What Individual Action Does For The Climate Emergency

One of the most problematic misconceptions about the climate emergency is that individual action doesn’t matter. Sometimes it’s paired with another myth, that 71% of emissions are caused by 100 companies, so that individual action like riding a bike to work or having a Meatless Monday is framed as just an empty gesture.

This just isn’t the case. Individual action is crucial for avoiding the worst scenarios in the climate emergency.

We have to be careful about climate change disinformation campaigns on social media that try to convince us that climate efforts are futile. Those campaigns have shifted focus in recent years. They’re not trying as much any more to tell us that climate change is not happening; now, they’re trying to make us feel like we have no agency in the fight.

And it’s just not true.

What does individual action actually do? A whole lot.

  • The effect of the action itself. It can feel small — one saved commute by taking the bus instead, or one fewer factory-farmed meals by eating plant-based proteins. But those small advances are real. They reduce the level of greenhouse gas emissions. That’s what we need to do.
  • Overcoming cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance happens when your actions don’t match your knowledge; your mind makes up new beliefs to rationalise the actions. So, if you know that the climate emergency is real and important, but you don’t do anything, your mind starts making up edgy excuses: it doesn’t matter, we’re all going to die anyway, it’s too late. Bringing your actions in line with your knowledge silences those false comforts.
  • One thing leads to another. When you take a single step for climate action, more steps usually follow. The more steps you take, the bigger steps you’ll take; buying a plug-in electric car, taking your next trip by train instead of a plane, or installing solar panels on your house.
  • Reclaiming optimism. One of the hard parts of messaging about the climate emergency are the dark pronouncements is that it’s going to require total and profound change at all levels of society. Sounds scary, right? But actually experiencing those changes directly can make them less scary. Maybe we can actually do this. Maybe we’re not all going to die.
  • Developing a climate identity. We are what we do. As you take action, you start to think of yourself as someone who is active about the climate. This is going to increase your individual action even more.
  • Developing better products and new markets. The effects of your climate-friendly action aren’t just on your own future behaviour. Other effects come because you live in a society. Everything we do affects the social, economic and political networks we’re a part of. When you spend your dollars or Euros on climate-friendly products like a bike helmet or a veggie burger, you’re investing in companies that are creating a new post-transition economy. They can use that money to make better helmets, or launch their veggie burgers in new markets. There’s a multiplier effect; your money helps more people use those products.
  • Strengthening climate-friendly business networks. We don’t usually buy products directly from the producer. Often, there’s a network of distributors and retailers that have to choose to carry that product. When you buy or use it, you’re encouraging those intermediaries to repeat or increase their orders for that climate-friendly product. The cha-ching of the cash register is heard and heeded throughout the network.
  • Providing social pressure. Your neighbours, friends, family, colleagues and strangers nearby are living with their own cognitive dissonance about climate change. The technology isn’t there yet, nobody uses it, it’s OK to wait until next year. When you put up solar panels on your home, it takes away those excuses from people in your social network. They’re not being smart by avoiding concrete steps on climate action; they’re falling behind. Some of them are going to take concrete steps of their own. Not all of them, but some.
  • Providing social permission. Your neighbours, friends, family, colleagues and strangers might also be excited about participating in the Transition, but they lack confidence to take the first steps. They think they’ll look ridiculous on a bike when everyone else is in a car. When you visibly take climate action, it lets people know that it’s an OK thing to do, and that they won’t suffer social opprobrium by taking their own climate action.
  • Providing existence proof for legislators and regulators. One of the big lies that climate-hostile industries tell city, regional and national governments is that individuals can’t handle change, or don’t want to pay the costs. When individuals take action, it proves that those lies aren’t true. When you buy an electric car and use it, it lets regulators demand that car manufacturers make and sell more and more electric cars as part of their product offering.
  • Making it easier for those who come after us. Not everyone has the financial surplus or free time to take climate action today. It can be really difficult; try renting an electric car from a major chain. But each time we take individual action, the effects we have on markets, on society, and on our political structures make it easier for the next cohort. Scale and competition drive prices down, regulation makes it more convenient, culture adapts around it.

Lastly, and most importantly, individual action isn’t always about the things we eat, buy, or wear. It’s also about how we vote, where we donate money, who we boycott, and how we show up for protests and demonstrations.

So, don’t let professional disinformationists and know-it-alls with cognitive dissonance discourage you from individual action against the climate crisis. It’s the essential element of making this huge societal transition.

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