One Question Quiz
A 'chasing arrows' recycling symbol against a green background with a bike, takeaway containers and an oil pumpjack
Image: Tina Tiller

SocietyJuly 25, 2023

Why it’s so hard to make good climate choices

A 'chasing arrows' recycling symbol against a green background with a bike, takeaway containers and an oil pumpjack
Image: Tina Tiller

Something has to change so markets and systems provide the best environmental choices to consumers – but that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook entirely. 

Think about the last three things you bought. No matter what they were, it’s a given that greenhouse gas emissions were used at some point. And even if an environmentally better choice was available to you, it still would have used greenhouse gas emissions. Considering we are continually asked to do our bit to tackle climate change, does that seem right? For us to make consistently better climate choices, it all comes back to one word: systems. 


Yes. Systems are many things that society operates within; the structures, the rules, the day-to-day mechanisms that have been created. Systems can be:

  • A sector, like health or building 
  • Political 
  • Financial
  • Operational
  • Legislative (ie public policy)

Systems are interconnected, and knock-on effects are everywhere. Doing something within one system will affect another. Think of it like a pinball machine. You have flicked the ball up high. It clatters and clangs, lighting up many panels. It continues to rebound into other structures, dictating the ball’s next movement.  Wheels and displays flash their bright lights. A lot happens, all because you pushed one button. You do one thing, and many systems will respond. 

And the climate system?

It’s like a bathtub, it has limited capacity. The tub can only hold so many emissions. The taps are carbon sources, which create emissions, and the drains are carbon sinks, which remove emissions. We can’t change the size of the tub, so we need to slow down the tap flow rate, and add some more drains. It’s better to make less mess in the first place, instead of being in a state of constant cleanup.

The climate bathtub can only hold so many emissions (Source:

The systems that exist are mostly out of our day-to-day control. I can’t ring up ExxonMobil tomorrow and expect change. Not in the same way I could ring my council and ask them to address why my street keeps flooding (I actually have to do that this week). Systems are crucial to tackling climate change. But there are myriad reasons why individual choices can be so difficult, including:

  • Lobbying and an invested interest in the status quo from corporations
  • Lack of political willpower
  • Disinformation campaigns
  • Sensible solutions being falsely presented as controversial 
  • Societal cultures (including our overworked society and car culture)

We need change so the systems behave differently, and are fundamentally aligned with climate targets like those in the Paris Agreement. This can give us better choices. The best choices need to be easy to make, and the worst ones more difficult to make. These choices also need to be affordable and accessible to all of society, not just those who are well off. We can’t expect those doing it tough to be buying EVs or finding bulk cash to ensure their home is warm, dry and efficient. 

Illustration of three smoke stacks emitting smoke
Image: Tina Tiller

So this is all to reduce my personal carbon footprint?

Did you know BP invented the concept of a carbon footprint? Yes, the group that brought you the 2010 Macondo spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The aim was to distract and deflect, to make you wonder if your toilet paper was recycled or not, or if your micro-consumerism was deemed climate friendly. This is a group that made US$28 billion in profits in 2022, all by producing a lot of oil while fiddling in the margins of sustainability. They also spend a lot of time and money ensuring systems don’t change. Forget your toilet paper, this is where the damage is happening. 

The carbon footprint has its place. It’s particularly useful for organisations and their products. But we also need to think about our climate shadow. This is more qualitative (descriptive) than quantitative (measured). 

Here’s an example. Two people must fly for their jobs. One takes 16 return flights per year, the other takes 10. All flights are of equal distance. Who has the bigger footprint? The person with 16 flights. OK, but the person who took 16 flights is a sustainability professional who is helping many entities significantly reduce their emissions. They advocate for many changes in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement. The person who took 10 flights works in marketing for a large oil multinational, ensuring their products get used and profits stay high. 

The carbon shadow should exist alongside, not instead of, a carbon footprint. While imperfect, it captures your advocacy and efforts to change the systems. Perfect is the enemy of good, after all.

But don’t we need fossil fuels?

Within our current systems, yes. In better ones, mostly no. What we do need is energy. The need for fossil fuels and energy does not form a perfect circle Venn diagram. 

Existing in the current systems means we are going to be using and consuming products that produce greenhouse gases. The keyboard I typed this on, the screen you are reading this on, and the last meal you ate all relied on fossil fuels in some way. And that sucks. It’s a bit different from, say, owning three or four fuel-thirsty V8s, or buying stocks in a large oil multinational. Some cognitive dissonance – where you hold two opposing views simultaneously – is OK. For example, I don’t particularly like our tax system, mainly because it is skewed towards taxing productive labour instead of unproductive capital. However, I still pay taxes and will continue to do so. Am I contributing to the existing tax system? Yes. So, am I supportive of it? Not entirely. But I don’t have a choice as I am trapped in that system. That’s the point. 

This is about being better, not perfect. Otherwise we will start getting into climate purity. Nobody wins that game, and we end up criticising those making genuine efforts. Even a vegan who buys most clothing secondhand, without a car, and shuns flying will have some kind of carbon footprint. It’s impossible not to have one. 

Got any good ideas to fix things?

Something has to change so markets and systems provide the best environmental choices to consumers. Otherwise we continue with short-term profit focus, dividends to shareholders, privatised gains, and socialised costs. All on a planet with finite resources! I like the Mariana Mazzucato moonshot economy approach. We set targets to solve problems, we go after them with gusto, public and private sectors embrace it, and we see the benefits role in. This was best exemplified with the moon landing (hence the name). The computer mouse was a byproduct of that, as was improved home insulation, and much more. Targets for 2030 and 2050 that are aligned with the Paris Agreement can be set by all nations, that include:

  • A proper price on all greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Retrofitting housing stock to make it warm, efficient, and healthy.
  • Cheap public transport that is regular, nice to use, and reliable.
  • Safe and fun cycleways, leaving the roads to those who need to use them (eg postal services, ambulances, tradies etc).
  • Rewilding nature projects, to create more wetlands and give wildlife a chance to thrive.

Ultimately, being able to do your best on all levels is pretty restricted right now. Improvements in our own lives in combination needs to happen along with systems change. We will get there with eight billion people doing things imperfectly, opposed to one billion perfectionists who are destined to come up short anyhow.

So I’m off the hook, kinda?

There is a lot to do on every level to tackle climate change. That includes at a personal level, but more importantly a systems level. Don’t beat yourself up for using a takeaway container. Nail it next time and ask why it was available in the first place. Demand better in your workplace. Ask your politicians, and call out their talking points. And ask again, what’s the cost of not changing these systems? Because the true cost (ie over many decades, not in an annual report) of status quo systems is always higher. Systems must be better. If it was easy it would be done by now. 

Keep going!