• One Small Step

My 'Unpopular' Opinion

Newsletter 30 Sep '22

Individual behavior change is critical to prevent 2 degrees of warming. It's just as important as top-down, political reform.

There’s a very convincing argument permeating our modern discourse around climate change. It sounds something like this: individual action as a means of climate change mitigation is “a brilliant con”. Fruitless, ineffective, and insidiously designed to absolve big oil and big government of any responsibility– shifting the blame entirely onto the hapless public.

Before I started One Small Step, I used to think like this too.

Back in 2015 I was working for a national advocacy group in Australia, GetUp, campaigning for a clean energy transition. I felt strongly that the best use of civic society’s time and resources was to put organized, political pressure on the biggest actors in our system: national governments and multinational corporations. This approach made logical sense at first, as these stakeholders have the most obvious, quantifiable power and influence over society’s carbon emissions; and are most to blame for our prolonged inaction.

However, the question of ‘who is most to blame for the climate crisis’ is very different from the question of ‘what must we do to solve the climate crisis?’­– and when we focus all our attention on the worst actors like Exxon Mobil and Shell, we often overlook the complex, socio-political mechanisms that are simultaneously and collectively affecting and accelerating climate change.

The role of individual action is counter-intuitive. I developed my own understanding of this only after years of working in climate campaigning and studying systems change and complex network systems at an academic level. To insist that you can have radical top-down change without bottom-up shifts or mass grass-roots behavior change is naive and misunderstands complex social system dynamics. They complement and feed one another, and you cannot have one without the other. As Roland Kupers, a complex systems science expert has argued:

"If governments woke up and ordered climate action, I'd be all for it. It's just that it simply is not happening. My argument is that there are other ways of combining small government interventions with bottom-up dynamics to create non-linear change."

And while we've seen greatly improved momentum this past year with the passing of the US Inflation Reduction Act and the Australian government's legislating of a more ambitious emissions reduction target, progress by the largest stakeholders is simply too slow. There are plenty of examples of adverse national government policies and subsidies locking in decades-long new fossil fuel projects and incumbent fossil-fuel heavy infrastructure, which scientifically, simply must not go ahead if we are to stay within the world's rapidly diminishing global carbon budget.

Our society, in its attempts to decarbonize, forms a complex dynamic network system comprised of innumerable, interconnected points: from smaller nodes to larger hubs.

The biggest hubs in the network, like national governments and huge corporations, are often the hardest to move. The force required to change their behavior is immense, and they typically can only change very slowly and very little at a time, due to huge inertia and inflexible path dependency.

We’ve seen proof of this after over 40 years of intense campaigning for climate change mitigation reforms in Western countries. It’s the same problem with locked-in carbon-intensive infrastructure. It’s very hard for incumbent entities to adopt radical change when they profit from, own or are heavily incentivised to protect and expand this infrastructure.

However, there are other points in our network also worthy of our attention: 8 billion tiny, individual nodes, like you and me. We aren’t subject to the same forces restricting the bigger hubs. We can make more immediate changes in our own lives by adopting the alternatives available to us– like rooftop solar installation with batteries, electric vehicles, dietary changes, home food waste composting systems and micro food production, and reducing our consumption of non-essential consumer goods in favour of repairing and reusing what we already own and by growing the market power of circular economy, zero emissions businesses.

Global climate institutions like the UN IPCC have started to recognise the huge influence these individual actions can have when we add them up. In a recent report they’ve identified that demand–side climate change mitigation (i.e. people and actors in the system reducing consumption and changing their demand for emissions-intensive products and services en masse) could account for between 40-70% of the global emission reductions we need. That is a massive amount.

The current, popular narrative which angrily craps on individual action and labels it as piecemeal, marginal, a distraction, or an insidious conspiracy-driven guilt trip from oil giants to avoid taking responsibility for themselves, creates a very counter-productive false binary. One in which millions of regular people who would otherwise be taking action in their own lives with genuine climate impact are instead incapacitated by rage, antipathy or anxiety, directed outwards towards those worst or biggest actors in the system who refuse to or are incapable of quickly mandating the top-down reforms society needs to reduce emissions at the pace required.

Everything we’re now seeing strongly emphasises that our own actions can and do have an enormous impact when measured collectively. Individual behavior change makes up collective behavior change, and it is clearly a prerequisite if we wish to prevent 1.5 to 2 degrees of global warming. When your unit of analysis is civilisations, or swathes of people, individual actions that reduce consumption of emissions-intensive goods and services are absolutely critical.

There’s so much contained in this topic I could write a book on it, but in lieu of that you can have a listen to a recent podcast interview I did with A Positive Climate, a great solution-focused podcast in the top 15 tech podcasts in Australia at the moment. In my next newsletter I'll touch on another part of individual climate action that makes it so critically important - that it is socially contagious and can create rapid, non-linear cascading societal changes.

What do you think? Does reading this make you feel better or worse about our current climate predicament? Can you see the logic in my argument or is it your view that I’m a painfully misguided, pro-consumerist shill hoodwinked by oil giants? Ether way, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Thanks for reading,