Don’t give up: An economist explains why individual climate actions still matter

Covering Climate Now: It’s easy to indulge in the idea that individual actions can’t have an impact on climate change. But a few simple ideas from economics show how wrong that is, argues Waikato University lecturer in environmental economics Zack Dorner.

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In a recent article in The New Yorker, novelist Jonathan Franzen argued that “the climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it.” Earlier this year, an academic article about ‘Deep Adaption’ was doing the rounds with a similar perspective, one so depressing it caused some readers to seek out therapy.

Both authors missed the point about addressing climate change, which is this: the more we reduce our emissions, the better off we are. Climate scientists are rightly upset with Franzen on this point. Professor Jem Bendell admits on his own website that he withdrew ‘Deep Adaptation’ from the peer review process as the reviewers wanted him to remove his unsubstantiated claims about the level of doom we are facing.

Regardless of how doomed you think we are, you may still think individual actions are pointless. You’re one of seven billion people in the world; your decisions are a drop in the ocean that won’t make a difference. I agree that policy change is the most important tool when it comes to climate action. But where does that leave individual actions? Do they also make a difference? 

There are three simple ideas from economics that show that individual actions on climate change are still worthwhile.

A global public good

The global climate system is a public good. Economists define a public good as something that is non-excludable and non-rival

Non-excludable means that there is no feasible way to stop other people from enjoying the benefits of the good. The global climate certainly has this trait. For example, there is no way a private company could start charging people for access to the global climate.

Non-rival means that when someone else is reaping the benefits of the good, it does not stop me from also reaping those same benefits. When Marie in France is benefiting from a stable global climate, that fact does not prevent me from also benefiting from global climate stability.

A public good is the opposite of a private good, which is excludable and rival. I have the passcode to my cell phone (excludable) and when I am texting from my phone you cannot text from it at the same time (rival).

When I buy a private good, only I enjoy the benefits from that good. However, because a public good is non-rival and non-excludable, when I make a contribution to that good, everyone else also enjoys the benefits.

So when we think of the climate as a global public good, we flip the “drop in the ocean” argument to a much more positive framing. The fact that the climate is a public good means that when I plant a tree or cycle to work all 7 billion people in the world benefit. 

But how much benefit is there from reducing your carbon emissions?

A reef off the coast of Tahiti which is under severe pressure. The bleaching took hold within a matter of weeks, scientists say. (Photo: Supplied / Coral Gardeners)

The social cost of carbon

The social cost of carbon is an idea that represents all the negative effects of emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. For every additional tonne of carbon dioxide emitted, there is a little bit more destruction of coral reefs, death by heatwave, increased disaster and disease. 

The latest science backs this idea up. For example, staying below 2 degrees of warming does not mean there are no negative effects of climate change, they just get worse the more warming we have. Every tonne of carbon dioxide we stop from going in to the atmosphere makes it more likely we will keep our coral reefs. Every contribution we make to the global climate public good makes extreme storms less likely.

About every 6,000km you drive in your 2010 1.8L Toyota Corolla will emit 1 tonne of carbon dioxide. By cycling instead of driving that distance (it could be a year’s worth of a medium sized commute), you have given the world some small but still real benefit of less climate change. By this same token, avoiding a return trip to London from Auckland is 2.7 tonnes of carbon dioxide of less climate change per passenger, given to all our fellow citizens of Earth. And not eating 30kg of NZ grown beef per year (a rough average for kiwis) is the equivalent of about half a tonne of carbon dioxide saved.

By making these choices you feel good about your donations to the global public good. And think about some of the benefits to you too – increasing your fitness from cycling, or discovering some of the amazing local spots for your next (much cheaper) holiday.

Establishing new social norms

Behavioural economic and social psychology research has shown time and time again the power of social norms. Social norms are basically the way people expect other people to act. They have a strong influence on our decisions and behaviours.

As a simple example of a social norm, I expect my neighbours to recycle and I expect them to think I will recycle too. When we visit a country where people don’t recycle we are often shocked by their different social norm. Alternatively, we are amazed when we visit a country where they recycle, compost and reduce and reuse far more than we do here. These differences are driven partly by different social norms (alongside different government policies, but often social norms are a key part).

By being a leader in helping establish new social norms, you are not just taking individual action but also helping encourage others to do so now or in the future. If we show with our actions that it is less socially acceptable to drive to work when we could catch the bus, or we don’t think that it is OK fly to Japan just for a ski trip, then we can help lead social changes with our individual actions. Just remember to be empathetic with your fellow citizens, as behaviour change is tricky and may involve fundamental shifts in our values and identity.

Let’s manage this global public good better

The bottom line: when you take individual actions on climate change you are contributing to a global public good, which benefits 7 billion people now and many more in the future. And done right, you are encouraging others to change too, by helping to shift social norms. So don’t let anyone tell you your individual actions on climate change are not making a difference.

However, one of the most important things to understand about public goods like the climate system is that the only way to manage them properly is with good government policy. Most people are happy to contribute to public goods voluntarily up to a point, which is great. But voluntary contributions will only get us so far, and we won’t get as far as we need to be as a society. 

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It is also important to point out that my argument is aimed at people with enough material resources to have options to reduce individual greenhouse gas emissions. If people are struggling day-to-day to fulfil their needs, individual actions are too costly at this point. Others may have, for example, a disability that makes catching the bus too difficult. Policy change, technology change and societal system change is what is needed to reduce many of our emissions. 

For those of us who have the ability to make climate friendly choices now, we should do so. Indeed, the wealthier you are the more likely you are to produce far more than your fair share of emissions.

So, do catch the bus when you can. But that will only get us part of the way. It is still more important to use your voice and your vote to call for stronger government policy. Even if that means you have to drive to the next climate strike.

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