Eating less red meat, boarding fewer airplanes and buying efficient lightbulbs can all help reduce planet-warming emissions. But focusing on those individual actions can undermine the global fight against climate change, according to experts.
That's because focusing on individual lifestyles can distract from the need for large-scale solutions, such as getting big corporations to ditch fossil fuels or getting governments to adopt policies like carbon taxes.
It can also lead to finger-pointing within the environmental community, with climate activists criticizing one another for taking a plane or driving a gas-powered car.
There's even research suggesting that when people feel as if they're making an impact on climate change in their personal life, they're less likely to support a carbon tax or other climate policy at the government level.
Climate scientist Michael Mann has emerged as a vocal champion of this controversial argument. He summed up the idea in a recent opinion piece in Time magazine with the provocative title "Lifestyle Changes Aren't Enough to Save the Planet. Here's What Will."
"Focusing on individual choices around air travel and beef consumption heightens the risk of losing sight of the gorilla in the room: civilization's reliance on fossil fuels for energy and transport overall, which accounts for roughly two-thirds of global carbon emissions," Mann wrote. "We need systemic changes that will reduce everyone's carbon footprint."
To be sure, Mann and others aren't urging people to lead unsustainable lifestyles. Rather, they're calling for these individual actions to pave the way for broader change.
"As I tell audiences, do all of those things you can do in your everyday life to reduce your environmental footprint — in many cases, these are no-brainers," Mann said in an email to E&E News. "They save us money, make us happier and healthier, and set a good example for others to follow. But these actions are no substitute for systemic solutions that incentivize a collective shift toward climate-friendly policies."
Katharine Hayhoe, another prominent climate scientist and a professor of political science at Texas Tech University, agreed with this assessment.
"When you look at the numbers, flying is around 3% of global emissions. All animal agriculture is 14% of emissions," Hayhoe said in an interview. "So is it important to take personal action? Yes. But our individual choices should motivate us to advocate for systemwide change."
That idea is more than a little insulting to vegans and others who have made personal sacrifices in the name of fighting climate change.
"Michael Mann is simply wrong. It's an all of the above situation," said one Twitter user who goes by "Veganrican."
"No vegan is trying to argue otherwise. It's sad that he is."
'We're not willing to do everything'
A growing body of research has looked at how individual actions on the environment can erode support for governmental climate policy.
A 2017 study published in Nature, for instance, looked at whether people in Japan who participated in an energy-saving campaign would support a carbon tax.
The study included more than 14,000 people who tried to limit their household energy use after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. Some of the participants were asked to check off boxes if they had completed certain actions to save energy, such as turning off lights when they weren't home.
The more boxes that participants checked off, the less likely they were to support a carbon tax.
"The idea is that by checking these boxes, you were going to give people a sense of feeling like they made progress," said Seth Werfel, who conducted the study while he was a Ph.D. student at Stanford University.
"It might have changed people's perceptions of who should solve the problem," he said. "That is, it made them shift more toward individuals and further away from government."
Another study published in Nature this year sought to build on these findings. It looked at whether people would support a carbon tax after being given a green energy "nudge."
Participants in the study were told that the government would automatically enroll them in an energy savings program to reduce their utility bill. They were then asked whether they would support a carbon tax on top of that program.
Most participants said "no."
"I think one of the takeaways is that it's tempting to think we can just do everything. And we probably should do it all. But at the end of the day, we're not willing to do everything. Our attention is sort of limited," said David Hagmann, the lead author of the study and a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
"So all the attention we spend on smaller policies that might not have a big effect gets people to think we've made progress when we really haven't," he added.
On top of this research, experts say focusing on individual behavior can lead to a blame game among climate advocates.
Hayhoe knows this well. She said she constantly gets criticism on Twitter from fellow environmentalists, who question why she took a plane to a conference or why she had children despite her professed commitment to saving the planet.
"Flying and eating and having children is often framed as a purity test," Hayhoe said. "It's like, 'So you say you care about climate change. But if you have a child or eat meat or, heaven forbid, have ever stepped in an airplane, then you are not one of our allies. You are one of our enemies.'"
Hayhoe said these sorts of attacks used to come from people who deny the scientific consensus on climate change. But now, she said, they increasingly come from "people who are not only concerned but are part of the fight."
By censuring one another, environmentalists open themselves up to attack by opponents of climate action, according to Mann.
"Appearing to force Americans to give up meat, or travel, or other things central to the lifestyle they've chosen to live is politically dangerous: it plays right into the hands of climate-change deniers whose strategy tends to be to portray climate champions as freedom-hating totalitarians," Mann wrote in his op-ed in Time.
Look no further than Greta Thunberg, the Swedish climate activist who maintains a vegan diet and boycotts air travel. She's constantly subjected to attacks on Twitter and other social media platforms. Detractors tend to focus on her lifestyle choices as well as her age and speaking style (Climatewire, Aug. 9).
Another example is the Green New Deal, the sweeping progressive policy to wean the country off fossil fuels with a government-led jobs program. Its opponents in Congress assailed the policy as an assault on Americans' personal freedoms, including their ability to eat meat. House Natural Resources ranking member Rob Bishop (R-Utah) even ate a hamburger while criticizing the proposal at a press conference (E&E Daily, Feb. 28).
"If this goes through, this will be outlawed. I could no longer eat this type of thing," Bishop declared as he chowed down.
Aviation and agriculture
Mann and others aren't saying people should abandon their individual efforts to tackle global warming.
"My views have often been misrepresented — sometimes, it seems, intentionally, by those who are most dogmatic that the solutions must be either/or," Mann said in his email to E&E News.
"They are of course BOTH. We need individual action AND policy action, and one is not a substitute for the other," he said. "I've always done my best to be clear on that, but it seems there are some who would rather muddy the waters than clarify them."
To that end, experts on aviation and agriculture said certain types of individual actions could go a long way toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions in those sectors.
Dan Rutherford, program director for marine and aviation at the International Council on Clean Transportation, said there could be a significant climate impact if American "frequent flyers" curbed their air travel.
Rutherford noted that a small subset of Americans — 12% — fly on average 14 times a year and are responsible for two-thirds of the country's plane emissions.
"If frequent flyers start to cut back on their flying, I think it would have a quite significant impact not only on emissions, but also on the economics of the airlines," he said.
Matthew Hayek, an assistant professor of environmental studies at New York University, said there could also be a significant climate impact if more Americans started limiting their meat and dairy consumption.
Hayek noted that the average American eats 60 pounds of beef a year and 220 pounds of meat a year. If more people started cutting back, less land would be required for food production. In turn, that land could be replanted with trees, which would sequester more carbon.
"A lot of folks are saying that we don't need to address diet because about 100 companies are responsible for about 70% of all fossil fuel emissions," Hayek said. "That being said, those folks are confusing what's necessary to fight climate change with what's sufficient to fight climate change. In order to sufficiently fight climate change, we need to address the land sector. And this is going to require folks changing their eating habits."
Tim Searchinger, a research scholar at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, agreed with these sentiments.
"We use about 1.2 billion hectares of land that was originally forested for grazing," he said. "Imagine if magically everyone stopped eating dairy and beef. Well, we could reforest 1.2 billion hectares of land and store all that carbon. That's a lot of land. That's a lot of carbon. So, you know, diets matter."
Searchinger declined to weigh in on Republican criticism of the Green New Deal, saying only: "I don't think there was anything in there that said you can't eat a hamburger. But for some reason or another, there's this effort to turn everything into a cultural war."