-hand and ready to go. They cover four main areas—food, agriculture and land management, transportation, and energy and materials—and include measures like composting and reducing food waste, replacing gasoline cars with electric cars and e-bikes, and installing LED lighting and solar panels.
But to reach the last mile of deployment and achieve mass-market adoption, these solutions need our support—as consumers. In other words, they need large-scale behavior change. And while not all of us have the means or capacity to embrace all of these solutions, those of us who can, should. By pushing these solutions into the mainstream, we can help them become more publicly and politically acceptable.
Not convinced yet? A new analysis, also from Rare, models the potential impact of six key behaviors that, if each reached a 10% adoption level among Americans, could get our county over three-quarters of the way to the greenhouse gas emissions target we set in the Paris Agreement.
Those six behaviors are:
- Eating a plant-rich diet
- Reducing food waste
- Purchasing an electric car
- Purchasing green energy (like rooftop solar)
- Reducing air travel (one fewer flight per year)
- Using carbon offsets (to offset our remaining, unavoidable emissions).
Over three-quarters of the way to meeting our Paris Agreement goal. That’s meaningful impact.
Behavior change leads to policy change
Perhaps more importantly, individual behavior change, at a large enough scale, can help create the environment in which impactful policy change is an actual possibility. Kevin Green, senior director at Center for Behavior and the Environment, recently put it well: “It doesn’t take an act of Congress to get to behavior change—but it might take behavior change to get to an act of Congress.” A recent New York Times article put it another way while recounting an interview with Alice Larkin of the University of Manchester’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research: “while governments do need to take tough action, they derive their courage to do so from the conduct of citizens.”
With enough concerted effort, we can work to create a movement that changes behavior—and that helps to spread social norms. These new “energy aware” norms, as they become increasingly mainstream, can in turn develop attitudes that support the crucial policy changes we need.
Where to focus our efforts
The list of potential actions we can take as individuals is long—and they’re not all created equal. Our strategy at Generation 180 is to focus on behaviors and products that can both make a real dent in carbon emissions and, crucially, have a transformative, “gateway” effect on the people and communities that adopt them—an effect that can ultimately be additive to the building of political will.
What transformative, “gateway” effect are we talking about? Research shows that interventions that prompt people to take “pro-environmental behaviors” that are significant and highly visible investments can develop and strengthen a sense of social identity and have a persistent “pro-environmental” effect on a person’s subsequent behavior.
It doesn’t take an act of Congress to get to behavior change—but it might take behavior change to get to an act of Congress.
Rooftop solar and electric cars fit these criteria well (for example, survey data show that driving an electric car makes people conserve energy in their homes more). Changing how people view themselves and the world around them is powerful stuff—it’s one of the most effective leverage points you can use to make change happen within a complex system like our society.
Supporting specific behavioral actions that have been identified as being not only impactful, but perspective- and identity-shifting, will be key to securing a cleaner, safer, healthier world. Products and behaviors that can be scaled quickly—like installing rooftop solar, driving an electric car, and switching to plant-rich diets—can directly move the needle on carbon emissions and stimulate mainstream market adoption.
To reiterate: we absolutely need major policy action on both the federal and state levels to get where we need to go. But when you’re not at the ballot box or organizing politically, there are meaningful, impactful actions that you can take in your home and in your community—like driving an electric car or advocating for solar on your local school. Again—it’s hard to imagine amassing the political will we need without leveraging these tangible, transformative products and behaviors that provide an important gateway to bigger changes.
So, to answer the big question: yes, your actions do matter. Let’s step up and do this—in your home, your community, and at the ballot box.