Individual action and climate change

  • President Joe Biden signs executive orders after speaking about climate change issues in the State Dining Room of the White House on Jan. 27, 2021, in Washington, D.C. President Biden signed several executive orders related to the climate change crisis on Jan. 27, including one directing a pause on new oil and natural gas leases on public lands. Also pictured, left to right, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and White House science adviser Eric Lander. (Anna Moneymaker/Pool/Getty Images/TNS)

As an environmental activist and public speaker, I regularly talk to people about the realities of climate change, explaining how powerful and immense corporations are destroying rain forests, oceans and the atmosphere.

After every talk, one question always comes up: What can I do to help?


There are many answers to this question. My top one is always “cut meat and dairy from your diet.” The meat industry is the greatest driver of global deforestation, a major source of methane and nitrogen emissions and a polluter of rivers and lakes. A change in diet away from dairy and meat can reduce your impact on all of these issues at once.

Depending on the subject of my talk, I might then advise my audience to buy an electric vehicle (or better yet, sell their car and stick to public transportation), encourage them to get involved with tree planting projects and tell them to buy smaller refrigerators and dinner plates in order to reduce food waste.

But the truth is that individual change alone is not the solution to our climate emergency. For starters, it is extremely difficult for any one individual to totally eliminate the unsustainable elements from her or his life — cutting meat and dairy is challenging when there are few cheap meat alternatives in any of the supermarkets near one’s home, for example.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government continues to subsidize the meat industry, including covering the costs of their immense environmental damages. Pension funds continue to invest in fossil fuel industries. In recent years, big tech companies including Amazon, Google and Facebook have offered their powerful algorithms as tools to find new sources of oil.

All of these investments are unsustainable — and unrelated to whether people become vegan or ditch their family car and rely on public transportation.

Trapped in an unsustainable economic and political system, an individual is forced to live unsustainably. Until the system changes, this will always be true.

Since 2016, systemic reform in the United States on the issue of climate policy has seemed unattainable. How does anyone convince a climate-denying president with authoritarian instincts to alter his country’s system radically enough to face the climate emergency?

But the presidency of Joe Biden has given individuals hope of redirecting the unsustainable U.S. machine. He already declared climate one of the greatest issues facing America, eliminated some of the government’s “handouts to Big Oil” and committed to rejoining the Paris Agreement.

Biden will not solve climate change — he still hasn’t declared a climate emergency — but every step he takes to address the crisis is a stroke against the possibility of environmental collapse.

Individuals concerned with their impact on the environment should make the most of their democratic rights to protest, petition and vote. They must insist Biden give climate change the attention it requires. This is how we will move closer to a world in which “sustainable living” is no longer a challenge, a choice or even a term.


Instead, it will be known simply as “living.”

Jon Deery is a U.K.-based climate activist and currently studies English at Newcastle University. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is operated by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.

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