Climate Change: Does the Individual Matter? 

Climate Change: Does the Individual Matter?

“Does it really matter what I do as an individual?” – A question that reappears in discussions about climate change. 

And for good reasons, in a world where global temperatures are rising and extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and intense, what power do we as individuals have to do something about it? 

Taking Responsibility for Climate Change

Debates around climate change mitigation often revolve around one of these questions: 

  • Who is responsible? 
  • Is it the individual consumer? 
  • Is it politicians? 
  • Or is it large corporations? 

But going down this road of focusing on who’s the culprit and responsible for doing something about it hasn’t gotten us anywhere. We’re still not doing enough to limit global warming to 2°C, let alone 1.5°C

It’s no secret that addressing climate change requires systemic change, a fundamental transformation of society. This certainly explains why we keep circling back to the fact that the responsibility should lie with the biggest polluters. 

But does it mean that, as individuals, all 8 billion of us have no obligation to live in line with what the planet can sustainably support? I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound right. 

The Individual and Large Polluters 

Why are we so reluctant to take responsibility as individuals? A common argument is that it’s unfair to place responsibility on individuals when companies and governments emit the most and have the power to change things. 

It’s a good point. A national government or multinational corporation can reduce global emissions more than I am as an individual. 

Another problem with focusing on what the individual can do to mitigate climate change is that it’s often seen as shifting focus away from the big polluters. 

It’s a fair concern, to be sure. We shouldn’t let the largest polluters off the hook just because we, as individuals, are required to act. But who says that’s even the case? Why are we dealing with such extremes?

Acknowledging that we can take responsibility for our actions as individuals concerning climate change doesn’t mean that governments or corporations don’t share that responsibility.

And while we as individuals can’t have as much of an impact on our own, it doesn’t mean we’re entirely powerless. We have a great deal of power in several of the different roles we occupy.

As consumers, we drive demand. And our consumption choices are far from insignificant. If we, for instance, shop a lot of fast fashion items, then that’s what companies will keep producing.

As individual consumers, we’re part of the problem. In fact, household consumption contributes to over 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Fortunately, since we’re part of the problem, we can also be the solution. In short, we matter. 

In their latest assessment cycle, the IPCC concluded that enabling changes to our lifestyles and behavior can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40-70% by 2050. Not precisely an insignificant number, is it? 

The Power of the Investor 

Money rules the world. But who rules the money? You do. Suppose you’ve got savings somewhere, whether in a savings account, a stock, a fund, or a direct investment in a business; what we choose to fund with our money matters. 

Redirecting our money to fund green initiatives is one of the most powerful things we can do as individuals. The bank often uses the money in a savings account to give a loan to someone else—the question is, just who? Will your money fund oil drilling or solar panels? 

And what about your pension savings? We’re many people worldwide that are saving money for our retirement.

So much, so that retirement savings amounted to over 56 trillion USD at the end of 2020. To put this into perspective, at COP26, developed countries pledged 100 billion USD a year to mitigate and adapt to climate change. That’s just a fraction (less than 0.2%) of all the money in retirement savings!

All that money is being placed and used for something. But for what…?  

The Power of the Employee 

As individuals, we also have power in our roles as employees. We tend to keep our private lives and work lives separate, but at the end of the day, we spend roughly half of our days at our workplace. It’s a massive part of our daily lives and a significant sphere of influence.

Most of us are more powerful than we think in creating change within our workplace. And by implementing a sustainability effort in our private and work lives, we can influence our employers and colleagues to act more sustainably too. 

Research indicates that if we have friends or family that care about the climate and discuss it with us, we’re more likely to care about it ourselves and support climate-friendly policies

Your colleagues know you, which makes them more likely to listen to what you have to say rather than if they’re hearing it from a stranger. And suppose you propose a sustainability initiative, such as setting up a recycling station at the office.

In that case, chances are it’ll be well-received and well received. Sustainability is becoming a force to be reckoned with on business agendas worldwide, and every little bit helps.

The Power of the Democratic Citizen 

We often blame politicians for not prioritizing climate change issues and failing to implement the policies required to halt global warming. But here’s an exciting saying: We get the politicians we deserve.  

Now, if the politicians in power aren’t pushing for the change you’d like to see, you can do something about it. Rather than just blaming politics for climate inaction, we could try to influence it. At the end of the day, a politician is just someone who’s taken on a public role to make a difference. 

Politics influences everything in your daily life, from income to waste. That’s the beautiful thing about democracy; we can all influence its politics. And if you think you don’t like politics, try looking at it this way: Everything’s politics.  

The power to influence politics goes beyond your vote, though. Being a citizen isn’t a one-off event you do every few years. It’s also about how you act on a day-to-day basis. Just chatting with your neighbor or cleaning up someone else’s mess on your street can make the world around you just a little bit better.

Does life revolve around what car you drive or which brand of clothes you can afford? Isn’t how we engage with the people around us more important? Civil society certainly has power, which can make our lives more sustainable. There’s an individual choice to be made here, and it matters.

From Local to Global 

A global problem requires global solutions. Developing low-carbon technologies, decarbonizing the transport system, shifting to a circular economy… It’s certainly easy to feel relatively small in the face of such large-scale systemic changes. 

But stop for a minute and think about these three questions:

  • Where do you place your savings?
  • How do you get to work?
  • And how do you dispose of your waste?

Each of these three lifestyle choices impacts these global solutions. And crucially, we must move away from dealing with extremes regarding who mitigates climate change. We all share a responsibility to do something. Not individuals, governments, or companies alone. All of us, together.

You’ve probably heard this climate action slogan before: Everyone can’t do everything, but everyone can do something. Sounds about right, doesn’t it?

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