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.



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.



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.


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.

In Defense of a Drop in the Bucket

This is a guest post from my friend Steve Bein, author of the Fated Blades novels, which entwine present-day crime and suspense with Japanese history; his Year of the Demon comes out in October. Steve also has a deep interest in climate change issues, and here delves into one of the core problems of climate change action. — Luc

Bike commuters in Beijing

A few years ago, after six years of riding my bicycle to work year-round, I did the math on how much gas I’d saved.  I’m a college professor, so I do more than half of my work from home.  I go to campus three days a week, thirty-two weeks a year, or thirty-seven weeks when I can teach summer school.  My round-trip bike ride was five or six miles, depending on what route I took.  I drive a Toyota Matrix, which gets me 33 miles per gallon pretty consistently.  So, crunching the numbers, I calculated that I’d saved 34½ gallons of gas, a whopping half a tank a year.

I would have done better by never going to visit my family.  My mom lives 300 miles away, my father 350—call it two tanks of gas per visit on average.  I’d be a pretty inconsiderate son, but I’d sure be a lot greener.

I might mention that I live in Minnesota, where it gets cold enough that on most winter days I was the only one on a bicycle.  By all social standards, my behavior was irrational.  And once I’d done the math, I concluded that there was no pressing ecological reason to continue riding in the winter.  If I stayed home for Thanksgiving that year, I’d offset the next four years worth of commuting.

In short, all of those cold winter rides and sweaty summer rides had accomplished nothing.  Or if not nothing, at least pretty close to nothing.  A drop in the bucket at best.

The math looks a little different if you go back six years at look at the decision to buy a house.  One of the primary concerns was commuting distance.  I was committed to biking to work, and if I hadn’t been, I could have done what many other people do: spend thousands of miles a year driving to work.  This may yet be in the cards for me.  College teaching positions are few and far between, and since my partner commutes five days a week, fifty weeks a year, the conscientious decision is to live close to her work, not mine.  It’s easily within the realm of possibility for me to commute sixty miles one way—a 2200% increase in fuel consumption, based solely on where we bought our house.

And yet even this is just a drop in the bucket, isn’t it?  One person’s driving decisions aren’t going to affect climate change to any significant degree.  But here’s the thing: even if all of my efforts amount to no more than a few drops in the bucket, I have to drop my drops.  There’s a bucket of problem and a bucket of solution, and my drop is going to fall in one or the other.  There is no scenario in which I have no drops.

The philosophy of futility says that even if you erase your carbon footprint completely, almost nothing will change.  Get all of your friends and family to do it too and still almost nothing will change.  There’s some truth to this, ugly as it may be.  But don’t let that demoralize you, because it’s utterly trivial in the face of the fact that you will drop your drops somewhere. You can’t not.

A $100 bicycle defined the purchase of a $135,000 house.  That’s the truth.  Because of that $100 bicycle, we didn’t buy a second car.  That’s the truth too.  As I learned during my sabbatical, riding every day keeps me about ten pounds lighter.  There are other side effects, some good, some bad.  Because of the bike, I’m healthier.  Because of the bike, we found a one-car garage sufficient, and that means our house will be tougher to sell.  Because of my bike, my partner bought a bike.

John Muir said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”  He was talking about nature, but it applies to bikes and cars and houses too, and to drops and buckets.

Photo by John Williams – IDEAS Project

The Secret to Climate Change Resolve

Facing climate change sucks. We’re just not built for it.

Human beings are built for problems with lots of feedback. If the climate reacted every year to how poorly we treated the environment in that year alone–or better yet, if that happened every month–then we’d be able to handle it all. We’d make bad choices and immediately be slapped down, then make better ones and feel relief.

But of course, the way it really works is that there’s a massive backlash that builds up over time and can’t be clearly traced from exact cause to exact consequence. We take an airplane flight to Honolulu, and it doesn’t seem to have any effect. We buy a hybrid car and it also seems to have no effect. A hurricane strikes the northeastern U.S. and we can’t say for sure to what extent climate change contributed. Mistakes seem infinitely forgiveable and smart choices seem to have no impact. The problem is huge, and it feels like we’re too small to make a difference.

That’s why we need Joseph Campbell.

Joseph Campbell

Who’s Joseph Campbell? He was the man who compared religions and mythologies from around the world and found that as human beings, there are certain stories and attitudes we share regardless of where or how we live. Perhaps the most powerful idea he unearthed was the story of the Hero’s Journey, which underlies everything from ancient myths to modern blockbuster movies. Christopher Vogler’s book The Writer’s Journey talks about how writers can employ this structure to create a compelling story. Here’s a diagram Vogler offers to explain the Hero’s Journey:

The Hero's Journey

That all might seem kind of fanciful and irrelevant to climate change, but Vogler also provides the following version of that diagram, phrased not in terms of story or myth but in terms of emotion and change. For me, at least, the applicability of the Hero’s journey to the process of radically changing our lives jumps out in this next image.


“1. Limited awareness of problem”? I certainly had that. Then Hurricane Sandy and the flooding of Venice drove me to look closer and voila, there I was at “2. Increased awareness of need for change.” My immediate reaction was described by “3. Fear; Resistance to Change.” I’m now at “4. Overcoming Fear” and “5. Committing to change.” This is exactly how it feels to be facing this problem.

What is it like for a dragon to menace your village, or for Mongol armies to invade? It feels like climate change: massive, disastrous, unstoppable, and far too big to do anything about individually.

The useful thing about this is that it provides a way to think about the problem that can empower us. We are each the hero in this story, because we are facing our fears and reluctantly going on a journey into an unknown landscape where we’re certain to be facing difficulty, trials, pain, and loss. Ultimately, though, if we don’t turn back, we come back home and find ourselves not only changed, but also in possession of a prize that’s desperately needed by our family, village, town, school, friends, country, or world … we will have successfully shown the way to transition to a lifestyle that will save us from the worst ravages of climate change.

Don’t be distracted by the word “hero”: it’s not likely that we’ll come home to a ticker tape parade (those always seemed horribly wasteful to me anyway). Many people may not even notice that we did anything.

But we’ll know–and what might be even better about all of this is that the fear, the feeling of helplessness we face at the beginning of the process, will be largely gone. The emotional difference between fearing what we do won’t be enough and actually doing everything we can is enormous. We don’t have to succeed. We don’t have ride triumphantly into town with the corpse of a slain hurricane dragging behind us. We just have to step out into the wilderness and be willing to face the trials that are coming. Courage–that is, acting despite being afraid–is its own reward.

Where We’ll Find the Power to Fight Climate Change

I would love to ignore climate change. Love to. The problems and nightmare scenarios are too huge, the solutions too convoluted and unlikely, the attention in our culture mostly just not there. Climate change is a room-darkening subject, an uncomfortable truth that we’ll consider just as soon as we figure out how to pay off the credit cards, a problem that surely we can put off for just a little bit longer (right)?

Please, stick with me through this post. I bet you don’t enjoy this stuff any more than I do, but there is a bright spot for us at the end, and I’ll keep this brief.

The worst thing for me is imagining my children starving. I’ll only spend a minute on this, but consider that climate change is melting mountain glaciers that are an absolute requirement to irrigating huge tracts of farmland around the world, tracts that are essential to feeding billions of people. Without these glaciers to supply water in summer, that land will stop producing food, and there won’t be other land to cultivate in its place. In the mean time, our oceans are changing in temperature and chemical composition as they absorb more carbon, becoming more acidic and threatening shellfish and other essential links in oceanic food chains. Climate change also creates drought, multiplies forest fires, and makes storms bigger to wipe out crops that would otherwise grow to maturity … and while all this is happening, we’re letting our population grow.

At some point, unless we make enormous changes, things are going to start getting very nasty.

Human civilizations unfortunately do not have a good record of facing and reversing catastrophes, and there’s good reason for this: it’s painful to face these catastrophes, so we go to great lengths not to. Maybe we try to argue that they aren’t happening, or that we can’t do anything about them, or that it’s not our job, or that we still have plenty of time.

Yet climate change is happening, we can do something about it, it’s everybody’s job, and time is up. We’re already suffering the damages of a disturbed climate. Let’s stop the bleeding and then see if we can rehabilitate the patient a little.

What will this take? I’m the first one to admit that I’m not expert–at least not at the moment–on what physical changes we need to make. I do know that renewable energy, recycling, reducing consumption and waste, energy conservation, and sustainable agriculture all factor in, along with other parts. Regardless, there are two challenges we have to face no matter what we need to do with our hands:

1. We have to find a way to face climate change with open eyes and uncrushed hearts. This is difficult. It’s easy to ignore it or to be overwhelmed by it. We can’t afford to do either one.

2. We have to learn how to change our habits.

This is where I am an expert. I’ve been studying happiness, habit formation, motivation, and management of thoughts and emotions for years, and I write and speak about those topics all the time. I have a successful blog on all that (with some writing posts thrown in) at I can teach people how to break old habits, how to form new habits, how to face unpleasant truths without being broken by them, and a lot more.

And now I need to apply that knowledge to climate change, which is what I plan to do here. I could use your help: comments, suggestions of resources, criticisms, concerns, links, support … whatever you’ve got. If you’re working on climate change somewhere, tell me about it so that I can read and link. If you need to know something about climate change, let me know so I can research it and write about it. We can’t afford to make climate change a side-taking issue any more. We’ll either learn to face it together, or it will roll right over us and leave us wishing we’d pulled together when we had the chance.

Photo by Marianne O’Leary