This story is part of Fast Company‘s Climate Change Survival Plan package. As time runs out to prevent climate catastrophe, we’re looking at what we need to do now to safeguard our future. Click here to read the whole series.
Corporations and governments have known about the risk of climate change for about half a century. It first appeared on Exxon’s radar in 1981. Two years prior, a group of scientists had created the Charney Report, which assessed the effects of rising amounts of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere (and correctly predicted how more CO2 would lead to more warming). A few years later, in 1988, NASA scientist James Hansen testified before Congress about how the “greenhouse gas effect has been detected and is changing our climate now.”
News coverage of that testimony sounds all too familiar: “The earth has been warmer in the first five months of this year than in any comparable period since measurements began,” opens the coverage from the New York Times. The headline even calls for a “sharp cut in [the] burning of fossil fuels.” It’s a plea scientists are still having to make more than 30 years later. We did not heed those warnings; we have not stopped burning fossil fuels. In 2019, global fossil fuel emissions hit a record high. Emissions dropped in 2020, but not because of smart climate policies or effective action. That reduction came because a global pandemic—which might also have roots in climate change—effectively put a pause on human activity.
There’s no denying that corporations and governments have fueled the climate crisis—in the case of the former, even spending years and millions of dollars to actively lobby against climate change solutions, often ones that would limit our use of fossil fuels and so threaten fossil fuel businesses. (In just one example, BP donated $13 million to a campaign that ultimately stopped a carbon tax in Washington State; but oil companies aren’t the only ones lobbying against environmentally friendly changes). In a different world, business leaders and politicians would have heeded those first warnings and, 40 years ago, ended their use of fossil fuels, transitioned to net-zero emission operations, and prioritized policies for renewable energy and transportation alternatives. Today, the climate actions we can take in our lives are limited by the world these corporations and politicians built. “Fossil fuels are still the lifeblood of modern civilization,” says Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (YPCCC). “Almost everything we do as human beings involves fossil fuels. They’re in our clothes, in our food, they’re the way we get around.”
It’s easy to understand, then, why someone might feel as if there’s nothing we can do on an individual level. In response to articles that suggest people eat less meat or swap a car ride with a train trip, some people point to the outsized impact of companies on the climate, effectively saying individual actions don’t matter. But that’s not the best way to look at this issue, Leiserowitz says. “Unfortunately, I think too often the discussion devolves into this either/or discussion. It’s not an either/or, it’s a both/and,” he says. But he also acknowledges there’s only so many individual actions we can take: “We all operate within societies that structure and constrain what we can do. I would love to build myself my own private high-speed high-efficiency bullet train . . . but I can’t do that.”
Apart from building your own bullet train, or forming an entire town that operates in a completely environmentally efficient manner, part of our climate action has to come from corporations and politicians making big changes to the way they operate. But individual actions are still at the root of that change. “What is a system made up of other than people?” asks climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, author of Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World. “What is a corporation made up of other than people?”
The pressure for those big changes has to come from all of us. “[Systems] don’t just change through rational argument, as the past 40 years of climate discussion clearly show,” Leiserowitz says. “It takes people demanding that change. It takes a public willing to vote for leaders who will make that change. It takes consumers signaling their preferences to companies who then make the products and services that serve that new market.”
Actually (yes, for real) vote with your dollars
Demanding that change may still feel near impossible. After all, don’t most Americans want to support eco-friendly companies and vote for politicians who will buffer their cities against climate disaster—and still things aren’t changing quickly enough? A record high 70% of Americans are now very, or somewhat concerned, about global warming, according to the latest survey from YPCCC.
Those Americans could be a formidable force—if they actually follow through on those concerns by supporting environmentally friendly companies and politicians. In YPCCC surveys, Leiserowitz says he’s consistently seen that over half of the country says they’re willing to reward or punish companies based on their climate action or inaction. “And yet most people don’t.” Some people may say that but simply not mean it, so Leiserowitz cuts that number in half to be conservative, to 25%—and then in half again, to 12%, and again once more to 6%, and then to be “super conservative” settles on 3% of the country who might actually, really mean it when they say they’re willing to reward or punish companies based on their climate actions. And still, if just this 3% of consumers actively did this, “it would send shockwaves through the market system,” he says. “That’s bigger than profit margins for some companies.”
So why aren’t people following through on that desire? When YPCCC follows up to ask, the dominant answer is that people just don’t know which companies to reward and which ones to punish. Consumers can feel trapped, especially as they try to decode greenwashing. Doing that research can be difficult, and many may not be motivated, or have the time, to do so. This is where environmental and consumer advocacy groups can be a resource, Leiserowitz notes: These organizations have credibility when it comes to “naming, blaming, and shaming.” If you’re in the market for toilet paper, for example, and want to support a company that isn’t cutting down virgin forests, you could look to the National Resource Defense Council’s annual scorecard, which gave the brand Who Gives a Crap an A+ rating—and brands like Charmin and Angle Soft both Fs.
Raise your voice
You might feel like raising your voice against corporations or politicians is like screaming into the void, but Hayhoe says there’s power in individuals using their voices to advocate for change (it’s what her recently published book is all about). Companies that have implemented climate policies didn’t do so because a “magic wand” was waved over them, she says; those changes came about because one person raised their voice, and then someone else, and on and on, until those concerns were heard. It might even start with someone commenting that they could cut their costs by transitioning to clean energy, which gets spread around, and snowballs into executives looking to source from renewables.
Within your own workplace, you can figure out what your company is concerned about that is connected to climate solutions. Is it your corporate reputation? Your bottom line? Your supply chain, which is being disrupted by extreme-weather events? Connect the dots between those concerns and climate action. Appealing to someone else’s reason to care about the climate, rather than trying to make them care for the same reasons you do, is a formula that can be repeated for whatever system you’re in. And even if people have personal motivations, they can find common ground in a goal—like the Amazon Employees for Climate Justice group, which pressured their company to change—whether because of personal concerns from workers about how their families are affected by rising emissions, or because of the hypocrisy they feel in seeing their employer woo oil and gas companies while publicly promoting their own emission-reduction efforts.
Raising your voice can also grow beyond individual action. When Hayhoe learned that JPMorgan Chase invests the most out of any bank in the fossil fuel industry, she canceled her Chase credit cards—but she didn’t stop there. She also called and told them why she was canceling, and posted online about it. “I’m under no illusion that my personal carbon emissions are going to change the world,” she says. “What they do is they change me; they make me more invested in what I’m doing. They change others when I talk about them with other people.” And they motivate her to keep on going, from calling out how her workplace gets its power, and advocating for a new travel policy, to speaking to elected officials. If a board member at JPMorgan Chase hears about hundreds of people canceling their cards because of the company’s fossil-fuel financing, they might bring it up at a meeting and decide they don’t want to be the top fossil fuel-funding bank.
Get involved in collective action
Voting for politicians who will actually push for climate action is important, too—but again, it’s easy to see how people can feel stuck if their candidates aren’t especially environmentally focused. But there’s a “middle ground,” Leiserowitz says, “between individual action and the system action [of] government policymakers, and that’s organization. Organize, organize, organize.”
Do what you can do within your own household—things like reducing your food waste or insulating your attic will both decrease your emissions and save you money—but also connect with others to demand changes that go beyond your own home. Joining people who also care about making a difference “empowers the people themselves, and it greatly amplifies their individual power,” Leiserowitz says. “Your power as a member of an organization working within your own local community—demanding that your local officials change, or your local school board improves climate-change education, or there’s so many other things that can be done. It’s so much more powerful than an individual writing a letter to a policymaker.”
Joining your fellow like-minded citizens to demand systemic change, he adds, “is perhaps the single most powerful thing that people can do.” And Hayhoe emphasizes that you shouldn’t neglect your local decision makers because you think change only happens at the federal level. “States and cities have a lot of power to effect change.”
But here, we run into the same problem as with consumer decisions, says Leiserowitz. Most people say they’d be willing to join a campaign to convince elected officials to take climate change action—22 million people responded they “definitely” would, according to YPCCC surveys. But when asked why people don’t actually get involved, “the overwhelming number one reason is, ‘Nobody’s ever asked,'” he says.
People need to be invited to take action and get involved. Otherwise, these kinds of efforts rely on personal motivation and initiative to do research on a group, and then go out and join that group without personally knowing anyone in it, which are hard things to do. Such groups have an opportunity to make a big impact by recruiting and training people to get involved.
Collective action also doesn’t mean you have to be a hard-core, protest-attending activist—that’s not a reality for everyone. People might not feel comfortable engaging in that way, or they might simply lack the time. But if you expand the notion of activism, anyone can be a quote-unquote activist, Leiserowitz says, “within their own sphere of influence.” Maybe someone wouldn’t join Citizens Climate Lobby, but they can get their household to eat meat one less day a week, or talk to their coworkers about swapping out their office’s fluorescent lights.
Understand system changes still require personal shifts
These actions all require work and effort. And our lives will change whether we fight for the climate now, or wait for corporations and governments to take action. Corporations have run decades of campaigns to try to convince consumers that climate change is entirely their fault, so fighting this narrative and responding by organizing for better corporate policy and more regulation is key. But pushing back against this narrative can mask how inextricably linked we are all to the carbon-fueled economy.
Even if you feel corporate emissions are so large that your decision to, say, take the train over a car ride would be totally meaningless, once those corporations are ever forced to do something about their emissions, it will eventually require you to change individual behaviors, too. The oft-cited statistic that 100 companies are responsible for 70% of emissions includes Scope 3 emissions, which come from all of us consuming what those companies produce. If the companies on that list get to zero emissions, it will mean that we have fully reshaped both huge swaths of the economy—from transportation to agriculture to shipping—and the ways in which those parts of the economy effect your day-to-day life. Are you ready to support making all those changes?
Your choices also matter a great deal for many bigger items that make up your “personal infrastructure.” “One of the critical, fundamental things that we need to do as a society [is] electrify everything,” Leiserowitz says. It also means that “you need to get hundreds of millions of people to make different choices,” he adds. “They need to swap out their gas-powered car for an electric car. The next time they need to replace their furnace or hot water heater, they need to replace it with an electric one, or a heat pump, instead of another natural gas one.” Many people, for instance, swear by their gas stove, but a key climate action is replacing them with induction models. A climate-focused government could incentivize the purchase of these stoves, (or mandate new buildings not have gas hookups, as some cities are doing, despite pushback from the natural gas industry). But in the absence of a full mandate from the government banning gas stoves entirely, you will likely have a choice the next time you replace your stove; you have to decide whether or not to add another carbon-emitting appliance to the world.
Your own purchasing and lifestyle decisions also don’t occur in a vacuum. Right now, few people have the luxury to make these choices—electric cars, or solar panels for your roof, are still expensive. “Thats why system-wide change is needed,” Hayhoe says. “How does the system change? Part of it is when those who can afford to make the changes because the early adopters help bring the price down.” Government’s investment can also help, like how Chinese industrial policy helped drop global solar prices, or if government subsidies shifted away from emissions-heavy industries. And when corporations and governments take climate actions, it makes it easier for all of us to change our individual behaviors, because system change will make renewable energy cheaper or redesign our cities to be less dependent on cars.
This is why the individual-versus-the-system action question is a false binary. We don’t need to do everything perfectly now. Many experts say to not let perfect be the enemy of good when it comes to climate action, or to obsess over their “environmental sins.” But system change and individual change do go hand in hand. “In the end, this is going to require decisions and changes in behavior of all of us, at every level of society,” Leiserowitz says. “Not just individuals—they can’t do it by themselves—but it’s also not just at the system level because, in the end, this is still a free society where people get to choose how they’re going to spend their money and their lives.”