Climate change: Do individual actions really matter?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

A sobering report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released last week placed blame for rising global temperatures squarely on human activity and predicted even more severe weather in the coming years unless drastic measures are taken to reduce global emissions.

“How hot it gets is still up to us,” Kim Cobb, one of the lead authors of the report told Yahoo Finance.

The new report adds to an overwhelming volume of scientific evidence that major changes must be made at every level of the world economy to prevent already-extreme weather events from becoming even more catastrophic. Governments around the world have established ambitious plans to reduce their carbon emissions. President Biden, for example, committed to cutting U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in half by the end of the decade.

The sense of urgency is also being felt on an individual level. Concern about climate change has become an increasingly important factor in many people’s lives, informing everything from day-to-day decisions such as what they drive and what they eat to major life choices like where they will live and whether they’ll have children.

Why there’s debate

Stories offering advice on what people can do to help avert the worst impacts of climate change have become a staple of news coverage whenever a worrying new climate report is released. But many activists and scientists take issue with the idea that individual decisions should be the focus of efforts to stem global warming.

Personal lifestyle choices, they say, make only a tiny difference relative to the massive impact that corporations and governments can have if they were willing to treat climate change with the seriousness it deserves. Some even argue that these conversations can actually hold back the climate movement by providing cover for the small number of companies that are responsible for the bulk of global emissions — the concept of a personal “carbon footprint,” for example, was first popularized by British Petroleum as a way to draw attention away from the fossil fuel industry.

Others say placing 100 percent of the blame on corporations ignores the role that individuals can play in reducing climate change. Climate change, they argue, is the result of billions of personal decisions over the course of decades, and reversing that trend will require the same kind of collective action that will inevitably be rooted in the choices individuals make. They make the case that governments and companies will enact top-down systemic change only if they feel pressure from individual consumers and voters to do so.

What’s next

The massive infrastructure bill currently being debated in Congress contains a number of measures that cumulatively could represent a significant step toward decarbonizing the U.S. economy. One piece of the two-part agenda has already passed through the Senate. A second, much larger bill could be brought to the floor as soon as next month.


Both individual and systemic change are needed to combat climate change

“The problem requires sustained contributions from every corner of industry, every level of government, every academic institution, every foundation and philanthropist, and from all of us as individuals.” — L. Rafael Reif, Boston Globe

Collective action can’t happen without individuals

“We needn’t remove carbon from the atmosphere in one fell swoop to be effective in addressing climate change. We need to start where we are, use the talents we already have, and plug into groups and communities that are already doing the work. Building community around action should be our measure of success, and it can happen right now.” — Sarah Jaquette Ray, Los Angeles Times

Voters’ individual decisions will shape U.S. climate policy

“Ultimately, hope for change among Congressional Republicans lies with voters, who say they care about climate, but haven’t made it a central issue determining their vote. Unless and until that changes, I fear that U.S. climate gridlock will continue.” — Samantha Gross, Brookings

Personal decisions have a knock-on effect that influences others’ behavior

“Clearly, in terms of global greenhouse gas emissions, a single person’s contribution is basically irrelevant (much like a single vote in an election). But … doing something bold like giving up flying can have a wider knock-on effect by influencing others and shifting what’s viewed as ‘normal.’” — Steve Westlake, Conversation

We must be honest about the fact that a greener future will involve personal sacrifices

“To be sure, making the transition to a just-green economy will lead to overall improvements in quality of life. … But undoubtedly many Americans will experience some of these changes as sacrifices and will therefore be resistant and distrustful. It’s important for the environmental movement, then, to keep insisting that individual behavior changes are not only righteous but required.” — Jason Mark, Sierra Club

The most important choice one person can make is in the voting booth

“As an individual, your choices have very little impact in terms of reducing the carbon or other environmental footprint of products. It’s more about getting laws put in place or policies in place than individual purchasing decisions.” — Shannon Lloyd, environmental systems researcher, to Guardian

Individual actions are already changing corporate behavior

“Today, major companies the world over are being pressed by their investors, but also by their boards, CEOs and employees who increasingly demand firms begin to plan for net zero and what it requires. To be sure, there will be firms that still traffic in pollution and environmental degradation. But they will not attract the best talent. Those laggard firms will see climate risks jump, costs rise and equities underperform.” — Stuart P.M. Mackintosh, The Hill

Rich people can make a real difference by changing their high-consumption lifestyles

“When leaders like President Joe Biden say they’ll heed ‘the science’ on climate change, that should mean urgently enacting deep cuts to emissions, not just by the US as a whole, but by the wealthiest Americans specifically.” — Jag Bhalla, Vox

Personal choices are too small to make a real difference

Individual actions matter in that they can reduce emissions, and they do connect each of us to a massive global crisis. All of that’s good. But, alone, it is nowhere near enough to battle the climate crisis on the scale that’s required.” — John D. Sutter, CNN

Blaming individuals is a marketing strategy from Big Oil

“For years, climate action has been framed in terms of personal responsibility: if you want to make a difference, you can try more eco-friendly diets, commutes or consumption habits. But these personal changes deflect from the difficult and far-reaching decisions that need to be made to restructure huge sectors of our societies, like energy, transportation, agriculture, construction and food supply.” — Sara Schurmann and Bianca Ferrari, Vice

Personal choices matter but are a tiny part of the economy-wide change that’s needed

“Meaningfully reducing carbon emissions will require sweeping policy changes on the government level and an overhaul of the world’s energy grids. And shifting the supply of clean energy will ultimately affect consumer demand downstream. So while individual choices still contribute to overall emissions, understanding the nature and scope of emissions requires thinking more structurally.” — Lauren Jackson and Mahima Chablani, New York Times

The focus on personal decisions makes climate change a much more partisan issue

“Instead of calling for restrictions on people’s behavior, which will be grist to the mill for predictable right-wing reaction, we should focus on the kind of action that’s really going to be effective, like funding a nationally networked electric grid, or regulating emissions from the highest-polluting industries.” — Holly Buck, Jacobin

Our systems don’t give individuals the opportunity to make greener choices

“If you want to ride your bike to work and there are no bike paths and no provisions for you to take your bike on the road, every time you bike to work you take your life in your hands. The idea that we can individually choose to go to a low-carbon transportation system is blaming the victim for the real decisions that are made about how we structure our cities, how we set energy policy, how we set the cost of automobiles.” — Robert Brulle, environmental sociologist, to Rolling Stone

An emphasis on personal choice undermines the climate movement

“If you can get people arguing over these individual lifestyle choices, then you are creating division over questions such as ‘Are you vegan or not?’ ‘Do you fly?’ So it’s a twofer—you deflect attention away from the need for real policy change, and you get infighting within the climate movement so that climate advocates are not speaking with one coherent voice.” — Michael Mann, climatologist, to Scientific American

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images (2)