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Climate Change: Can One Person Really Make a Difference?

You Are Far More Powerful Than You Think. Act Accordingly.

We’re on track to blow by the 2°C threshold of temperature increase at which climate change has been deemed catastrophic for humanity. To limit suffering and maximize human wellbeing we need to rapidly ramp up our efforts to transform into a sustainable society in order to minimize this temperature increase.

I’m sure you’re wondering, and rightfully so, how little ol’ you, party of one, could possibly make any sort of meaningful difference in this enormous problem. You’re just one person after all. There are now 7.6 billion people on our planet. If you’re not an elected official or a CEO you probably don’t have too much influence right? Does what you do really make any difference in the fight against climate change?

These are great questions. Lucky for us, our everyday actions really do make a difference in the fight against climate change for a few reasons:

  1. The size of an individual’s footprint is mind-boggling.
  2. The micro dictates the macro.
  3. The ripple effect. We are a highly social species.

1. The size of an individual’s footprint is mind-boggling

Although you’re just one person, the size of your carbon footprint (the amount of greenhouse gas emissions attributable to you) may surprise you. Nearly everyone produces several tonnes of greenhouse gases, or GHGs, each year (1 tonne = 2,204 pounds or 1,000 kg). The US is among the worst offenders. Each person emits 19 tonnes of greenhouse gases per year on average. High-income countries tend to have bigger carbon footprints as you can see in the chart below.

Per Capita GHG Emissions (tonnes) by country

Made with World Resource Institute’s CAIT data from 2014. If your country isn’t listed or you’d like to see the full list of GHG emissions by country, click on the chart.

I’m guessing these numbers mean as much to you as they did to me initially…which was nothing really. Numbers this big are beyond our comprehension – so let’s look at it a different way. Those 19 tonnes of greenhouse gases that the average US citizen emits each year take up enough space to fill the inside of three Statues of Liberty. And 1.5 years of emissions weigh as much as the Statue of Liberty. That’s 41,900 lbs or 19,000 kg of a gas. It’s also roughly equivalent to the weight of 12 cars or 50 horses.

That is an enormous amount of emissions for one person! To break it down even further, let’s see what this looks like on a day to day basis. The diagram below shows the volume of an individual’s daily greenhouse gas emissions for various countries.

That US block of GHGs weighs 115 lbs (51 kg).

To keep the temperature increase somewhat close to 2°C above pre-industrial times, the average footprint of everyone in the world needs to be approaching to 0 to 2 tonnes by 2050. Your contribution may be a small piece of the pie overall, but you alone can prevent many tonnes of GHGs from entering the atmosphere just by changing a few habits. By eliminating a quarter or half of your emissions, you could prevent 100’s of tonnes of GHGs from entering the atmosphere over the course of your life. Our impact over a lifetime really adds up. Think of how many Statues of Liberty that is!

2. The micro dictates the macro

As individuals, we are the micro. By that I mean we are a small part of the much bigger whole of how society works, which is the macro. It may seem like macro players such as governments and corporations have all the power, but let’s not forget that they exist to serve us. That is their reason for being. If they aren’t taking steps to fight climate change by minimizing the GHG emissions they have control over, they are not providing us with the value we should expect from them. How much “value” does something really have if it harms others and guarantees that our tomorrows will be increasingly worse?

Elected officials and companies got to where they are today because of us. We decide whom to support by giving them our votes and our money. So if you think about it, we are the ones with the power – but enough people have to be on the same page to activate this power. Using our voices, money, and votes we collectively determine the various officials and companies that serve us. Let’s use these tools wisely to support parties who fight climate change by making sustainability a priority.

This is basic economics. When enough citizens, employees, and consumers start to advocate for climate-friendly policies and products, government officials and companies will step up to supply them. By using our power, we incentivize better products, services, and innovation. Each one of us plays a role in this.

Left to their own devices, many elected officials and corporations are led astray by money and power. Their decisions simply don’t align with the best interests of the people if they personally benefit somehow and think they can get away with it, which is what we see a lot of today. But we can and must take part in holding them accountable for the harm their GHGs are causing us. If a company or leader is not making sustainability a priority, simply move on and support one that is. We need responsible leaders to bring in the safe and prosperous future we all want.

People have the power – and you are one of those people. Let’s choose to use it.

3. The ripple effect: We are a highly social species.

Have you ever checked out a new TV show or app because a friend or family member was raving about it? Or tried a new kind of food because someone wouldn’t stop talking about it? Of course, we all have. Behaviors and ideas spread amongst us because we’re social beings. Our brains are hardwired to want to fit in with others. When you support certain beliefs, products, lifestyles, or causes, everyone around you unconsciously makes note of it. You become a point of reference for them. They’ll automatically ask themselves if they should be doing that thing too – especially if you are close with them.

As Jim Rohn famously said, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” The inverse of this is also true – the people you spend time with also take on a part of you. This means that you personally contribute to the makeup of other people – who they are, how they think, and how they act.

Not only does this make intuitive sense, but there is strong research to back up how influential our way of thinking and actions are on others.

Here are several quick examples to back it up. A  study out of MIT followed a network of 1.1 million runners for five years. People ran significantly farther, faster, longer, and burned more calories than they otherwise would have when they saw that their friends ran on that same day.

Harvard social scientist Dr. Nicholas A. Christakis, who is a leading researcher in social networks, conducted a study and found that, “Your happiness depends not just on your choices and actions, but also on the choices and actions of people you don’t even know who are one, two and three degrees removed from you.”

Similarly, Christakis researched obesity in social networks. In his TED talk he shows that if you have a friend who is obese you are 45% more likely to be obese yourself. If you have a friend of a friend who is obese, you’re 25% more likely to be obese, and finally, if you have a friend of a friend of a friend who is obese you’re 10% more likely to be obese.

Lastly, the Asch conformity experiment  (4 minutes of live footage – worth watching) shows us how powerful social norms are. In each trial, there was only one real subject in a group of several actors. These actors were told to give wrong answers to certain questions to see how the real subject would respond. When presented with incredibly basic, multiple choice questions, subjects gave wrong answers 37% of the time. 75% of subjects gave wrong answers at least once. Afterward, they told the researchers that they answered incorrectly for one of two reasons:

  1. They knew the right answer but answered incorrectly to fit in with the group of actors who were lying.
  2. They convinced themselves that their answer must be wrong somehow, despite not knowing why, because the group was unanimous in a different answer.

However, when the subject had a “true partner” (just one other person who deviated from the group and gave the correct answer) they gave the wrong answers just 5% of the time instead of 37%. Having just one partner made it far more okay to act differently from the majority. This study tells us two things:

  1. The behavior of groups is incredibly influential on our own behavior.
  2. There is a significant impact when just one person deviates from the norm. It gives others the confidence to follow suit who would’ve otherwise just gone along with the crowd due to the social pressures of fitting in.

These studies highlight the power of our social networks and the subtle, but huge impact we each have on others when we lead by example. Our actions are far more powerful than we realize. Pretty much everything we do influences people we’re close with as well as those we don’t even know.

So what does all this mean for climate change and sustainability?

This is fantastic news! These studies tell us that sustainability can and will start to spread rapidly once it gets going. If just one person starts acting sustainably – if you start acting sustainably others are sure to start following suit. You won’t even know all the people you influence. By being the change you wish to see, you will have an outsized impact and help to build momentum in the fight against climate change.

Wise words from historical giants

Realistically, we need a global revolution to transform society and overcome climate change. Luckily there is no shortage of parallels to past historical movements. We can and should learn from our past leaders who have walked this path before – who have seen the good and the bad.

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” – Desmond Tutu

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
– Edmund Burke

I’m sure you already knew the message here, but hey, we all need to be reminded of this stuff. These messages apply to our situation today with climate change quite well. If individuals continue to look on and do nothing to change the status quo, we will lose this battle and we’ll only have ourselves to blame. When it comes to climate change we tend to think of ourselves as bystanders. This is not accurate. In reality, we are the oppressors and the victims (so talented of us!) Society as a whole hasn’t fully grasped this yet, but it’s true. To change our course, to make a real difference, we need to adopt a new mindset. One similar to that which is expressed in the following:

“Whether you think you can or can’t, you’re right.” – Henry Ford

“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” – Mother Theresa

“I always wondered why somebody didn’t do something about that. Then I realized I AM SOMEBODY.” – Lily Tomlin

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

As Henry Ford said, what people believe will ultimately become our self-fulfilling prophecy. If enough people believe we’re powerful and take action to beat climate change, we will. If enough people think we’re powerless and can’t stop it, we won’t. We’ll continue on our path of relative inaction and be at the mercy of a runaway climate. Right now, too many people think we’re powerless. We can change that.

Whatever you choose to do in your day to day life has an outsized impact in humanity’s fight against climate change. Your actions not only determine how many GHGs you physically put in the atmosphere, but also, perhaps more importantly, your words and actions influence others.

You can choose to be a part of the solution or do nothing and be a part of the problem. Unfortunately, those are the only two options. You have to pick one or the other because doing nothing is a decision in itself.

Your actions do matter.

“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”  – Mahatma Gandhi

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