climate change
existential risk
society & culture

Climate Change and Personal Responsibility

"I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo. "So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us."

— J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings

Climate change has become the most pressing existential challenge of our era. As temperatures soar across the world, the polar ice caps and glaciers are melting, sea levels continue to rise, oceans acidify, extreme weather events intensify, forests burn, and rivers and lakes shrivel and die. We are close to or have already crossed multiple climate tipping points.

Because of these changes, coastal cities and islands are becoming uninhabitable, soon to be joined by large swaths of equatorial land. Food and water insecurity will intensify, threatening millions of humans with hunger, disease, and deprivation, and animals with habitat loss and extinction. Mass migrations will become routine, with hundreds of millions seeking refuge from uninhabitable terrains over the next few decades. Acidification endangers most marine ecosystems, and major ocean circulation systems are showing signs of collapse within this century. And beneath these crises brews a storm of political unrest, as nations grapple with the economic, political and social repercussions of the changing climate.

Amidst this panorama of impending crises, many people are understandably feeling anxiety, dread, despair, and hopelessness. My hope in this article is to show that individual and collective action is not just possible, but it's imperative: it's our only beacon of hope.

Individual Actions with Multiplicative Impact: What Can One Person Do?

To be clear, the biggest drivers of climate change are in industry, and industry and governments are also the ones with the largest power to get us back on track (or prevent progress). Without the countries of the world pulling together and forcing corporations to behave responsibly, it is going to be a difficult challenge.

Individuals should accept no guilt for the situation we are in; people in power have known for thirty years and more what needs to be done, and have done next to nothing, and in many cases have actively worked against fixing climate issues. Even today as we are finally moving in the right direction with initiatives such as the Biden administration's Inflation Reduction Act investing hundreds of billions of dollars in decarbonization, solar and wind energy production, EV tax credits, infrastructure modernization, grid resilience and environmental justice, we are far from the Paris Accords target of staying under 1.5°C, and many large companies and governments are dragging their heels, broadcasting misinformation, and undermining progress.

Because of this, individual action often feels microscopic and maybe even pointless, a mere drop in the ocean. However, history shows that the accumulated actions of many can create tidal waves of change. The civil rights movement in the USA, Mahatma Gandhi in India, the Velvet Revolution, and many others are all examples.

Also, it's important to remember that targets like 2° are not absolute limits where we're fine below them, and extinct above. Every action we take to reduce CO₂ emissions, no matter where we are or what trajectory we're on, helps forestall even worse outcomes. There is no justification for doomism or paralysis.

Here are a few ways individuals, leveraging their unique skills and positions, can amplify the fight against the climate crisis.

Learn More

Educating yourself is perhaps the most important thing you can do. Learn what is actually happening so you can sort truth from misinformation. Find out who is doing work you agree with. Learn about the science and what is being done to combat the crisis, on all fronts: scientific and engineering, social, legal, and economic. Read about climate initiatives and promising new directions. All of this will help you understand that all is not lost; every step in the right direction is important to stabilize the world and prevent the worst outcomes.

Educate with Accuracy and Kindness

In a world rife with misinformation, there's immense power in sharing accurate knowledge. Whether you write an article, compose a song, create a film, design a building, create software, or educate directly, it's crucial to be clear, accurate, and compassionate. Disseminating correct information kindly helps dispel myths and mobilizes informed action.

Create Open Dialogues

Conversations, even simple ones among friends, can be transformative. Communicating about climate change, its implications, and our collective role sparks awareness, fosters understanding, and builds solidarity. It's through these personal connections that societal shifts often begin and gather momentum. Share your worries, your successes, and your ideas.

Leverage Social Media

In today's world, social platforms are huge amplifiers. Sharing information, success stories, and challenges related to climate change can reach thousands, if not millions. Social media campaigns today can bring attention to issues at a pace traditional media can't match, and individual voices can go viral at any time. Of course climate denialism is rampant on social media, fed by sources of mis- and disinformation. Countering that with truthful, deliberate, evidence-based information is vital.

Support Green Initiatives

Voting with your wallet means prioritizing products and services that align with eco-friendly practices. Adopt a more plant-based diet, drive less, recycle more. Over time, as consumer demand shifts, businesses are more likely to adopt sustainable methods. It's a classic case of supply and demand: when consumers demand greener products and services, the market responds.

Plant Some Trees

A mature tree absorbs at least 22 lbs of carbon each year, depending on location and type. Planting a tree isn't just good for the environment though. It's a forward-looking, long-term optimistic statement, and it provides shade and habitat for birds and insects.

Replacing a lawn with ground cover, reducing water usage and planting native gardens all help as well.

Invest in Sustainable Technologies

As technologies advance, options like solar panels, heat pumps and electric cars become more accessible and practical. Investing in these reduces carbon footprint and also sends a clear message about market demands. In many cases, you'll also save money in the long run – and even more as fossil fuel subsidies vanish and the cost of fuel rises.

Consider Where You Keep Your Money

If you invest, consider what industries you are lending your money to. Voting with your wallet can be a powerful driver of economic change. Many mutual funds are divesting from fossil fuels because they recognize the structural inability of the fossil fuel and related sectors to continue delivering returns.

Leverage Your Professional Skills

No matter who you are, you can contribute. Scientists and engineers can turn their expertise towards green energy and sustainable infrastructure. Writers and artists can use their platforms to highlight environmental concerns, weaving compelling narratives that educate, resonate and inspire. Lawyers can advocate for local green infrastructure and environmental justice initiatives. Students can raise awareness on campus and in the wider community, and study and work toward sustainability. Architects can promote the highest LEED standards. Landscapers can switch to electric machines. CEOs can require carbon neutrality in their companies. And all of us can use our professional networks to set an example of public support for climate initiatives.

Lobby for Systemic Change

Engaging with political representatives, especially if you live or work in a state resistant to green policies, can make a real difference. Attending town halls, writing letters to your congressperson and meeting with representatives can influence legislative priorities and amplify the voice of environmentally conscious citizens. And of course, please vote for and support politicians who prioritize the environment and climate justice initiatives both locally and nationally.

There are many vital issues in the world; climate change is not the only one of course. But the line between, say, reforming campaign finance or preventing voter disenfranchisement and climate action is pretty direct.

Take Nonviolent Direct Action

I hesitated to put this in here, but history has shown the potency of nonviolent movements. Research suggests that when even 3.5% of the population actively engages in protests, significant political changes ensue. Mobilizing a fraction of the community in peaceful protests can elicit substantive policy shifts. Greta Thunberg's climate strike is a great example. But make sure the action is directed toward those who need to hear what you have to say and focuses on positive actions and outcomes. Violent, disruptive protests only undermine the movement and harden opposition.

Empower Youth

I have two young adult children. I often come near to despair, thinking of the world we are leaving them. But I'm inspired to action on their behalf, and on behalf the the generations beyond them. Youth are the future of humanity, and success or failure will be in their hands. Educating and empowering them ensures they have the tools to use their passion, knowledge, and strong community ties to find novel solutions and renewed vigor in the fight against climate change.

Collaborate Across Borders

Climate change is a global issue. No single country can solve it, and the countries most affected are largely the ones who contributed least to the problem. Educating ourselves and others about work going on in other places can inspire cooperation and a sense of solidarity.

Celebrate Successes

It's crucial to recognize and celebrate the milestones, no matter how small. It provides motivation and showcases the results. Don't be afraid to talk about what you are doing to help, and take the time to celebrate your own efforts as well as those of your family, your community, and your friends.

Take Personal Actions with Societal Impacts

While individual measures like adopting a plant-based diet, driving less, transitioning to electric vehicles, or installing energy-efficient appliances like heat pumps seem minuscule and may appear to be merely virtue signaling, their collective impact is profound. These actions, when reflected in national statistics – like rising demand for EVs, increased ridership on public transit and in bike lanes, or declining consumption of energy-intensive goods – send strong signals to policymakers. These quantifiable changes highlight shifting consumer patterns, pushing industries and governments to re-evaluate their strategies. They can also be the beginning of productive conversations in the community and beyond.

It is hard not to become despondent when thinking about the looming crises posed by climate change. A sort of paralysis can set in. What can anyone do in the face of the entire Greenland ice sheet melting? And to a certain extent that is true. There's only so much a person or a family can do individually. But I say we must not, we cannot, give up. The stakes are too high.

While individual actions in isolation may seem inconsequential, their combined societal impact can be immense. From professionals leveraging their skills for sustainable ends to everyday people making eco-conscious choices, each effort plays a part, and the ripples of those choices can spread widely. When we realize our collective potential, the challenge of climate change can become not an insurmountable obstacle, but a rallying cry for unified action.

Some Resources to Learn More

Thanks to Dr. Katharine Hayhoe for invaluable contributions to this article via Mastodon. Her Instagram and climate change website at have some good resources for people who want to get involved.


Education, News and Activism: