The only personal choice that will save us

If you’ve spent any time on the internet talking or reading about climate change, then you’re likely familiar with the tired comment, “well what are YOU doing about it?! What changes are you making in your life?”

*sigh*

Utahns value personal choice and personal control over our own futures. A core belief in the ability of individuals to write our own story and to have complete control over our destiny is as much a part of the makeup of the souls of Utahns as is an appreciation for the beauty of our landscapes. So when I see comments like the one above, it’s not completely out of nowhere. Utahns–like many other Americans–want me to take personal responsibility for changing an issue that I care deeply about.

“Change starts with me.” I get it, and to an extent, I agree.

There are plenty of lifestyle changes I could make to impact climate change, but here are the top four that are outlined in a 2017 study in the journal Environment Research Letters:

  1. Becoming a vegetarian or eating a plant-based diet (0.8 ton carbon reduction/year)
  2. Avoid a single round-trip transatlantic flight (1.6 ton carbon reduction/year)
  3. No more riding in cars (2.4 ton carbon reduction/year)
  4. Not having another kid (58.6 ton carbon reduction/year… Mike Lee probably missed this one when he gave his infamous and embarrassing Senate floor speech)

I have two children. My husband and I made the conscious decision to have only two kids because of the impact on the environment, among other factors. (Kids are a joy and also exhausting). I do drive a car to and from work and daycare. If there were public transportation that was even moderately convenient, I might use it. But until the Utah Legislature invests realistic amounts of money in either public transportation or experimental teleportation devices, I’ll be using my car. We carpool when we can.

I probably spend more time than the average Utahn thinking about climate change. I have made decisions in my life to reflect this. So yes, online commenters, I am doing things to fix this problem. But you know what I do that’s more impactful than having fewer kids or giving up a car? I vote.

Here’s the thing: we’re facing a behemoth. Climate change and air quality are macdaddy sized problems. This is like the Night King from Game of Thrones, only no man–or woman (no spoilers!)–can tackle this problem on their own. This is not a wild-west scenario where all we need is a bunch of outlaw cowboys to ride in on their horses and save us from the bad guy. No one person can recycle their car and save the world. Having fewer kids won’t reduce carbon emissions in the twelve years we have to mitigate the consequences of climate change.

From a recent Buzzfeed article: If everyone who already cared about climate change ‘reduced their carbon emissions to zero, it doesn’t actually change very much,’ said Gavin Schmidt, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Making your home energy efficient is nothing compared to laws that would require all buildings to be greener. Buying solar panels for your roof doesn’t pack the same climate punch as electric companies relying more on solar farms, and less on coal plants, to feed the grid.

“‘Agitating and voting and writing letters and op-eds,’ Schmidt said, ‘make far more sense’ for promoting systemic change.”

According to the Carbon Majors Database, just 100 companies are the source of 71% of the world’s carbon emissions since 1988. So even if I made all the right personal choices to combat climate change, and even if everyone in the state of Utah who cared about it did, too, it still doesn’t compare to what Congress could and should do with their powers of regulation, especially given our tight timeline. (Granted, a public transit system that was more usable outside Salt Lake City proper would likely work wonders on our air quality…)

From a Vice interview with an economics researcher: “Everyone in the field is aware of this, but the mid-level-education, cocktail-party-level-of-information activists have it in their heads that the family with four kids down the street is causing global warming. That’s just total crap. What’s causing global warming is that your local power plant is coal-fired instead of natural gas–fired, or natural gas–fired instead of a hydro plant, or it’s a hydro plant instead of wind and solar.”

Personal choices are good and important: they are the foundation for the strong public support needed to pass legislation on climate change. And ultimately, the most effective personal choice you can make by a mile is by voting for elected officials who take climate change seriously. Voting is also the most equitable personal choice we can ask fellow Americans to make.

Climate change is at the forefront of my mind when I vote, it’s at the forefront of my mind when I engage with candidates for public office, and it’s one of the first topics I bring up with my elected officials.

Voting for individuals who will work to implement policies which will aggressively combat climate change, and advocating for the issue in my own life are personal choices, and they’re some of the few choices we can make at this point that will actually save us.

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