Individual Action and Climate Change

May 2019

Can your individual action make a difference for climate change? Often, there’s little room for such action in the climate change discourse. Take Project Drawdown, which aims to rank the best climate-friendly interventions available. Some (such as their #1 intervention, “Refrigerant Management”), are targeted at small groups of specialist in a specialized industry. Others, such as #3 – Reduce Food Waste – seem more approachable for individuals looking to make a difference. But even there, the recommendations are not actionable for most people:

There are numerous and varied ways to address key waste points. In lower-income countries, improving infrastructure for storage, processing, and transportation is essential. In higher-income regions, major interventions are needed at the retail and consumer levels. National food-waste targets and policies can encourage widespread change.

It seems that to help, you should either be a grocery magnate or a politician. Failing that, you might try to lobby or influence your local politicians or greengrocers. This view is well-expressed by David Wallace-Wells in his best seller “Uninhabitable Earth”:

…the climate calculus is such that individual lifestyle choices do not add up to much, unless they are scaled by politics.

Later on:

accusations of individual irresponsibility were a kind of weaponized red herring, as they often are in communities reckoning with the onset of climate pain. We frequently choose to obsess over personal consumption, in part because it is within our control and in part as a very contemporary form of virtue signaling. But ultimately those choices are, in almost all cases, trivial contributors, ones that blind us to the more important forces.

What are the “more important forces”? Politics:

Eating organic is nice, in other words, but if your goal is to save the climate your vote is much more important.

Wallace-Wells is particularly dismissive of individual action, even calling it “virtue signaling”. Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, expressed a more charitable version of this view on a recent episode of KQED Forum, right here in the Bay Area. Several locals called in to the show to ask how they can help. A typical caller is Jenny from Petaluma (around 31:30 in the show):

I’m willing to upend my life to be a part of really solving this problem in my own small way. I’d love to hear how to do that sensibly.

McKibben responds in a typical way:

There are a number of individual actions that are useful. Eating lower on the food chain. Putting solar panels all over your own roof. Figuring out how to get around on public transit. Not jumping on an airplane just because you want to get to some place that’s a little warmer than the place you are now. But, let me add this caution. Climate change is a math problem, and at this late stage in the game you can’t make the math work anymore one Tesla at a time, one vegan meal at a time. My house is covered with solar panels, I’m prod of them, I don’t try to fool myself that this is how we’re going to stop climate change. The most important thing an individual can do is be a little less of an individual and join together with others in movements of a size enough to make a difference.

If you take McKibben’s advice and visit the Bay Area 350.org website, their actions – writing letters, organizing rallies, and convincing local governments to declare a state of emergency – are all oriented around politics. The biggest call to action on their page is the Donate button.

What About Money?

I live in the Bay Area, where one out of 11,000 people is a billionaire and everyone is really busy all the time. Maybe one way that these rich, busy people can help is by throwing a few bucks towards a cause?

I saw an extreme version of this approach articulated on the SSC subreddit recently: The OP is asking about carbon offsets, and another poster expresses skepticism that those are effective. The OP replies:

I agree it’s not the systemic solution, but for now I’m just looking for a personal moral offset.

In today’s world (/me shakes fist at the kids on their escooters), where most life concerns are outsourced, this kind of thinking makes sense. What if i just go about my life as normal, but I pay someone else to clean up the mess? This is a diametric opposite of Jenny from Petaluma, who was willing to “upend [her] life” – u/BistanderEffect is unwilling to change in almost any way, but is willing to spend a little money.

In the Bay Area, an even more pragmatic approach is available. For instance, Malcolm Handley, founder of Strong Atomics, once told me that he realized he personally knows several of the Bay’s many billionaires. Perhaps the most effective way to help with climate change, he told me once, is to convince some of them to spend a bit of their money to fund, say, fusion reactors.

In a more cliche version of Bay Area thinking – maybe we don’t even have to spend any money at all? After all, brilliant people like Elon Musk are working on climate solutions, like a fancy electric car, that actually make money. All we have to do is wait a little while, and The Market and technology will be our salvation.

I Disagree

I’ve outlined some typical memes in our culture around climate change which I find fundamentally unsatisfying. Politics is, of course, necessary, but it’s also exhausting and it’s very difficult to keep focused and motivated. I could write a separate blog post specifically on my views around politics as an infinite game of tug-of-rope, but everyone pulling as hard as they can in their direction has given us the current state of stalemate.

The several versions of “someone else will do something” – be it greengrocers, farmers, refrigerant technicians, or Elon Musk – are quite disempowering. Surely, if you believe the climate change is a big deal, just sitting back and doing nothing won’t be the right course of action for you. The most complicated argument to counter is the one around around outsourcing the problem. Shouldn’t it be enough to just donate a few bucks to some organizations, and maybe buy some carbon offsets?

Living the Difference

Two facts:

  1. To stop the worst effects of climate change, we have to leave fossil fuels in the ground.
  2. There is no electric passenger air service

Taken together, these two facts imply that passenger air service is impossible to do in an ecologically friendly way right now. We need to both plant a bunch of trees AND stop flying – one does not excuse the other. In the same way that you cannot “pay” for flights with trees planted in the ground, you cannot “pay” for climate change with money. We definitely have to spend money to ameliorate climate change, for instance by building solar and wind farms. But we cannot just pay the universe to take out our CO2 for us, the way we pay a plumber to fix a leak.

There are too many complicated ideas here for me to unpack all of them. For instance, humans compare themselves to others, and evaluate their own status based on their relative status in their social circle. When we argue for carbon taxes, we might suspect that they would make certain activities – like flying – more expensive and therefore less commonly-practiced. But maybe if everyone had to fly less, it wouldn’t be as big a deal? You might still fly more than your friend Bob, and that’s good enough.

This then starts involving complicated ideas of climate justice. What if we pass high enough carbon taxes to double the cost of flights. Do the rich people still get to fly as much as they want, while the poor and middle class folks get even less access to flights? Carbon taxes would also raise the price of food – do the rich still get to eat as much as they want while the poor starve in greater numbers? Advocating for solutions like carbon taxes – the means – lets you avoid thinking about their consequences – the actual ends we’re pursuing, and what those look like.

I think we should reverse our thinking and start with the end. What does a world where climate catastrophe has been averted look like? Maybe people fly less. Maybe we eat less meat and more plants. Maybe our energy is produced through renewable sources.

We don’t have to wait for governments to force us to make these changes. We can just start living as through the future was already here.

Enter the Spaceship

I don’t want you to keep doing whatever you want in the hopes that someone else will solve climate change. But I also don’t want you to decide that, so long as you’re pure and holy, you’ve done your part. Bill McKibben is not wrong to say that we need collective action, but there might be kinds of collective action that he hasn’t anticipated.

This is where the idea of Spaceship Earth comes from. You should be living as though we’ve already decided to stop pumping petroleum from the ground and instituted carbon taxes. But you need to get everyone you know to start living like that, too. The carbon taxes are one way to get them to start living like there already exist carbon taxes. But Spaceship Earth is another way, and unlike passing carbon taxes, you can start playing Spaceship Earth right now (well, once we’re done building it).