Perhaps no issue defines our Anthropocene Age more than climate change. The topic has been in news headlines for more than four decades now, ever since U.S. scientist Wallace Broecker put the term global warming into the public domain in the title of a 1975 scientific paper.
While nations throughout the world are working on tackling the issue, we, as individuals, have been advised to upgrade our incandescent light bulbs to compact fluorescents, wash our clothes in cold water rather than hot, recycle and do a number of other things in order to lessen our personal carbon footprints.
Country and individual efforts, then, should dovetail and all work well together, right? Not necessarily. A couple of recent studies challenge that notion. In the first, we find that what we as individuals can do to have the most impact on mitigating climate change isn’t commonly advertised. And in the second, we discover that when people take such personal actions, their support for larger, government-level efforts wane.
Four individual actions
In a study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters on July 12, 2017, researchers concluded that the most effective ways for individuals to reduce their carbon footprints are ones that are not being widely communicated.
The four things that most substantially decrease an individual’s carbon footprint are: 1) eating a plant-based diet, 2) living car-free, 3) avoiding air travel and 4) having smaller families.
The lead author of the study, Seth Wynes, a Ph.D. student at the University of British Columbia, began by analyzing 39 different resources that looked at the consequences of several individual behaviors. He found that living car-free saves about 2.4 tons of CO2 per year, while eating a vegetarian diet saves 0.8 tons of CO2 annually. More commonly promoted strategies to reduce emissions were less successful, such as recycling, which was four times less effective than a plant-based diet, and changing household light bulbs, which turned out to be eight times less effective.
Wynes’s team then looked at 10 high school science textbooks. They found that no Canadian textbooks—nor government resources from Australia, Canada, the European Union or the United States—highlighted these actions. In fact, only 4 percent out of all the recommendations made in those textbooks addressed the four, high-impact areas. Instead, the books focused on low- or moderate-impact behaviors, such as conserving electricity by turning off a light bulb when you leave a room or unplugging a device when not in use. The suggestions were also phrased in the form of compromises: rather than saying “live car-free,” the textbook might use the wording “make sure your car has properly inflated tires to reduce gas usage.”
The study’s authors state that this represents a missed opportunity for engaging students and teaching them about the seriousness of climate change. It is especially important, they believe, for young people who are now establishing lifelong patterns to be aware of which choices have the biggest impact if greenhouse gas emissions are to be kept below catastrophic levels.
Of course, none of the four are easy. Living without a car may be impossible in areas without mass transportation and making a major change in your diet when there is limited food available could be challenging. As for air travel, it is almost inevitable in the modern world and must be weighed against the good that travel can bring. Before your next flight, though, I encourage you to check out Natural Habitat Adventures’ carbon offsets program.
Three government efforts
Just six days ahead of the publication of the Environmental Research Letters study, France announced that it would end sales of gasoline and diesel vehicles by 2040 and become carbon neutral by 2050. The nation will also halt all coal-fired energy production by 2022, slash nuclear power from 75 to 50 percent in the next eight years, and stop importing palm oil and soy beans that are grown unsustainably.
Likewise, other nations are making commitments. Sweden’s official goal is to shift to 100 percent renewable energy by 2040; and on April 21, 2017, the United Kingdom celebrated its first 24-hour period without coal power since the Industrial Revolution. The U.K. promised to shutter its last coal-fueled plant by 2025.
You would think that the people who are doing what they can in their own lives to combat climate change would support these larger, government policies. But strangely enough, you’d be wrong.
Two eye-opening surveys
A second summer 2017 study, one published on June 12, 2017, in the journal Nature Climate Change, came to a surprising conclusion: personal acts to improve energy usage may crowd out support for government-based solutions by creating the perception of sufficient progress.
In 2011, Japan shut down the Fukushima power plant, which endured one of the worst nuclear accidents in history due to a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and resulting tsunami. After the event, the Japanese government began a national campaign that encouraged saving electricity.
Taking advantage of the energy-saving initiative, Seth Werfel, a graduate student in political science at Stanford University, surveyed about 12,000 Japanese. Half of the questionnaires contained a checklist that respondents used to indicate energy-saving actions they had performed. All surveys included an inquiry about the extent to which the participants supported a government tax increase on carbon emissions.
Results showed that the more people said they curbed energy use on their own (people who received the checklist surveys), the less they supported (by 13 percent) a tax increase on carbon emissions.
People who marked the checklist also indicated that they felt that individual attempts were more important than those of the government for achieving energy sustainability, and that conserving energy and protecting the environment shouldn’t be a top national priority.
Werfel said this seems to indicate that people who try to mitigate the effects of climate change on their own are more likely to see individual contributions as sufficient progress toward energy-saving goals. When people felt like they’d done enough, they said that the government shouldn’t make them do more. He also found that the loss of support for government actions occurred regardless of political ideology.
Last week, atmospheric CO2 levels reached 411.68 parts per million (ppm), a new record. Carbon dioxide hasn’t reached that height in millions of years. I’d say that there’s danger in thinking that we’ve done enough. We haven’t.
We’re going to need all the help we can get—from individuals and governments.
Here’s to your adventures, in whatever corner of the world you find them,