How you can fight climate change when the government won’t

How you can fight climate change when the government won’t
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A recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on the global steps needed to limit global warming to 1.5 degree Celsius is a clarion call to action. Global emissions must drop by nearly 50 percent in just over a decade to stay on track to meet this target. The secondary target of 2 degrees Celsius will involve substantially greater adverse impacts, and will still require substantial greenhouse gas emissions reductions in the coming decade.

This call to action has renewed debate about appropriate collective and governmental actions to limit greenhouse gas emissions. There are renewed proposals for carbon taxes, fee and dividend plans, and renewable energy investments. Even Exxon Mobil has announced its support for some form of carbon tax — if it gets liability relief for fossil fuel harms at the same time.


But the national political climate remains hostile to effective climate action in the United States, as the Republican Party, remains in a position to block all legislative and administrative efforts to reduce emissions. And the fact that Exxon Mobil supports a carbon tax gives a hint that any national carbon policy that is going to be on the table is unlikely to achieve the necessary drastic reductions in fossil fuel-related greenhouse emissions. 

In the absence of national action, attention focuses on “bottom-up” actions by states and municipalities. New York and San Francisco were rightly applauded when they pledged to meet the Paris Agreement greenhouse gas reduction commitments even in the face of the Trump administration’s planned withdrawal from that agreement. Hundreds of municipalities across the country have joined that pledge. 

But the ultimate bottom-up climate action is individual action. If you live in the developed world, your lifestyle choices make an outsized contribution to climate change. Basic ethical principles of avoiding harm to others and a variation of the golden rule compel us to take a look at our own carbon footprint and commit to reducing it. We should strive to live in a way that limits our harm to others as we would have others live in a way that limits their harms to us. Just as cities and states can commit to the Paris accord reductions, so can individuals commit significantly to reduce their own footprints.

Start by going to an online calculator and see what

parts of your carbon footprint are largest. Electricity, heat, gasoline, food, and air travel are likely to be the biggest items for many Americans. Zero out your electricity footprint by signing up for a renewable energy supplier. Plan to convert to a lower carbon heating system, such as an electric heat pump, within the next decade. Choose a hybrid when the time comes to replace your car. If you are already driving a hybrid, replace it with an electric vehicle. Reduce red meat consumption. And fly only when absolutely necessary. By taking these simple measures, the average climate-concerned American can easily cut their direct carbon footprint in half.

Despite these easy steps, many climate activists remain ambivalent about calling for carbon footprint reductions at the individual level. They argue that individual footprint reductions are such an infinitesimally small part of the problem as to be meaningless, or that it is not fair to ask struggling working Americans to buy expensive hybrid or electric cars or pay to install solar panels on their houses. Climate leaders are reluctant to alienate supporters by calling for sacrifice. 

In fact, many carbon footprint reductions come at little or no cost — renewable electricity contracts barely cost more than other suppliers, solar leasing companies will install solar panels on your house for free, and my two-seater smart electric car leases for about $140 a month. 

No one expects the working poor to take the lead in individual climate reductions. Since climate footprints are directly proportional to income, people who are wealthy enough to choose to fly places on vacation should be the leaders in individual climate reductions.

It is true that no individual reduction can achieve a measurable reduction in global climate change. But an infinitesimally small contribution to an infinitely large climate catastrophe is still significant. There is no argument for inaction. At least when you cut your own carbon footprint, you can see a significant percentage change in your own contribution to global warming. 

Individual lifestyle changes also have a persuasive effect – undecided listeners find climate action arguments more convincing when the advocate has made lifestyle changes, such as giving up air travel. 

Collective action starts with individual action. While the individual increment may be small, if everyone alarmed by the IPCC report cut their footprint by 50 percent within the next five years, the emissions reductions would be more significant by those achieved by fossil fuel divestment or blocking the pipeline development. 

Karl S. Coplan is professor of law at Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University and director of the Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic. His book, “Live Sustainably Now: A Carbon-Sustainable Vision of the American Dream” will be published in 2019 by Columbia University Press.