Why Changing Individual Behavior Won’t Solve Climate Change
With knowledge and willpower a person can dramatically reduce their environmental footprint. Buy an EV, put solar panels on your roof, stop eating meat, stop flying, have fewer children, etc. If everyone did these, the climate would heal itself. There are a small number of people who make all of these sacrifices, and they are heroes and examples of what’s possible. But most of us, even if we really want to, can’t do all these things. The reasons we can’t do everything sometimes include financial reasons or lack of information. But for me the biggest challenge has been more subtle and virtually insurmountable.
I have been striving to be a climate hero for two decades. I can check off many of the boxes: Solar, EV, organic food… However, if you take the list of things an individual can do to help the climate and rate them from least impactful to most, the two at the top of the list are flying less and having fewer children. I just have not been able to significantly reduce my air travel, despite serious internal conflict and strong intentions to do so.
Undeterred by the misinformation promoted by climate deniers, most people believe climate change is a problem and want to do something about it. On the spectrum of things we can do as individuals to help the climate, usually the ones with the most impact also require the most personal effort. For example, many people go out of their way to recycle. Its something we can do in our everyday life, and its relatively easy. Air travel, on the other hand, is widely known to be one of the biggest contributors to an individual’s carbon footprint, but few, are able to eliminate their air travel.
A single flight can generate more CO2 than everything else an individual does in a year. See, for example, this article about the relative carbon footprint of air travelers versus non-air travelers. You can try to take only direct flights, which reduces the pollution from an individual flight as compared to an indirect flight which has to fly more total miles in order to transport you the same net distance. But really, what we all need to do is just stop flying.
While flying less is one of the highest-impact personal commitments, it also has a significant impact on the people around us. And the social pressures to fly are very strong and insurmountable for most people. Greta Thunberg has been a symbol of what’s possible, but it’s really hard.
Of all the personal choices I make to lower my carbon footprint, most I can do in relative isolation without impacting the people around me. If I choose to drive an EV, that doesn’t really have much impact on anyone else but myself. However, to stop flying means dramatically impacting my family, friends, and work. Not flying means not visiting extended family on holidays, not going to high school reunions, not visiting best friends who live on the opposite coast of the United States. It means denying my wife her life-long dream of traveling to foreign countries with our family.
Instead of completely eliminating air flight, I tried limiting it to one major flight per year. But this meant painful choices between different priorities — do I do the business trip or the wedding? I tried driving rather than flying to visit my friends (generally a good trade-off if you drive a hybrid or EV, as shown on this chart). But this requires adding days on either side of a trip which makes the trip much harder on my wife back home with our two kids.
Suddenly my personal decision to do what’s right for the planet interferes with my relationships and impacts the people I love. And that takes the sacrifice to a whole new level. I have found that people around me, are generally supportive, in concept, of my attempts to fly less, but not really when it comes down to the specific sacrifice of the moment. When I push back, I worry that they think I value them less than my lofty ideals or value them less than another friend or family member. I have often gotten the response, “skip some other flight and do this one”, or “you flew to visit so-and-so last month, so you should fly to visit me.” Not visiting because of some invisible, abstract, pollution thing that most people don’t really understand is usually a lost battle for me.
Relationships are usually the most important thing in people’s lives. And in the US, where people usually move out of their home towns when they grow up and often live large distances from their parents, siblings, and friends, we naturally fly a lot to stay in touch.
We will never overcome the social pressure to travel by air until we shift towards a world in which flying is no longer a social expectation. Such a shift could come from regulations, but the best way is to adjust the economics such that it costs more to pollute. Currently it is virtually free to pollute. When it costs money to pollute, we will naturally evolve as a society to pollute less which will include flying less.
It is widely agreed among (conservative as well as liberal) economists that putting a price on carbon with a carbon tax is the best way to address climate change. Fossil fuels would be taxed at the source (e.g. at the well or mine). This would result in the cost of all goods and services increasing in proportion to their carbon footprint. Suddenly it will be less expensive to buy fruit from California than Peru because of the carbon footprint of the transportation, and so people will naturally buy local. Fuel efficient cars and EVs will become (even) more cost effective to drive compared to gas cars because they emit less CO2, and so people will naturally prefer to buy these cars.
We humans are acutely attuned to the relative cost of one thing over another. Most of us usually consider the cost of something as the top or second most important factor when buying something. A carbon tax would make the carbon emissions of a product or service part of the price and therefore would harness the most powerful force in our economy, price, to help the climate.
One common criticism of a carbon tax, is, well it’s a tax, and nobody likes to pay taxes. Another is that it will hurt the poor more than the rich. But, the most popular and comprehensive carbon pricing proposal being considered in Congress and promoted by Citizen’s Climate Lobby and others, the bipartisan Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, is revenue neutral. All of the revenue collected from the carbon tax is given back to people in the form of equal dividend checks. This has the effect of being a net-zero tax increase on the economy. In fact, the lower and middle classes will come out financially ahead because the wealthy and the corporations are responsible for the majority of carbon emissions and therefore will pay the majority of the tax. Everyone gets the same dividend check, but people and corporations with the larger carbon footprints pay more of the tax. We would start with a low tax rate and increase annually over time.
Now, how will this make it easier for us to do the right thing and fly less? Air travel will become more expensive, resulting in a profound shift in where we live and how we travel. Just like most of us don’t fly personal jets around because it’s too expensive, we will start to fly in commercial jets less as well. Eventually, we will arrange our lives and where we live in a way that allows us to be connected without relying on air travel. We will live closer to loved ones or use other means of travel. It will no longer be strange to say that you don’t want to fly. Everyone will just get it.
Climate change is a big problem and requires a big solution that completely re-structures our world in a way that pollutes less. Today it doesn’t cost anything to emit CO2. A carbon tax will change that. We need taking care of the climate to be part of every-day life — something we do naturally, rather than something that requires us to swim up-stream and be heroes, possibly hurting our personal relationships. Flying needs to become a natural last resort rather than the default.
Imagine a world where the cost of polluting is embedded in our every day price decisions, and think about how this will change the decisions we make in our lives for the better. Organic food will be cheaper than non-organic, solar and wind energy will be even more cost effective compared to natural gas and coal. Flying in airplanes won’t make financial sense, so over time, our kids will be more likely to go to college near home and less likely to move across the country after college. We will all live closer to the ones we love because it will just seem stupid to fly back and forth for holidays. And when we do need to travel, we will use trains and EVs. This will not only be better for the climate, I believe it will also be a nicer way to live.
We can’t expect individuals to fight social norms to do what’s right. We can only get there with the society-wide shift that would happen if helping the climate is piggy-backed on helping our pocketbook. We need a revenue-neutral carbon tax in place as soon as possible.