Collective or individual action? What the coronavirus shows us

Action on climate change is not an either-or proposition. The COVID-19 pandemic exposes that as a false dichotomy.

Silhouette of people joining hands

One of the core debates among those concerned about climate change is whether individual actions matter, given the size of the problem and the array of power and money propping up the fossil fuel system. Often the choice is framed as a should and an either-or: we should focus either on the big actors or on individual people lowering their carbon use.

But of course this is a false dichotomy. As the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated, we need both. The long essay by Michael Grunwald in Politico, “What Covid Is Exposing about the Climate Movement,” will help you think through this issue. As Grunwald writes, “while individual change alone can’t fix the climate, the climate can’t be fixed without it.” “The virus is a vicious reminder that our actions have consequences beyond ourselves, and most of us are trying to avoid doing inadvertent harm to others. After so much climate commentary about the futility of trying to persuade individuals to change behavior for the common good, the virus is making it happen.”

Here’s a story (Laura Laker, The Guardian) about one place where personal and policy decisions obviously overlap, as do the coronavirus and carbon pollution: the plan of the city of Milan to restructure some streets to favor bikes and walkers over cars, short-term as a reaction to the virus, long-term as a climate tactic.

To be more effective urging individual changes that can add up, especially during the pandemic, check this blog post by Robin Webster from Climate Access. It focuses on how individual actions help shape social mores, and thus behavior. Additional relevant ideas are in this readable report from Climate Outreach, Mainstreaming Low Carbon Lifestyles.

And don’t miss Yale Climate Connections’ own take on this topic. Sara Peach of “Ask Sara” advises looking to the middle path, working with people in one’s workplace, place of worship, neighborhood, or school to address the problem of climate change.

SueEleen Campbell, 8 May 2020