Katharine Hayhoe's book Saving Us shows that climate change is not just an environmental issue. It’s an economic issue, a technology issue, a health issue—a human issue.
Every year, I add two new low-carbon habits to my life. I don’t do it because I believe my personal carbon emission reductions will make a difference. Even if all of us who care do our best, our individual choices will never cut global carbon emissions to anywhere near the goal of the Paris Agreement.
So should I just give up?
This guilt-based system of believing our individual choices are what’s needed to save the world will exhaust us. And when we’re exhausted, when we feel like we’ve done everything we can and it still wasn’t enough, it’s more tempting than not to just throw in the towel and, to paraphrase the prophet Isaiah, think “I might as well just eat, drink, take great vacations, and drive a giant SUV, right? If we’re all going down, why not enjoy the trip?” So if you feel that, remind yourself—as I have to remind myself, too—that what really counts, what really carries the weight, is when we know we can act, and we share that sense of efficacy with others. That’s how social contagion begins.
“Look at the world around you,” Malcolm Gladwell says in The Tipping Point. “It may seem like an immovable, implacable place. It is not. With the slightest push—in just the right place—it can be tipped.” And in what direction do we want to tip it? As my colleague Michael Mann wrote in his 2019 TIME essay, “Lifestyle Changes Aren’t Enough to Save the Planet”:
We don’t need to ban cars; we need to electrify them (and we need that electricity to come from clean energy). We don’t need to ban burgers; we need climate-friendly beef. To spur these changes, we need to put a price on carbon, to incentivize polluters to invest in these solutions. . . . Focusing on individual choices around air travel and beef consumption heightens the risk of losing sight of the gorilla in the room: civilization’s reliance on fossil fuels for energy and transport overall, which accounts for roughly two-thirds of global carbon emissions. We need systemic changes that will reduce everyone’s carbon footprint, whether or not they care.
That’s why the single most important thing that I do, and that you can do, too, has nothing to do with solar panels, or food, or recycling, or lightbulbs. The most important thing every single one of us can do about climate change is talk about it—why it matters, and how we can fix it—and use our voices to advocate for change within our spheres of influence. As a parent, child, family member, or friend; student, employee, or boss; shareholder, stakeholder, member, or citizen: connecting with one another is how we change ourselves, how we change others, and ultimately, how we change the world. It’s contagious.
Excerpted from Saving Us, published by One Signal/Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2021 by Katharine Hayhoe.