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Many lifestyle actions to slow climate change are worth taking. But they distract from the systemic changes that are needed to avert this crisis.

June 4, 2019

“People start pollution. People can stop it.” That was the tag line of the famous “Crying Indian” ad campaign that first aired on Earth Day in 1971. It was, as it turns out, a charade. Not only was “Iron Eyes Cody” actually an Italian-American actor, the campaign itself successfully shifted the burden of litter from corporations that produced packaging to consumers.

The problem, we were told, wasn’t pollution-generating corporate practices. It was you and me. And efforts to pass bottle bills, which would have shifted responsibility to producers for packaging waste, failed. Today, decades later, plastic pollution has so permeated our planet that it can now be found in the deepest part of the ocean, the Mariana Trench 36,000 feet below.

Here is another Crying Indian campaign going on today — with climate change. Personal actions, from going vegan to avoiding flying, are being touted as the primary solution to the crisis. Perhaps this is an act of desperation in an era of political division, but it could prove suicidal.

Though many of these actions are worth taking, and colleagues and friends of ours are focused on them in good faith, a fixation on voluntary action alone takes the pressure off of the push for governmental policies to hold corporate polluters accountable. In fact, one recent study suggests that the emphasis on smaller personal actions can actually undermine support for the substantive climate policies needed.

This obsession with personal action, though promoted by many with the best of intentions, plays into the hands of polluting interests by distracting us from the systemic changes that are needed.

There is no way to avert the climate crisis without keeping most of our coal, oil and gas in the ground, plain and simple. Because much of the carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for centuries, our choices in the next few years are crucial, and they will determine the lives our grandchildren and their grandchildren. We need corporate action, not virtue signaling. 

Massive changes to our national energy grid, a moratorium on new fossil fuel infrastructure and a carbon fee (that steeply ramps up) are just some examples of visionary policies that could make a difference. And right now, the “Green New Deal,” support it or not, has encouraged a much needed, long overdue societal conversation about these and other options for averting climate catastrophe. 

Consider the benefits. With five years of concentrated effort, we could have a supply of clean, renewable energy that is virtually inexhaustible. We could have many fewer deaths from mercury, particulates and ozone produced by burning dirty fossil fuels. And, we could set a shining example for the rest of the world of how the climate crisis can be solved both equitably and productively.

Don’t change light bulbs, change energy system

Focusing on policies that incentivize corporate environmental stewardship will force us to work together and cross political, racial and religious lines. It will connect us to the rest of the world as we aim to solve a truly global problem. In contrast, a focus on personal action can divide us, with those living virtuously distancing themselves from those living “in sin.”

A national plan of action, in fact, is not a new idea. It was proposed by Republican President George H.W. Bush in 1992 when he promised “an action plan on climate change.” If we had taken up his challenge over a quarter century ago, when carbon dioxide levels were about 350 parts per million, this would all be much easier. Now they are surpassing 415 ppm and rising quickly, and we are locking in ever more dangerous climate change impacts.

What decades of industry obstinance bought us is a trip down a much steeper carbon emissions ramp, so now we must turn from changing light bulbs to changing our entire energy system. There is still time to avert the worst impacts of climate change, but not without immediate, collective action.

Michael E. Mann, distinguished professor of Atmospheric Science and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University, is co-author of “The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy.” Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelEMann. Jonathan Brockopp is professor of History and Religious Studies at Penn State University. 

At the same time, your portion of a LA-NYC flight shrinks summer sea ice cover by 3m2 (12 sq ft).  “To a lot of people who like to travel, these are morally bewildering times”, says New York Times journalist Andy Newman. “Going someplace far away, we now know, is the biggest single action a private citizen can take to worsen climate change.” Newman adds: “It is hard to think about climate change in relation to our own behaviour.” But “there are ways to quantify your impact on the planet”, he says, highlighting a 2016 paper which found that “your share of the emissions on a cross-country flight one-way from New York to Los Angeles — shrinks the summer sea ice cover by 3m²”.