State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

You Asked: Are My Efforts to Reduce My Carbon Emissions Too Minor to Matter?

smokestack emissions
Photo: Pixabay

You Asked” is a series where Earth Institute experts tackle reader questions on science and sustainability. In honor of Climate Week NYC and the Covering Climate Now initiative, we’re focusing on your questions about climate change.

The following question was submitted by one of our Instagram followers. The answer was provided by Steven Cohen.

Steve Cohen
Steve Cohen is a professor in the Practice of Public Affairs at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, and director of the Research Program on Sustainability Policy and Management at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. Photo by Bruce Gilbert

I’ve been told that my own efforts to reduce waste and carbon are too minor to matter and that it’s the responsibility of corporations to do more because that is where the bulk of it comes from. How accurate is that? I want to believe my efforts matter no matter the scale (individual vs. big business).

This is a false trade-off. There is no single thing that matters more than everything else when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. There are a lot of different factors at play right now that are responsible for producing waste and contributing to our carbon footprint.

I think the idea that you can solve every single problem by sitting alone in the dark with a candle is ridiculous. No one’s going to do it. If that’s the aspiration for those who are environmentally conscious, then it is silly. On the other hand, we can start by developing a de-carbonized economy so people can continue enjoying things in the future that they now enjoy while having less of an impact in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

On an individual level, we can do that by voting for public officials who believe in a de-carbonized economy. People can also try to reduce their climate impact through their own consumer choices. They can also begin by promoting sustainability in the organizations they work in.

These changes in habits and consumption patterns will also result in bigger changes, like encouraging companies to make products that consume less energy and have fewer toxins.

To some degree, the work I have done delves into how you can live a complete lifestyle in a way that has the least impact on the environment. It doesn’t have to be zero, just less.

It is not just these big corporations, but also the government and their policies that should be moving in the direction of sustainability and reducing greenhouse gases. That means, we need public policies that provide incentives and disincentives for environmentally safe behavior, and also developments in technology. Without changes in individual behavior and people’s awareness about all of this, you’re not going to have other changes. These all are closely interconnected.

Most certainly, people’s actions add up and make a difference. It is good to be aware of your impact. You need to change on an individual level to bring about change on a community level. There’s no doubt that corporations need to change the way they’re functioning, but these things are not either-or propositions.

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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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