Today, climate change is a very real and looming threat. However, when the subject of climate change and possible solutions is discussed, the phrase “we need bigger changes” is often bandied about. Individuals tend to shift the responsibility of fixing human-caused damage to the environment to larger systems – but with little concrete action being taken by larger entities, potential solutions to mitigate climate change remain largely unaddressed and unimplemented.
So much so that on an individual level, more and more people feel utterly helpless when it comes to the state of our planet. This helplessness even has a name: eco-anxiety. According to psychologists, eco-anxiety is extremely common, with statistics showing that “70% of Americans are ‘worried’ about climate change, 29% are ‘very worried’ and 51% feel ‘helpless.'”
While it is true that we need systemic changes in order to halt and reverse some of the damage already done, resorting to despair is probably the most ineffective solution to combating climate change. Systemic change can only happen when individuals step up and demand it, and so, individual action is essential to safeguard the environment. Here are some of the ways large structural changes can be supported by continued individual environmental actions:
Taking Collective Action
In an article on the Guardian, Bill McKibben, a leading climate campaigner and founder of 350.org, states that the most effective way to affect change is by individuals coming together to “push for changes big enough to matter.” These changes could include everything from a push for divestment from fossil fuels to climate-friendly agricultural practices.
For instance, consider the Climate Friendly Farming Project under the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources (CSANR) at Washington State University. The project has led to an improved carbon footprint of agricultural systems, as well as improved water supply assessment and management. As a result, individual farmers are now more aware of the agricultural causes and impacts of climate change and can make informed decisions about the same. As more and more farmers start to modernize their farming practices into sustainable ventures, climate-friendly farming can be enacted as a systemic change on a wide-scale level.
Movements like these that inspire change are made by people, and only when individuals unite to form such movements, or join existing ones; can there be enough demand for policy-makers or big businesses to implement relevant changes. Taking collective action by way of individual involvement is thus one of the most effective ways to support the cause.
Supporting Green Businesses
Larger corporations and businesses will only make the effort to become more sustainable if their customers demand and value this shift. Unfortunately, there are but a few businesses that will choose sustainability and environmental welfare over their own profits. Whether this is right or wrong doesn’t really matter; as it is the reality of the world we live in.
To persuade more businesses to go green, individuals must make their penchant for sustainability heard and known. This can be done by actively choosing to support businesses that include sustainability in their mission statements, and boycotting businesses that contribute to environmental degradation. When consumers choose local business ventures and products that follow environmental guidelines, bigger corporations are made aware of consumer values. In turn, they are encouraged to change their own operational standards.
Additionally, supporting green businesses also encourages the government to incentivize sustainability. On a systemic level, a continued sustainability incentive will only occur if the government believes that there is a demonstrated benefit to the same. As the government sees more people making a shift to green businesses, they are likely to put more green incentives in place.
Current green incentives include energy-efficient tax credits for businesses that use renewable energy as well as green loans. Such incentives allow businesses to go green while reducing their financial stresses and benefiting the planet at the same time. That being said, there is potential for the government to introduce more incentives in the future, especially as the timeline to fight climate change steadily decreases. Ultimately, though, this shift will only seem appealing to businesses and policy-makers if consumers desire it, so individuals must vocalize their allegiance to businesses that value sustainability.
Choosing Alternative Transport
Choosing alternative transport is one of the easiest things individuals can do to support the larger agenda of mitigating climate change. According to the EPA, transportation is considered the largest contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the US. Subsequently, the biggest sources of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions come from passenger cars and light-duty trucks.
If more individuals choose alternative transportation methods for both domestic and international travel, the amount of GHG emissions can be significantly reduced. Alternative transportation includes riding a bicycle, walking, taking the bus or other forms of public shared transport, and using a ride-sharing app. Cycling and walking, in particular, offer a great zero-emission alternative.
Unfortunately, many cities don’t provide safe cycling infrastructure. However, bicycle-focused non-profits are on the rise, and as more people choose to cycle rather than drive, municipalities will be forced to revamp infrastructure and laws to make a safe cycling environment.
Consider Washington D.C., whose cycling community grew by over 50% in just about a decade, following the creation of 80 miles of bike lanes. This was only possible due to strong advocating for better bicycling infrastructure and a rise in bicycle usage by individuals. Inspiring examples indeed, the case of Washington DC and the rise of bicycle-focused non-profits show that systemic change in the transportation area is possible and actionable – if only individuals demand it.
Voting for Responsible Leaders
The power of one vote is more than most people give it credit for. Voting for responsible leaders whose campaigns prioritize safeguarding the environment is a relatively simple individual action that can affect major change. It is every individual’s duty to thoroughly research potential leaders, and make an informed decision while voting – this is the only way leaders can be held accountable.
While it may seem like all hope is lost when it comes to combating climate change, many experts, including the IPCC, state that it is possible to mitigate the environmental damage that has already been done, if not completely reverse it. In the article on The Guardian, Jim Skea, a co-chair of the IPCC working group on mitigation, states that the IPCC report details the benefits of keeping global warming within the 1.5 degrees Celsius limit. For this to happen, there needs to be an “unprecedented shift in energy systems and transport.” As stated by Skea, “We show it can be done within laws of physics and chemistry. Then the final tickbox is political will. We cannot answer that. Only our audience can – and that is the governments that receive it.”
Knowing it is possible to create a sustainable future for the planet makes voting for the right leaders even more important. Thus, on an individual level, it is essential to vote for political parties and leaders who prioritize the environment and are willing to revolutionize energy systems and policy. When it comes to affecting change, every vote matters.
While it’s easy to blame larger entities for the lack of action around fighting climate change, one must keep in mind that we are all equally responsible to make a difference. Rather than having an escapist attitude of “leaving it to someone else”, or resorting to despair, individuals can and should take concrete action to advance systemic change. After all, it is only with a concerted and united effort that we can secure the future of our planet.
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