Climate Change: One Person Makes No Difference (but …)

I had been reading some climate change materials on Quora recently, and in with some great information, there was someone who had asked whether people are overly concerned with their personal carbon footprints. There had been only one response so far, and it was from someone who said, essentially “Yes, they are: an individual person’s contribution to climate change is a drop in the ocean.” This may have been a troll, admittedly, because late in his post he says “… it is not rational to worry about one’s personal footprint. A far more reasonable and productive approach would be to worry about other people’s.” Is it just me, or is the error there really easy to spot? So I’d like to suggest a way of looking at this question that I think might make the answer clear. I think that we can agree that governments, businesses, and other people could at least in theory make a lot more difference in climate change than any one of us can individually.

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Governments

Democractic governments are only successful in pursuing policies that their constitutents support. If you and I and all the other voters aren’t minding our own carbon footprints, we’re giving our governments a clear message that lowering carbon footprint isn’t important. Virtue generally does not originate with politicians, unfortunately, and when it does, it is often voted out of office unless it has a lot of supporters out in the populace.

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Businesses

Some businesses, certainly, try to lower their carbon footprints, but you can only do so much of this before it starts costing more money than you get out of it, and most businesses can’t afford to put themselves at a competitive disadvantage in this way. Corporations are actually required by law to pursue profitable approaches, and would run afoul of the law and/or shareholders if they spent too much money being environmentally friendly.

The only way to change businesses is for customers to demand something different. As long as people are happy with buying goods and services that come from businesses with an unnecessarily huge carbon footprint, those goods and services will continue to be offered–and usually more cheaply than sustainable alternatives.

People like you and I, by purchasing in a sustainable way, can contribute to growing sustainable businesses and encourage more businesses to change. Without us voting with our wallets, this change will not happen.

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Everybody else

Sure, we’d like everybody else to lower their carbon footprint–but why should they, if we don’t? By doing everything we can to lower our personal contributions to climate change, we can be the trail-blazers. It’s true, no one may follow us–but if we wait for somebody else to lead the way, we’re unlikely to ever get anywhere.

So yes, individual carbon footprints are a somewhat piddling amount of overall greenhouse gas emissions, but without reducing them, none of the larger sources are likely to budge. Lead by example; be the change you want to see in the world.