Friday, August 20, 2021

doing the math for climate friday


Earlier this week I posted a series of climate education & action Tweets that ended with this one:

#ClimateAction Tuesday 6/6 So today you're busy, & every day *anyway* do your small personal #carbonfootprint actions AND one bigger systemic policy action.

Seems like good advice, right?  The next day I listened to an episode of the podcast "How to Save a Planet" with Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Alex Blumberg called "Is Your Carbon Footprint BS?"  (Listening will be better than reading this, but in case you don't have 47 minutes, I'm excerpting from the transcript.)

The episode begins with a debate between siblings that any of us who are paying attention have had, internally or with others. (By the way, there IS a poem at this end of this long post...hold out for it!)

Anna: My brother and I, we agree on a lot of things, but one topic that we always argue about is individual versus systemic, policy-based change. I know that we're not gonna recycle and bike and beyond burger our way out of climate change, but I do have a slightly more optimistic view that individual consumer choices can make a difference. So am I just a sucker, or can individuals actually do something?

Ayana: Yeah, and Anna says her brother thinks none of that stuff is actually gonna get us out of the climate crisis. That climate change is a huge, systemic problem, and the only way to fix it is with big, systemic solutions. 

In the first half, the hosts consider whether individual actions can have worthwhile impact, and they identify the top five actions that can have the greatest impact on your individual carbon footprint. 

1)Make fewer new humans. Also known as have fewer children.
2) Drive less. Or if you do drive, drive electric.
3) Fly less. Full stop.
4) Become more energy efficient, insulate your home. And if you can, install solar panels.
5) Switch to a plant-based diet.

And then we hear this:

Alex: So that's the list, or at least, you know, sort of generally what are the top five items on that list. But remember, we're arguing in this half of the episode that individual actions do not really matter that much.

Ayana: Because even if you do all five things on this list perfectly, you as an individual are a tiny, tiny percent of the overall problem.

Alex: [laughs] I love doing the math. We compared the average American's carbon footprint to the overall amount of carbon emissions globally. And remember, average American, pretty big footprint, 16 tons. Overall global emissions, 50 billion tons.

What this means is that the average American's contribution to the total global problem is 0.0000000003. That is a decimal point and then nine zeros and then a three. And statistically ...

Ayana: That's basically zero. [laughs]

Alex: It rounds to zero. [laughs] So individually, I think the math would suggest that we have zero impact on the larger problem.

Ayana: And as professor Dr. Leah Stokes, who's been on the show before puts it, even if you are the perfect, zero-waste, low-carbon footprint human being, that doesn't change the world unless you do something bigger than yourself. Because if you disappear tomorrow, we would still be facing exactly the same magnitude of climate crisis because you're just a rounding error to global carbon emissions.

Alex: And this might make certain people feel sad and maybe hopeless and defeated but, you know, Ayana, you and I talked with Katharine Wilkinson about this, and we actually think it is good news. Because it means, if you change the systems, then you're changing millions of people's carbon footprints without them having to do anything.

Katharine Wilkinson: My feeling is, thank goddess we don't have to rely on every individual getting everything right in their own lives, because New Year's resolutions don't even last a month, you know? [laughs]

Like, we'd really be in a lot of trouble. Like, more trouble than we're in if we were dependent on every single person on the planet doing every single thing right.

Alex: Yes. But this is what makes people throw up their hands, right? Like, that feels out of my control, right? Like, well, I can't change a coal plant to a wind farm. I can't, you know, make everybody drive an electric car or whatever.

Ayana: I can't put in bike lanes.

Katharine Wilkinson: Yeah. I feel like we have to quote Bill McKibben, right? He's like, climate change is a math problem, and the numbers are really, really big. And now the timelines are very, very tight. So we have to be thinking in terms of, like, our greatest leverage to get the biggest reductions possible.

Alex: And perhaps put it more strongly than she would have, but essentially my takeaway from our conversation, is screw your carbon footprint.

Ayana: [laughs]

Alex: Screw devoting all of this time and energy to sort of like trying to minutely lower your impact. Because when you focus all your effort on this, you're focusing all this effort on something that makes a pretty tiny difference in the grand scheme of things.

Leading me to a moment of crushing despair.  But then the team argued a second view, which is that individual actions can matter a lot, in a different, less mathematical way.

 Alex: But now we're gonna lay out the case for Anna's position, that our individual choices do matter. And Ayana, let's start here. Our guest, Katharine Wilkinson, who was just arguing that what we do as individuals barely registers against the total amounts of carbon in the atmosphere, when you ask her about her own personal choices, though ...

Katharine Wilkinson: So I'm vegetarian. I love composting. I'm chipping away at energy efficiency upgrades in my home, blah, blah, blah, right? And there's some research—all of which matter, tiny, tiny, tiny minuscule amounts.

Katharine Wilkinson: But, anything that keeps us focused kind of moment to moment on the world that we want to create is a good thing, right? Like, I can't vote three times a day, but I do eat three times a day. And I think every time we do these things, it gives us a chance to reflect on our values, reflect on our connection to the planet's living systems, to think about what it is that we're trying to do here.

Alex: You know, because If you're focused only on reducing your own emissions from, you know, I don't know, 16 tons to 12 tons a year, you know, being the best climate gold star sticker winner you can be, you're having a negligible effect.

Ayana: But if you instead think about your actions as a form of communication, as an invitation for others to join you, then your action can lead to other actions that can actually lead to change. One great example of this is the trend around flying in Europe.

Alex: Starting a few years ago, more and more people in Europe started making the conscious choice to fly less for the climate. Those people included Greta Thunberg, the very famous Swedish climate activist. She very publicly took a boat across the Atlantic to come to a UN conference in 2019 instead of flying.

Steve Westlake: And then in response to that, there's been a movement in Sweden and Europe and beyond, and I'm sure people in America as well, to also change their own behavior.

Alex: This is climate researcher Steve Westlake. he found that yes, 75 percent of the people he surveyed who knew somebody who gave up flying said they also changed their own attitudes about flying and climate change, and about half of them actually started flying less themselves.

Steve Westlake: That sends a message, sends a strong message, that this is what people want, more and more people want systemic change. And that has a ripple effect. And so support for policies, messages to politicians become stronger. So my view on individual change, it's a way of communicating. It's saying this is really important, it has influence on other people.

Anthony Leiserowitz: And that's one of the single most important things that anyone, anyone can do. When people say, "What can I do about climate change?" My answer first and foremost is talk about it.

Ayana: This is Dr. Anthony Leiserowitz, who runs the Yale Center for Climate Change Communication. They've been doing polling on Americans' opinions on climate for over a decade now, and what they have learned is that people assume there are more climate deniers out there than there actually are, because deniers are just louder. But actually, it's only about 10 percent or so of Americans who are firmly in denial about climate science, and the rest of us can team up and get some really cool things done.

Alex: Yeah. And Anthony's research indicates that, like, because we have this feeling that the people who disagree with us are in much greater numbers than they are, we clam up.

Alex: So talking about it? Super important. But also super important? How we talk about it.

Katharine Wilkinson: We have to be really careful because nobody wants to come to a finger-wagging party, right? And a lot of these, like, individuals ...

Ayana: That sounds terrible and kind of creepy. You're doing it wrong. You're not a perfect environmentalist.

Katharine Wilkinson: Right? And that's kind of been what the environmental movement has done. Like, you need to do these things and not do these things. And, like, if I see a light bulb that's not an LED, like, you are off the list, you know? Like, we need to be welcoming people in, inviting them in. And I don't want people consumed with shame and guilt when we should be thinking about how powerful we can be together, right? And what makes me feel courageous and powerful and keeps me in the work are the wins that we get when we do things together.

So there it is, folks.  Our individual actions DO matter, but not in a mathematical impact way--until we talk about them in a welcoming, inviting way so they can influence other individuals to participate in both the conversation and the work.  Here's my poem, and in the comments I invite you to talk about the miniscule actions--including raising your voice about systemic policy actions--that you are doing to stay focused on the world we want to create AND to bring others on board.  And do call me out if you catch any finger-wagging in my tone!





Our host today is Carol at The Apples in My Orchard, where she's posting about one of my favorite topics, writing poetry with kids. See you there, and if you think of it on September 3rd when I'll be hosting Poetry Friday, do consider a climate action post of your own, to let us know what's going right in your area, whether it's home, community, town, state or slice of the Planet!



  1. Love this poem! Thank you for the transcript, too. This exact podcast episode has been on my listen-to list for a while now. I'm even more motivated to listen to it now. Glad to have your voice here on the Interwebs!

  2. I especially like, "multiply by calm to the power of loud."
    It seems like trying to guard our elections is a vital way to bring about positive actions for climate change. Systemic change is possible, and not letting fossil fuel interests call the shots is a first step. (Follow Mark Elias to see what is being done to stop sketchy election laws

  3. What a great interview. I need to come back and finish the ending. But, the difference each of us small. I remember standing in China and looking up at the coal smudged sky. And, I walked up flights of stairs in buildings that had rounds of coal stacked up for the winter...and I wondered what I could possibly do to outweigh just what I was seeing in one location. Great post, Heidi. I'm inspired to keep thinking, reading, joining in on the conversation and I'm grateful to you for keeping me in it. I like the idea of "all the People hear us...and the work goes on." Let's pray that into being.

  4. Terrific post, Heidi. It's so overwhelming. I like this line: 'multiply by calm to the power of loud'
    I am inspired when I read posts such as these.

  5. The interview is a poem, too, Heidi, and the poem reduces it all, just as we want to reduce our carbon footprint, our incredibly huge landfills. I have been to places that, alas, are still not helping their citizens re-cycle. Sometimes I see it is a budget problem, in small towns, especially. But others prioritize & make it work. It is our voices that count. I'm glad you shared! Theirs hope in their voices!

  6. Thank you, Heidi for this inspiring post. Climate change solutions will take many actions both individual and systemic to stem the slippery slope we are on as inhabitants of earth. As as environmental educator (formally trained at the graduate level), helping people to understand what actions they (we) can take is difficult. I try to model with action - reusable market bags (I started making these for my Etsy shop) and silicone reusable or no straws. There is a zero waste store in the city close to us and I want to visit. My eldest son changed how he is using laundry detergent to decrease his plastic use. Every little bit helps....just like saving the monarch butterfly migration... every stem counts. Every one has a role in the solutions. Thanks Heidi. I'll have to plan for an appropriate post on the 3rd.

  7. Heidi, your post (and poem) doesn't contain a bit of finger-wagging. Rather, it contains a ray of hope, that our small actions are the work that "grows on." As with everything in life, as an individual, I'm working to be a better environmentalist, not a perfect one. Still, all of my actions feel very small indeed--switching to laundry sheets that dissolve rather than plastic jugs full of liquid detergent, not using my dryer--and our laundry habits aren't even on the list!

  8. I love your passion and persistence on climate change. You always make me think. Your poem is wonderful, in message and in form. Especially love "multiply by calm to the power of loud."

  9. Ooh, I really that the repetition in the stanza with "the voice of the tree and the bird in the tree." The poem has that "clave" thing going on the Meg Medina was talking about in an SCBWI video that someone shared recently. My little actions this week were to pick up trash at a couple of local beaches. Just five minutes yielded enough for a couple of trips to the trash cans. I was birdwatching at the same time as it's migration season for shore birds.

  10. What a hopeful poem you've given us, on a topic that can indeed make us feel powerless to have any impact. I love your line "we add our voices | we do the math" ... a reminder that united we can do so much more.

    One big solution I wish America could adopt is burning trash... I told my husband the other day - why don't some of these billionares stop engaging in a personal space race and build a clean trash burning facility in the US? The steam that's produced by our local facility heats homes and businesses for miles around. The air scrubbers mean there's no pollution, and ordinary trash does not go in a landfill. Thanks for this important post (especially for those of us who don't have the 47 minutes to check out the podcast ourselves :-) )

  11. This is very thought-provoking; thank you. One thing it made me think about is that people who aren't contributing much to climate change (living in traditional ways, not using air conditioning - or even electricity, sometimes - walking or using public transport, recycling and re-using everything) are in many cases the ones who are going to suffer most from climate change. I'm thinking of people in Haiti, for example (if that wasn't obvious from my finger-wagging).

    1. I agree 100%! Wag away! Greta Thunberg had a (co-authored) NYT editorial on 8/19 about the impact of the environmental crises on the children of the world. They wrote, "Many higher-risk countries are poorer nations from the global south, and it’s there that people will be most impacted, despite contributing the least to the problem. We will not allow industrialized countries to duck responsibility for the suffering of children in other parts of the world...

      The world’s young people stand with the scientists and will continue to sound the alarm...

      We are in a crisis of crises. A pollution crisis. A climate crisis. A children’s rights crisis. We will not allow the world to look away."

  12. We try to do our part by keeping the house warmer in the summer and cooler in the winter. We try to buy local (and in-season) fruits and veggies, plus local milk, eggs, meats, and cheeses as much as possible. We're not eating entirely plant-based, but we're doing better than we used to. Retirement means no daily commute, so I'm happy to do my part with that!! :-) Thanks for being relentless about keeping the climate on our radar, Heidi, and for all the resources you shared in this post.

  13. Thank you for sharing this conversation, Heidi. It's hard to feel that one person makes a difference, until you put all of those one people together and the voices swell like magma.

  14. Heidi, thanks so much for consistently offering information and an invitation to those around you. The interview you shared was fascinating and your poem is another winner. I love "multiply by calm/to the power of loud" and the idea in the interview that our actions are a form of communication and offer opportunities for others to to communicate and rise together. I'll be thinking about this post a lot.

  15. Thanks for the thought provoking - and hopeful! - post, Heidi. I, too, especially love your equation:
    "mutltiply by calm
    to the power of loud".

    We haven't had a car in 4 years - only using bikes, buses, and trains. (Switzerland makes it easy.) Am working on other areas to improve... :)

  16. Fantastic post Heidi top to bottom–hope it finds an audience beyond us too- I think the second half of the debate being positive is strong and a good reminder. I've been trying to plant local plants in my garden and around my home and plants that specifically attract pollinators–we need to increase their numbers–The "voice" in your poem is strong, and I like the play between the "the voice of the tree and the bird in the tree," and how it continues back and forth, thanks for all!

  17. Heidi, I have been wanting to read your post so this morning was the right time. I am so glad that you continue the fight to bring awareness to the climate control cause. "We multiply by calm to the power of loud...and the work grows on" - Amen!


Thanks for joining in the wild rumpus!