There’s a famous 2016 cartoon by Matt Bors, which has since become a meme, in which a medieval peasant says, “We should improve society somewhat.” A smug man, trying to catch the peasant in hypocrisy, responds, “Yet you participate in society! Curious!”
When it comes to climate change, too many of us have internalized the smug man. Maybe we can’t afford to buy an electric car or a heat pump just yet. Maybe we just can’t bring ourselves to stop eating meat or to pass on long-distance travel. Maybe sometimes we get lazy about recycling. We may worry about climate change and want to make a difference. But after years of being browbeaten about our “carbon footprints,” we may feel we are too hopelessly compromised to do any good.
I’m here to tell you not to be too hard on yourself. Yes, it’s good to keep your carbon footprint in mind. But it’s also important to remember that the very idea of an individual “carbon footprint” was invented by BP, a massive oil company.
Focusing on individual carbon footprints distracts from the need to make substantive change where it can have the biggest impact: at the corporate and government levels. A supermajority of the people in this country wants action on climate change, but too many of us are afraid to ask for it.
“The consumer carbon footprint makes people so anxious and guilty that they feel they don’t have a right to express what they think because they think they’re directly responsible for climate change,” Miranda Massie, founder of the Climate Museum in New York, which tries to inspire people to individual action, said in an interview. “That was a masterstroke of cartoon villainy.”
Changing consumer behavior does have the potential to carve 5% from global emissions, Semafor’s Tim McDonnell noted recently. He published a chart, based on research by Diana Ivanova of Leeds University and others, showing how much individual consumption choices can save carbon. Using her data, I’ve produced a similar one of my own:
A person who:
• Turns her gas-burning SUV over to the repo man.
• Stops eating animals and dairy.
• Gives up her annual vacation in Greece.
• Installs a heat pump and solar panels.
• Sends her dog away to a nice farm upstate, where he can run and play.
She can save up to six tons of carbon dioxide per year.
That’s a lot. But then consider, say, Walmart. In 2021, the world’s biggest retailer cut carbon emissions under its direct control by 1.94 million tons. To match that impact, you would need 323,333 solar/vegan/car-free converts, or more than the entire population of Lexington, Kentucky.
Of course this is an overly reductive way to look at individual carbon choices. The woman who buys an EV and puts solar panels on her roof sends an important signal to her neighbors that it’s fine to do such things, making them more inclined to follow suit. The more individuals who make such choices, the more the supply of green products grows to match the rising demand. This will also make them cheaper, putting them in reach of more consumers. Eventually, perhaps, you will have something like that Lexington, Kentucky’s worth of people making different choices and a huge impact.
It’s especially important that people who have the wherewithal to adopt a lower-carbon lifestyle do so. The world’s richest 1% of earners emit about 1,000 times the carbon of the poorest 1%, according to the International Energy Agency. The Roy children really didn’t need to take that private jet from Santa Monica to Santa Barbara, and neither do you.
But if you are someone whose means and carbon impact feel too modest to make a difference, or if you just can’t bear to part with the occasional In-N-Out burger, you shouldn’t get too discouraged. You can still drive change by talking to friends and family, posting on social media, writing to policymakers, voting for politicians willing to fight global warming and donating to green causes, while changing your lifestyle where you can. Your impact stretches far beyond your carbon footprint.
Mark Gongloff is a Bloomberg Opinion editor and columnist covering climate change. A former managing editor of Fortune.com, he ran the HuffPost’s business and technology coverage and was a reporter and editor for the Wall Street Journal.