This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 220 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
Almost every good deed you’ve been asked to do to fight global warming is counterproductive. Individual behavior change isn’t action—it’s distraction.
But worse than that: every carbon offset bought by a well-meaning liberal is another get-out-of-jail free card for the fossil fuel industry and the other major contributors to global climate destruction. It shifts the blame from the actual causes of climate change to fake ones, and shifts attention away from meaningful actions to meaningless, psychological ones. And by making real solutions harder to achieve, the mistaken focus on individual behavior change makes global warming worse.
First, if you run the numbers, it’s obvious that even if every do-gooder in the world changed their light bulbs to fluorescents, stopped going on vacation, and bought carbon offsets for every art project they built at Burning Man, none of this would make a dent in global carbon dioxide emissions. There just aren’t enough bleeding hearts to go around.
Moreover, individual behaviors are not the major causes of global warming.
The major drivers are collective enterprises like power grids, industry, and transportation systems. Cutting back on flying while allowing cars and trucks to operate as usual is like drinking diet soda with a bacon double cheeseburger. Their benefit is negligible, and totally negated by the much, much larger problems that are going unchecked.
Fighting global warming takes systemic change, collective action, and cooperation (witting or not) among much larger populations, not just those motivated (and privileged) enough to make changes by themselves.
It takes legislation to shift the most carbon-intensive industries—energy production, transportation, and food production—who will not change on their own.
And it takes real solutions for China and India, who are rapidly approaching United States levels of resource consumption, and who have no intention of missing out on the benefits that Europe and the U.S. have enjoyed (itself an offensive, colonialist notion).
Let’s look at some of the numbers.
Twenty-five percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from electricity generation. If you turn off the light when you leave the room, will that make a difference? Not at all. In the immediate term, excess electricity is dumped back into the grid. Nor, in the long term, will it even matter if everyone switched off their lights. Demand may go down a tiny bit, but only a tiny bit.
What would help? If power grids shifted from fossil fuels (coal, fracked gas, oil) to renewables like wind and solar. That’s how to move the needle on global warming: collective solutions to collective problems. But that takes collective action, government action, and serious plans for workers displaced by the changes.
To take a second example, transportation is responsible for another 14 percent of emissions. Does that mean you shouldn’t take your next vacation, as some well-intentioned writers have seriously suggested? Of course not.
First, commercial aircraft account for only 7 percent of transportation-related emissions. Passenger cars account for 42 percent, and all trucks 41 percent. The solutions in this area, obviously, are to increase fuel efficiency standards, charge a tax on high-emitting vehicles, stop regulating SUVs like cars when they’re really trucks, subsidize electric and hybrid vehicles, and use tax policies to incentivize local products to decrease the amount of trucking.
And what about the rest of the world? Is it reasonable to expect newly rich residents of China, India, and elsewhere to abstain from the air travel that Americans have enjoyed for decades? No, it’s colonialist. But without China and India, what is the point of this individual self-deprivation?
I could go on and on, but the point is the same every time. Individual actions are meaningless when collective actions aren’t taken.
Why do we do them, then?
Control and consolation. For those who understand the science, global warming is a terrifying reality. My daughter’s world will be so much worse than mine: half a billion climate refugees, ethno-nationalist backlashes to that unprecedented migration, global food disruptions, massive expenditures to mitigate the effects of flooding, crop shifts, extreme weather events. I have to do something, right?
Changing my individual behavior feels empowering, maybe even virtuous. The world may be going to hell, but I’m doing my part.
Indeed, the self-deprivation is part of the point. By making painful sacrifices, I feel like I’m making a difference.
Unfortunately, not only is this view false; it’s also profoundly counterproductive.
First, this kind of self-martyrdom detracts from the kind of change that’s actually needed. The environment doesn’t need martyrs; it needs pragmatic, committed activists. Every bit of energy I waste on ineffective, virtuous action is energy that should be spent on defeating Republicans, who, at least for now, are wholly in the thrall of the fossil fuel industry. With a Democratic Congress and a Democratic president, the United States could be making progress on global warming in 2021.
And incidentally, that would be true of any Democrat. The Green New Deal is an appealing slogan and a provocative program, but specific policies are a distant second, when it comes to global warming, to placing scientifically based realists in positions of power. The sole focus of anyone alarmed by global warming should be electing Democrats, of any ideological stripe, to federal and state government.
Second, the focus on individual behavior makes fighting global warming more controversial, while letting the actual entities causing of climate change off the hook. As Elizabeth Warren recently pointed out in an exchange on CNN, individual sacrifices—she mentioned straws, light bulbs, and cheeseburgers—“are exactly what the fossil fuel industry hopes we’re talking about.”
No one likes paper straws. If fighting global warming is about making annoying personal sacrifices, those who most need to be persuaded of climate change’s reality will instead turn away from it.
Meanwhile, Warren continued, 70 percent of U.S. global warming emissions come from three industries: fossil fuels, electric power, and construction. Shift the power grid to renewables, and you can use as many straws as you want. (Side-note: plastic straws pollute the oceans, not the atmosphere. It’s not even the same issue.)
Now, collective change is hard. It requires progressives to do things like compromise, persuade, and engage with the 28 percent of Americans who describe themselves as “cautious” or “disengaged” about climate change, rather than isolate themselves into cozy bubbles where everyone uses canvas bags. It requires latte-sipping liberals like me to empathize with people who really like eating meat and driving cars and work to adapt climate solutions to their life choices, instead of being contemptuous of them. Most of all, it requires pragmatism over utopianism, to which many progressives are almost congenitally allergic.
But the planet does not have time for our preferences.