Earth Day annually resurfaces an ongoing conversation—what can I/we do to fight climate change and environmental destruction? Some suggest ditching single-use plastic bags and shampoo bottles in favor of reusable alternatives. Others point fingers at the 100 companies responsible for 71% of global emissions and see the plastic bag crusade as a fruitless struggle against the powers that be.
For decades, environmental movement strategists and armchair commentators alike have debated the merits and shortfalls of framing the climate and environmental crises as personal affairs as opposed to problems only Main Street, Wall Street, and politicians can solve. Then, COVID-19 set in motion an unprecedented year-long case study, billions of people worldwide skipped airline travel, stopped commuting to work, and flocked to the outdoors rather than into stores for recreation.
Global emissions dropped about 7% versus 2019 levels, although evidence suggests an emissions rebound may eventually knock out any unexpected greenhouse gas reduction benefit from this year of tragedy and hardship. And at the societal level, changes to the ways we think about the climate crisis and the impacts of our personal actions may be here to stay.
COVID-19 and the Climate Crisis: Connecting the dots
An unexpected sudden halt to the quotidian hustle and bustle left millions confined to their homes with a somber moment to ruminate on the interconnectedness between ourselves and our struggles, personally and systemically. For the lucky, vaccine rollout provided an end in sight—but only for our current pandemic.
The United Nations Environmental Program’s 2020 Adaptation Gap Report, released in January, warned that global temperature rise is on track to reach 3℃ and that most of the world is not ready. Up to this point, observers had already begun to draw parallels between the current global health crisis and the climate crisis, from varying shades of denialism to the ill-preparedness of governments caught flat-footed and now paying the price for underinvestment in hard and soft public infrastructure and overall social welfare. But UN Environment Chief Inger Andersen, upon the report’s release, made the connection explicit: “there is no vaccine for climate change.”
Could personal action tip the scales?
Stopping the spread of COVID-19, we are continually told, starts with the self: the most powerful single action an individual can take, apart from receiving the vaccine, is to wear a mask. Mask-wearing is proven to be incredibly effective at slowing the spread of the virus, as well as other respiratory illnesses such as the flu. Cases dramatically decreased this year compared to years past. Mask-wearing is a simple and easy solution, and yet in many parts of the US mandatory mask mandates have faced incredible backlash. Some have been dropped or are largely unfollowed.
The mask “debate” puts the two sides clearly in view. On the one hand, it is a demonstration of how certain individual actions can change the trajectory of a crisis. On the other, it highlights the confounding impossibility of change when people with varied ideologies bear personal responsibility. Small actions add up—but only if a critical mass cooperates. We start at square one with mask-wearing and then begin to consider larger steps considered impossible until the pandemic: giving up air travel (or any travel), eating less meat, using less gasoline, and instead taking up needlepoint, whipped coffee, TikTok dances, and family game nights.
It goes without saying that these and other lifestyle changes have come by due to incredible hardship and the unimaginable loss of life. They do not represent the future we wish to see—one in which the climate crisis is dealt with equitably. The reduced emissions accompanying a reduced global GDP are not a “win” if at the expense of those most vulnerable who are now facing food and housing insecurity, financial instability, delayed medical and dental care, and in many cases, the necessity of rebuilding a life absent a mother, father, grandparent, or child. Not to mention incredible losses for women in the workplace and the hundreds of hours of unrecognized and uncompensated labor they have taken on during the pandemic to provide extra care for children and elders.
At the same time, people and their communities have discovered parts of themselves which they never knew before. As Marcel Proust said, “the real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” Everywhere, families discovered what it truly means to live in place, realizing a preference for ditching the mind-numbing commute and instead spending more time with loved ones. Thinking more realistically about flygskam (flight shame), many realized an international vacation destination may not be necessary when we have parks and campgrounds to explore which are accessed easily by bike or car. The increasing collapse of biodiversity and rise of commodity-driven deforestation, which has been loosely linked to infectious disease, have driven many people to break previous patterns of overconsumption and limit their meat intake, a relic of life at the start of the pandemic when interrupted supply chains limited the availability of certain goods. But does the impact stack up?
73% of global emissions versus me
As individuals changed their lifestyles, politicians, corporations, and investors started to follow their cues. Over 100 countries have now pledged to reach net-zero emissions within the next 30 years. At least one-fifth of the world’s largest companies now have net-zero targets. This March, 22 asset owners with $1.2 trillion in assets committed to net-zero portfolios (shout out to my employer Ceres for wrangling the institutional investors). Yet these important steps share the limelight with the previously unimaginable lifestyle transformations which have taken place this past year.
How does this change the way environmentalists think about pursuing the change we need?
Firstly, it is increasingly evident that we need both a bottom-up and top-down approach to addressing the climate crisis. The world’s largest emitters and the burden they bear need to be the north star. But personal actions, especially undertaken by those with wealth and privilege, can truly make a difference, even if the greatest impact comes from increased engagement and interest in the environmental movement.
Secondly, it is undeniable that some individual actions, like wearing a mask, do have an outsized impact. If you are part of the 1% of the global population responsible for 50% of the world’s aviation emissions, looking for adventure a little closer to home, and telling your peers to do so as well, can go a long way.
And finally, perhaps the most important lesson learned for the environmental movement is the need not just for personal and systemic changes, but also changes in the public imagination. Now we know that adapting to a low-carbon economy and lifestyle doesn’t only entail sacrifice; it also breeds possibility and imagination. The current moment gives us an opportunity to reflect on our own choices and desires, finding joy in unexpected ways, and rediscovering what is meaningful and important. I, for one, am looking forward to getting out of the house, but I hope that the deep roots I’ve developed right here in my own community will stay.
Courtney Foster is an Associate at Ceres, a nonprofit organization transforming the economy to build a just and sustainable future for people and the planet. She is part of the Sunrise Movement’s political team in their Boston chapter and has held internship positions with Better Future Project and in the U.S. Senate focusing on environmental issues.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are the author’s own and do not represent the views of her employer or those of the Aspen Institute Energy & Environment Program.