If you want to do individual things to deal with climate change like driving less or being a vegetarian or putting solar panels on your roof, that's fine, good for you, but it really isn't that important. What's important is getting policies in place that will transition large numbers of people off of fossil fuels.
I think this argument is wrong, but it has some truth to it. Yes, putting public policies in place that reduce emissions is extremely important. When we have a renewable portfolio standard, utilities have to switch over to zero-carbon electricity. When we raise vehicle fuel economy standards, the average vehicle gets more efficient. When we price carbon emissions through a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system, everyone has an incentive to reduce their emissions. When we build walkable cities, people drive less because it's convenient. Having good policies in place is important because not everyone wants to voluntarily reduce their emissions, and because they send us signals about which behaviors are more socially responsible, aligning our self interest, with the public interest. They can make people do the right thing, even if they don't really want to.
However, I don't like the dismissive attitude towards individual climate action. Taking an individual stand against climate change is important for a variety of reasons:
- Individual climate action strengthens the alternatives. If the problem is I'm driving a car powered by gasoline, what are my alternatives to driving that car? Can I take a bus? Not if nobody is riding the bus and the transit agency is broke. Can I buy an electric car? Not if electric cars don't exist because nobody is buying them and companies can't make money selling them. What about eating less meat? Without vegetarians and vegans out there doing their thing, restaurants wouldn't have any incentive to offer meatless options. Again, people who pioneer low-carbon ways of living are out there blazing trails that expand the range of choices available, giving the rest of us more tools to solve the problem. People who put solar panels on their roofs mean more demand for solar panels, so solar panel manufacturing can take advantage of economies of scale and solar panels get cheaper. That brings me to point #2.
- Individual climate action paves the way for political action. Let's keep talking about solar panels. They have gotten much cheaper recently. If you are a politician thinking about requiring that a lot more solar energy gets used, the fact that solar panels are now cheap is great news. It means that you can pass your renewable portfolio standard without jacking up your constituents' utility bills so much that they turn against the policy. This transition has been supported by policy (federal tax credits), but it has also been supported by individual homeowners and businesses who decided to go solar. Without those early adopters, solar panels would probably still be expensive today. Electric cars are another good example. If you want to raise fuel economy standards to a really high level, there have to be vehicles out there that can meet people's needs, without gasoline. The EV market is stronger than it has ever been and the available models are better and cheaper than ever. That was supported in part by policy (e.g. California's zero emission vehicle mandate) but without individual people buying those cars, we wouldn't be in a position today where a sane politician could imagine banning gasoline cars.
- Political action is hard and climate change is an emergency. Ever heard of Donald Trump? Getting any meaningful climate legislation through the federal government for at least the next two years will be virtually impossible. There has been some policy progress at the state and local level in some places, but what about everywhere else? If you live in West Virginia or Wyoming, for the foreseeable future, your only effective means of climate action will be individual. I'm not saying don't vote. I'm just saying that's political reality in some places. The scientific community has screamed at us in report after report for decades that climate change is an emergency, so how can we not work on all fronts to combat it?
- Not everyone can vote. There are many people in the world who don't have their human right to vote respected. From undocumented immigrants in the United States, to people living under dictatorial regimes. Not everyone can vote, but everyone can do something, no matter how small, to resist climate change and safeguard the future of life on this planet.
Billions of drops make an ocean. We need individual climate action. We need collective climate action. We need to model the lives we think policy can help us live, because it paves the way for better policy and because this is an emergency. The government isn't going to save us any time soon. Let's get to work.