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Kate McCabe / Gavel Media

Me vs. We: The Effect of Personal Responsibility on Climate Change

Denying Earth’s rising temperature is not only self-destructive, but also wholly ignorant. To some, this may seem like a harsh statement. But it’s a statement many stand behind. When examining various ecosystems throughout the world, the planet’s rising temperature is undeniable. Researchers have proved it, though some politicians sweep the science aside, claiming the evidence is “fake news” and citing varying weather as the cause for ecosystem damage.

In the fall of 2018, the United Nations released an alarming climate change report. With 133 authors, the report is extensive. Researchers sought to explore what would happen if global temperatures rose by 1.5°C above its current temperature, which is 1°C hotter than pre-industrial times.

The effects of the 1°C increase are seen in rapid arctic ice decline, increasingly damaging weather events, and approximately eight inches of sea level rise since 1880. Should warming increase, marine fisheries and insect populations would drastically decline. The sea level would also rise another two inches.

In order to keep warming at 1.5°C, immediate action must be taken. The report concludes that humans have as little as 12 years to slash global emissions by 45%. Scientists also found that every fraction of warming has an impact on the overall temperature of the Earth. The prognosis of the planet is, at best, grim. But what can individuals do about it? According to some, not much.

Climate change is a monstrous issue, one many argue cannot be solved by an individual, or even a single country. American philosopher and head of the philosophy department at Duke University, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, argues climate change operates on such a massive scale that any individual’s actions make no difference.

Sinnott-Armstrong says, for example, if an individual takes a long, leisurely Sunday drive, the emissions produced are so insignificant that they have no effect whatsoever on the overall global temperature. Many people also argue that individual attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are entirely pointless because 70% of emissions can be traced back to just 100 of the world’s top companies.

However, choosing to look at climate change as a problem too colossal for individuals to crack is just that—a choice. While it’s wholly factual to say large, wide-scale organizations and governments will be most effective and pack the largest punch in the fight against climate change, it’s also just as true to say each individual person can impact the climate.

After the UN published their climate report, many outlets compiled lists of actions individuals can take to reduce their carbon footprint. Steps such as carpooling and taking public transit, using smart thermostats and more efficient air conditioners in homes, and even eating less meat can reduce an individual’s emissions.

Reducing waste is also of paramount importance. Using fewer single-use items such as plastic water bottles, paper coffee cups, and plastic cutlery can greatly reduce one’s waste. Carrying water bottles, sustainable utensils, and reusable grocery bags are great ways to cut down on personal trash production.

Opting to buy more sustainable clothing is another accessible change individuals can implement to lessen the strain on the planet’s landfills. Even simple actions such as taking shorter showers or turning off the lights when leaving the house can add up in net energy conservation.

Sure, one person’s single Sunday drive won’t increase the Earth’s total emissions, but everyone’s individual drive does. Simply leaving the fight against climate change in the hands of the large and powerful is not a viable solution. If everyone throws in the towel and refuses to change their behaviors, then the collective outlook and future of the planet becomes even more hopeless and bleak.

A story "The Starfish Story," adapted from Loren Eiseley’s 1969 book The Unexpected Universe, is the perfect reminder when individuals question their personal impact on the planet:

A young girl was walking along a beach upon which thousands of starfish had been washed up during a terrible storm. When she came to each starfish, she would pick it up, and throw it back into the ocean. People watched her with amusement.

She had been doing this for some time when a man approached her and said, “Little girl, why are you doing this? Look at this beach! You can’t save all these starfish. You can’t begin to make a difference!”

The girl seemed crushed, suddenly deflated. But after a few moments, she bent down, picked up another starfish, and hurled it as far as she could into the ocean. Then she looked up at the man and replied, “Well, I made a difference to that one!”

In order to reduce global warming and save the fate of the planet and future generations, a balance must be struck between individual change and wide-scale change. No one can do it alone, but if no one does anything, then the planet is surely doomed.

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