Can individuals actually make a difference to the climate crisis?

A recurrent conversation that I have with friends is about whether individuals making small changes can have any real impact on the climate crisis. When our contributions are so small in the grand scheme of things and when big, powerful nations and corporations do so much more damage compared, what’s the point of even trying?

For me, this has been the biggest factor preventing me from taking action to making my life greener (other than my own laziness), because if it’s not possible for a teeny tiny individual like me to make a substantial difference, then is it really worth going to all the effort?

I’ve gone back and forth between yes and no over the years but I know where I land on this now. These seem to be the main arguments:

My impact is miniscule compared to the impact that China has

It’s true that developing industrial nations like China produce a lot of carbon emissions. In fact, China alone accounts for 29% of the world’s emissions. When this is obviously having a much bigger impact on the environment, does that make any changes that I make meaningless?

Well, laying aside the slight hypocrisy in complaining about China’s manufacturing processes when we’re the ones that are buying a lot of the stuff that they’re manufacturing, the fact is that we in the UK and other Western countries have been polluting for a lot longer than they have, meaning that we still share a large part of the responsibility for the situation we’re in now, even if we are now taking steps to try and redress it. And if we don’t clean up our act, then it’s highly likely that developing nations won’t clean theirs up either, which just compounds the problem and then we’ve got no chance.

Also, let’s not forget that China contains almost a fifth of the world’s population. If you look at it from the view of how much emissions each individual makes, people in the places like the US and UK produce a lot more. The carbon footprint of someone in a Western society is much greater than that of someone in a developing nation. Have a look at this handy calculator to give you a rough idea of how much carbon you produce then think about how that adds up over the course of your lifetime and across the whole of the country’s population put together.

What about big fossil fuel companies?

You’ve probably heard a lot about how the top 100 companies are responsible for 71% of green house emissions. I don’t know about you, but I find this fact very disheartening. It puts my efforts into perspective and makes the many hours I’ve spent over the years fastidiously washing out yoghurt pots and peanut butter jars so I can put them in the recycling seem a bit futile. Not exactly motivational.

But we have to remember that those companies are only selling what consumers want to buy and we’re the ones actually burning the fuel. If we reduce the demand for fossil fuel, we reduce its production. The same is true for any product – our choices about what to buy drive what is sold.

Now, that doesn’t let the top 100 companies off the hook. The buck is not completely passed to us as consumers. The wealthiest companies and people still have more power to make big, sweeping changes than the majority of people. We are responsible for our choices but, equally, they are still very much responsible for theirs.

It’s too late to make any real difference – climate change will happen anyway

I’m not going to sound the claxon of doom again because (a) I find that thinking about it too much tends to send me into a terrified paralysis and (b) others have already done it so much better than I could, but there’s a lot of evidence to indicate that we’re very near the point of no return. The effects of global warming are predicted to result in a huge loss of life if temperatures rise by more than 1.5˚C, and we’re likely to reach that point in the next ten years or so. The only way that this can be averted is through an urgent, monumental reduction in emissions. We’re talking about change on a scale that requires governments to implement drastic policy changes. This means living up to the commitments they’ve made, and giving people the incentives and infrastructure to make greener choices easy and affordable. Because without that then we don’t have a chance of saving ourselves.

So, other than voting in people who are more likely to make these changes, what power do we have? The way I see it is that it will take a superhuman effort to limit the damage done, so we have to give it everything we’ve got. Even if our individual actions only make a tiny difference, they will all count towards the same goal. Given that we seem to be very close to the stage where it will be too late, but we’re probably not quite there yet, then we might as well try anything and everything that we can. The alternative is to sit back and watch the world around us be destroyed.

I’m too small to make a difference

I’m not going to lie – you’re pretty insignificant. Sorry for the lack of sugar-coating there. We all are insignificant in the scheme of things. But you still have an impact. Like I said before, as a Western consumer, the individual choices you make have the potential to have a greater impact on the environment than the choices of people in other parts of the world might have. You also have an impact on those around you.

On a grander scale, one Swedish schoolgirl’s decision to protest snowballed into a global movement, but for the majority of us who aren’t full on activists this principle translates down into the everyday as well. We are highly social beings and we are influenced by the people around us. Your decisions and actions are seen by your friends, your family, your colleagues. Seeing you make greener choices helps to normalise those choices and make it easier for others to follow suit, or at the very least make others aware that there is a choice at all.

Yes, larger systemic changes are needed. The people who wield the most power – the wealthiest, the top 100 companies, our governments – are by far the most able to make a difference. This is necessary and if it doesn’t happen then individual change alone will not be enough. We can push for this and do what we can to influence those in power through our voting and consumer choices, but that doesn’t mean that we’re divorced from the situation. It’s not a case of one or the other, system change vs. individual action. It’s something that every single one of us is a part of.

We are the system. That means that collectively our actions can change it.

So, am I single-handedly going to keep global temperatures below 1.5 degrees with my Meat Free Mondays? No. No, obviously I’m not. But I am still part of a bigger picture and it all adds up. In that sense, there is no change too small.

What do you think? If there are any other arguments that I haven’t covered here please let me know in the comments!

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