Individual vs Systemic Change in the Climate Crisis

How to Enact Systemic Change

How much responsibility falls on the individual? What role should the individual have in the climate crisis?

Nowadays, individuals are encouraged to make changes in their lifestyle in order to reduce their carbon footprint. There are an unlimited number of carbon footprint calculators, some of which have been reviewed here on talkSHiFT. Having a shared metric with which to measure our personal footprint or rather, impact, on the planet allows us to compare, measure, know, and ultimately reduce. What people may not know is that the word “carbon footprint” was coined by the large oil company, BP. Thanks, perhaps in part, to companies such as BP, there has been an drastic increase in individuals advocating for individual action in the name of reducing one’s personal carbon footprint. And yet, there has been little to no systemic change (perhaps until now, with the rise of electric energy). 

For companies like BP, maintaining the status quo is a matter of self-preservation. This leads us to ask how drawing individuals’ attention to their personal carbon footprints helps achieve that goal. Are carbon footprints merely a tool to distract individuals from larger actions? Many have concluded that Big Oil companies encourage the use of this term to shift the focus from fossil fuel companies to consumers. In this blog, we delve into the complex interplay between individual change and systemic change in the context of carbon footprints and climate change initiatives.

Individual Change: Small Steps for a Sustainable Future

Individual action includes the everyday choices people make as members of society, all day long. While these actions may seem small, together they can add up to significant impacts on the scope of national or global emissions, thereby mitigating climate change. Some examples of this include what people choose to purchase and how they handle their waste.

Consumer Choices

Consumers have to make choices that benefit not only their personal future but the future of generations to come. Buying electric vehicles, refusing single-use plastics, and shifting towards a plant-based lifestyle are just some of the choices that are being pushed on consumers to enact changes in their everyday lives. 

Disposal Choices

One of the biggest individual behavior changes that is promoted is to “reduce, reuse, and recycle”. Consumers are encouraged to be mindful of the products they buy, choose eco-friendly alternatives, reduce waste, and embrace a more circular approach to living.

One example of this that is rapidly rising in popularity is recycling end-of-life vehicles (ELVs). ELVs contribute significantly to environmental degradation through the release of hazardous substances and the inefficient use of fuel, thereby emitting large amounts of carbon into the environment. However, recycling ELVs can ensure the proper disposal of hazardous components, avoiding the all-too-common contamination of nearby soil and water. This decision by individuals lead to awareness campaigns and incentives that ensure the end of a vehicle’s life becomes a new beginning, promotes sustainability, and guarantees environmental protection.

Overall, monitoring one’s own impact can be a great motivation for people to get involved in their communities and to make smart decisions that positively affect the environment. 

However, it is important to recognize that individual change alone may not be sufficient to address the magnitude of the climate crisis. Even if every person in the United States did everything they were encouraged to do, U.S. carbon emissions would fall by only 22 percent. Environmental harm from individual consumption is relatively small compared to what is consumed by the commercial, industrial, and corporate sectors. According to a landmark 2017 “Carbon Majors” report,  70 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions can be traced back to 100 companies.

Systemic Change: Building a Foundation That Can Shape Our Society

With climate change being arguably the most pressing challenge of our time, addressing it will likely require more than individual actions and isolated solutions. It demands systemic change which manifests as a comprehensive overhaul of corporate responsibility, governance frameworks, and the status quo through direct action. 

Corporate Responsibility

Even though they are slow to take responsibility for their actions, large corporations wield immense power to influence the trajectory of climate change. Corporate responsibility exists within the confines of a profit-driven model. This profit-focused model often leads to resource exploitation on the principle of limitless growth potential. So, even if some companies say they are taking steps towards a sustainable future their underlying goal remains profit generation, which often directly conflicts with long-term environmental sustainability. 

As consumers, we must critically examine large corporations’ actions, hold them accountable for their impact on the planet, and demand more commitments to social and environmental responsibility. Systemic change requires individuals to organize and use the power of their collective voices to be heard.

Advocacy in Constraints of the Law

Governments play a critical role in creating and implementing regulations that encourage sustainability, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and promote the adoption of renewable energy sources. Theoretically, legislative processes provide ways for public input and engagement. Citizens can participate in public consultations, submit comments on proposed regulations, express concerns to elected officials, and attend town council meetings to voice one’s opinions to local government. Government agencies have a responsibility to consider public input and scientific evidence when creating policies. In fact, this is what they were elected for. This relationship between citizens and government institutions is the foundation of democracy and can drive meaningful changes.

Civil Disobedience as Bringing about Systemic Change

When traditional channels fail to bring about meaningful change, civil disobedience can serve as a powerful force for much-needed transformation. Peaceful protests, acts of civil resistance, and public movements have historically played a crucial role in bringing urgent issues to light. 

In the context of climate change, civil disobedience is not an act of defiance but a call to address the urgency of the crisis. Movements like Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for the Future, organized by environmental activist Greta Thunberg, have effectively galvanized public attention and compelled governments to take notice. In much of Canada pre-pandemic, highschool students were striking every Friday in the name of climate justice; Greta has created a renaissance of young people realizing the power of their collective voices. Greta is a prime example of how even though the effectiveness of actions remains to be seen; civil disobedience gets people talking. 

Agroup of grass root climate organisations decided to hold a local event called #Racetozero emissions while COP26 was on in Glasgow.

Pictured above are activists from a group of grass root climate organizations protesting to end public funding of coal, oil, and gas.

One Small Step for Man, One Giant Leap for Mankind

In the face of a climate crisis, the need for both individual change and systemic change is irrefutable. While individual actions contribute to the collective impact and promote others to replicate positive behavior, systemic change is essential to create a world that practices sustainability on a larger scale. It is not a question of choosing between individual change and systemic change, but rather recognizing their connection and pursuing them together. So, continue to use your wooden toothbrush, but don’t use that action as an excuse not to make your voice heard and demand a better world from the people in power.