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What Kind of Personal Action Makes a Difference for the Climate Cause?

With the climate crisis being a popular topic of the global conversation, the critical details of our impending demise oftentimes lead to overwhelming pressure on what we as individuals can do. In light of this position, I’ve found myself seeking smaller individual actions, but similar to the issue at large, absorbing these things leaves me feeling hopeless about change. After one episode of the podcast How to Save a Planet, a climate solution resource hosted by Marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson (no longer co-host) and policy expert Alex Blumberg, titled “Is Your Carbon Footprint BS?”, I found insightful advice on my personal impact on our warming world.

To acknowledge humans’ impact on climate change, it is crucial to understand that, as the NASA sector for Global climate change summarizes, “human activities…have fundamentally increased the concentration of greenhouse gasses in Earth’s atmosphere, warming the planet.” These greenhouse gasses include water vapor (H2O) and Nitrous oxide (N2), but mainly methane (CH4) and Carbon dioxide (CO2). Thus, according to The Nature Conservatory, “a carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gasses (including carbon dioxide and methane) that are generated by [your own] actions.” Therefore, when people modify their lifestyles to lower their emissions, it would, in theory, lower our total global emissions. However, the argument I favor, as the podcast episode brings up, is that our individual carbon footprint has no significant impact on the level of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. 

The main reason that our personal actions don’t matter is that the top 5 sectors that contribute to global emissions— electricity production (25%), Food/agriculture/land use/deforestation (24%), industry/all factories and businesses making stuff (20%), transportation (15%), buildings (5%), and making up the last 10% the transportation and manufacturing of fossil fuels (ex: methane leak from a truck)—we can’t change any of these conditions with our independent decisions. To institutionalize change in these areas, political policies and systematic developments must be implemented.

Focusing on what we can control, the major actions that impact our carbon footprints’ still minimize emissions by almost nothing. For instance, if a person were to adopt all of the most effective climate strategies—having fewer children, driving less/electric, flying less, becoming more energy efficient (insulating home), and switching to a plant-based diet— and enact them perfectly, they would still only reduce total emissions by just .0000000003%. 

Instead of feeling useless or hopeless in learning this information, acknowledge these facts as a positive hope for a final solution. Similar to how the podcast hosts reacted to this data, it is a good thing that we don’t all have to institute every one of the above strategies into our daily lives to reverse our impact on the temperature, otherwise, a resolution would be impossible. That being said, your lack of individual influence shouldn’t fuel inaction towards climate causes, but inspire you to promote change outside of yourself. 

For instance, as teenagers rather than feeling obligated to go vegan or drive less, the actions that are most easily accessible for that age group, focus on being informed and spreading that information. As information spreads, public opinion is swayed, and as a result, policies are formed. One example of climate policy inspired by constituents' conversations is in California. The Public Policy Institute of California reports that “Two in three Californians (65%) favor the state acting independently of the federal government to combat global warming.” As a result, California has policies covering the largest range and depth of climate issues than any other state: as analyzed by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, California is 1 out of 3 states that has an executive and statutory greenhouse gas emissions target set for “reaching net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2045” and has an electricity portfolio standard that “‘requir[es] 100% of electricity sales in the state to come from renewable energy and zero-carbon resources by Dec. 31, 2045.” Additionally, California is among many states to have developed a climate action plan that is being updated to release in 2022 and is the only state to have a cap and trade pricing policy on carbon to meet that plan. Thus, California's state legislature has adopted the views of the majority of its population. 

To stimulate change federally, the United States has to adopt California’s methods. Although climate policy seems like a controversial topic, the Pew Research Center found, “about two-thirds of U.S. adults (67%) say the federal government is doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change.” Therefore, the majority of Americans support federal climate legislation, but unlike California, the majority isn’t being heard. This is because we are not being loud enough. So, to encourage federal change, the podcast suggests calling your local government, keep talking about climate change, and instituting climate conversation wherever you have access. The most helpful advice Johnson gives is her Venn diagram suggestion. Her diagram involves 3 circles: the first focuses on what special skills you can offer, another on what climate issue you feel needs attention, and the last with what you love/are passionate about. After forming these sectors, you can tackle climate resolution in an accessible and enjoyable manner for your life. 

Although this may seem overwhelming, or like too much change to enact, consider my use of the Venn diagram. What I can offer: access to a news site. Climate issue: informing others on how they should be involved with the climate issue. Passionate about: writing. Therefore, once I actually used this diagram, I was inspired to write this article. Prior to applying the podcast’s advice, I felt passive about the issue or that I should be doing more, but now I know I have used my resources to provide vital climate information.

Once you evaluate your resources, and you still feel distant from political or systemic action, rest assured that by incorporating individual climate measures into your daily life, you can still produce positive results. Even though the results may not be enough to resolve climate change, they can bring some personal relief from this mortally threatening precedent. In my life, this looks like trying to avoid red meat, but not feeling like I’m perpetuating the climate crisis by not going fully vegan. By adopting some climate actions, but not letting them revolutionize my life, I’m comforted that I’m consistently acknowledging climate change, and not ignoring its existence.

While overall your personal emissions of greenhouse gasses, or your carbon footprint, may not be a viable solution to climate change, having some personal connection to the cause can ease the burden of the issue’s presence. Even more significant to the climate issue is supporting policy change. Whether that's summarizing this article to your family, calling local congressmen, or starting a climate campaign within the club you're a part of, urging others outside yourself to unite toward government action will eventually lead to systematic change. Therefore, understand you are not preventing resolution from not heating your house with solar panels, but you are permitting negligence by not starting a conversation.

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