Prelude: The Role of Individuals in Solving Climate Change

In the face of impending crisis arising from irreversible climate change, many are putting the responsibility of averting it to individuals, rather than governments and international bodies. Scientists, celebrities, and politicians alike promote a myriad of ways to reduce our carbon footprint, from swapping plastic straws for stainless steel ones to carpooling to having fewer kids, all in the name of deterring permanent environmental damage. Although such zeal in lessening individual impact on the environment is unprecedented, the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 °C still remains elusive. Hence, a question emerges: can individual actions resolve climate change?

To answer that, it will be useful to first understand the reason people, companies, and governments take environmentally harmful decisions. Environment, taken as the more tangible components such as clean air, stable sea level, etc, is a resource in which all individuals have, to an extent, equal an open access. In such systems, individual rational actions are often time in contradiction to the common good, a phenomenon often called as “the tragedy of the commons, a term popularized by Garrett Hardin in a 1968 Science article with the term as the title. This happens because for every environmentally detrimental decision an individual makes, the benefits are only for themselves, while the environmental cost are shared globally. This means that for each incremental benefit received, an individual will only have to bear a fraction of the cost. Therefore, it is only rational to take those actions⁠—which benefit the private-self⁠—however environmentally damaging that action might be.

To end this tragedy through individual actions is to believe that given enough information, people will voluntarily make more environmentally friendly decisions, enough to forestall disaster. However, as previously pointed out, in the presence of freedom to act, this is not the case; people are more likely to better their condition at the cost of the community, or as in Hardin’s words: “Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.” With this in mind, the only way to achieve climate conservation goals is to cease giving individuals the freedom to make harmful decisions. To do this, we must turn to the government.

Governments have better odds at solving climate change due to at least two things they exclusively have: the authority to coerce the people, and the resources needed to enforce those coercion. With coercive legislation, all individuals must make decisions which benefit the common good, regardless of their view on climate change. This legislation can take on numerous forms, such as green subsidies, prohibition of certain carbon-intensive activities, or, as stated in the bipartisan economists’ statement published in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, universal carbon dividends.

One place we can look at as an example is the small, landlocked country of Bhutan, located in the Eastern Himalayas. Their constitution, enacted in 2008, declares that “it is the fundamental duty of every citizen to contribute to the protection of the natural environment,” thus ensuring that even the most obstinate climate-denier is legally responsible for the preservation of the environment. In the same article it is stated that “a minimum of sixty percent of Bhutan’s total land shall be maintained under forest cover for all time.” This, along with other conservation-oriented policies, play a large part in making Bhutan the only carbon-negative country in the world. In 2009, this nation of around 750,000 people, according to their own numbers, emit around 2.1 million tonnes of CO2 while their forests suck in approximately 3 times as much CO2. Though what has been done in Bhutan may not be applicable in all other countries, it gives us a glimpse of what our future might be if we allow the government to implement coercive legislation to solve climate change.

Then, what is the role of individuals in solving climate change?

To pass “green” bills, politicians need to gather popular support. However, looking at the discourse happening in both mainstream media and legislative chambers, achieving such support is easier said than done. This is where individual actions come in. To gather the necessary support, individuals must keep themselves, and others, informed and demand immediate actions by the government.

Take the Clean Air Act of 1970 as an example. According to data released by UC Berkeley in 2018, this act contributed to the 60% decline in pollution emissions by the U.S. manufacturing industry between 1990 and 2008. This decline in emissions was not caused by a preceding decline in the demand for manufactured goods⁠—something activists hope to achieve by coaxing the public to switch their carbon-intensive lifestyle to a more environmentally friendly one. In fact, manufacturing output in 2008 was 30 percent greater than in 1990. The enactment, and the subsequent success, of this particular bill was largely due to large protest held throughout the decade, most notably the 1970 Earth Day, when 20 million American individuals decided to face the rising pollution not by persuading fellow Americans to reduce their carbon-related activities, but by demanding the government to step in and control the rising pollution.

Climate change is real. From record-breaking heat in Europe to the death of marine life in the Great Barrier Reef, everyday we see more and more ominous signs of a climate breakdown. And if we spend the little time we have left to prevent such breakdown preaching individual actions as the key to solving climate change, it might all be too late. Instead, we must focus our efforts in making sure that governments enact appropriate legislation to handle climate change.

Yes, Individual actions can resolve climate change, but not directly. Rather, it can only be the prelude to a realistic solution: government regulations. With robust and comprehensive climate policies, the dream of preventing climate catastrophe is closer to being a reality than some might think.

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