Climate Questions: Does what I do matter?

Nov 2, 2022, 5:01 AM | Updated: Nov 6, 2022, 7:43 am
Does what I do matter? (AP Illustration/Peter Hamlin)...

Does what I do matter? (AP Illustration/Peter Hamlin)

(AP Illustration/Peter Hamlin)

Can people’s individual actions make a difference in how much carbon dioxide is emitted on an international scale? International organizations like the United Nations have called on individuals to limit their carbon footprint and live more sustainably, along with governments and corporations.

Some argue it would be more effective to focus on changing government and corporate policy to limit emissions from the energy and agriculture sectors than asking individuals to limit their carbon footprint, but experts say that while that’s true, every bit of emissions reduction helps.


EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of an ongoing series answering some of the most fundamental questions around climate change, the science behind it, the effects of a warming planet and how the world is addressing it.


“We should all be the most responsible citizens we can be in every sense of the word and contribute to a sustainable existence on this planet,” said University of Pennsylvania climate scientist Michael Mann. He said that means, in part, minimizing our carbon footprints as individuals.

And that can take a lot of different forms.

The United Nations Act Now campaign for individual climate action suggests people can minimize their personal carbon footprint directly by changing their energy and transportation use and food consumption. Other, less direct methods for reducing carbon emissions include divesting from fossil fuel companies in retirement plans, protesting to support climate action and lobbying government officials to pass environmentally sustainable policies.

Kim Cobb, a Brown University climate scientist, said there are consequences to individuals having “outsized” carbon footprints. And still there are people who engage in the environmental movement who don’t consider their personal carbon footprint.

“I think we’re living in an anti-gravity moment where people are able to say, ‘I’m not concerned about my first, personal carbon footprint. Collective action matters the most,'” she said. In the future, though, “there will be a moral and social cost to bear by those individuals.”

Still, there are some climate impacts that people aren’t individually responsible for and can’t change on their own. Over 70% of all greenhouse gas emissions produced between 1988 and 2015 came from 100 fossil fuel companies, according a 2017 report by CDP, formerly known as the Carbon Disclosure Project.

And despite the United Nations’ warnings to drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions, countries are planning on extracting double the amount of fossil fuels than what would be consistent with keeping the global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), even as they pledge to make ambitious cuts.

So, although there are things individuals can do to minimize their personal carbon footprints, Mann said, “we must not allow … polluters to reframe the discussion so that it falls entirely upon individuals, which takes the pressure off of them.”

“We can’t pass legislation ourselves that incentivizes renewable energy or that blocks new fossil fuel infrastructure. We can’t impose regulations on industry. We can’t negotiate directly with international partners. We need our policymakers to do that,” Mann said. “Those things can only be enacted at the systematic level, and that’s why we have to keep the pressure on policymakers and on corporations and those who are in a position to make the changes that we can’t make ourselves.”


Follow Drew Costley on Twitter: @drewcostley.


The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


A homeless man injects a Narcan nasal spray into the nose of a female addict who appears to be over...
Associated Press

Fentanyl’s scourge plainly visible on streets of Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES (AP) — In an filthy alley behind a Los Angeles donut shop, Ryan Smith convulsed in the grips of a fentanyl high — lurching from moments of slumber to bouts of violent shivering on a warm summer day. When Brandice Josey, another homeless addict, bent down and blew a puff of fentanyl smoke […]
9 hours ago
FILE - An election worker verifies a ballot on a screen inside the Maricopa County Recorders Office...
Associated Press

Arizona counties face deadline to certify 2022 election

Six Arizona counties must decide Monday whether to certify 2022 election results amid pressure from some Republicans not to officially approve a vote count that had Democrats winning for U.S. Senate, governor and other statewide races.
9 hours ago
FILE - Meta's logo can be seen on a sign at the company's headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., on No...
Associated Press

Irish watchdog fines Meta 265M euros in latest privacy case

LONDON (AP) — Irish regulators slapped Facebook parent Meta with a 265 million-euro ($277 million) fine Monday, the company’s latest punishment for breaching strict European Union data privacy rules. The Data Protection Commission said Meta Platforms infringed sections of the EU rules, known as the General Data Protection Regulation, that require technical and organizational measures […]
9 hours ago
This image shows the logo for the website and newsletter TheRighting, founded by long-time New York...
Associated Press

The Righting deciphers conservative media for outsiders

NEW YORK (AP) — Nearly six years into monitoring the content of conservative media outlets for his website and newsletter The Righting, Howard Polskin hasn’t lost the capacity for surprise. Case in point: when Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential candidacy, and many of his long-time media allies let fly with anger and insults. Two […]
9 hours ago
This photo shows Charles Graves dressed as Santa Claus in Austin, Texas on on Sept. 3, 2022. Graves...
Associated Press

Santa’s back in town with inflation, inclusion on his mind

NEW YORK (AP) — Don’t look for plastic partitions or faraway benches when visiting Santa Claus this year. The jolly old elf is back, pre-pandemic style, and he’s got some pressing issues on his mind. Santa booker has logged a 30% increase in demand this Christmas season over last year, after losing about 15% […]
9 hours ago
FILE - Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and wife Gisele arrive to vote in Braddock, Pa, Tuesday...
Associated Press

Pennsylvania campaign wildcard Fetterman turns to governing

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — When John Fetterman goes to Washington in January as one of the Senate’s new members, he’ll bring along an irreverent style from Pennsylvania that extends from his own personal dress code — super casual — to hanging marijuana flags outside his current office in the state Capitol. Pennsylvania’s unique lieutenant governor, […]
9 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Quantum Fiber

How high-speed fiber internet edges out cable for everyday use

In a world where technology drives so much of our daily lives, a lack of high-speed internet can be a major issue.
(Photo via MLB's Arizona Fall League / Twitter)...
Arizona Fall League

Top prospects to watch at this year’s Arizona Fall League

One of the most exciting elements of the MLB offseason is the Arizona Fall League, which began its 30th season Monday.
Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Ways to prevent clogged drains and what to do if you’re too late

While there are a variety of ways to prevent clogged drains, it's equally as important to know what to do when you're already too late.
Climate Questions: Does what I do matter?