What the Climate Movement Is Getting Wrong on Earth Day

Sometimes, even tiny drops can have a ripple effect. For example, my solar rooftop panels can’t solve global warming, but they’re helping to screw up my local utility’s business model. The utility makes money by selling power, and it’s counting on sales at peak hours to increase nearly 2 percent a year to keep its stockholders happy. But its sales to me at peak hours have decreased 100 percent—and my next-door neighbor went solar, too, so to hit its targets for our neighborhood our utility needs to boost sales to the other 100 or so homes by about 4 percent, which isn’t realistic. If more of our neighbors follow our lead, it might have to start lobbying for a new way to get paid that doesn’t rely on selling more power, a business model that’s led to much more rooftop solar in states like California.

Government policies and other institutional changes definitely matter: I only went solar after federal initiatives and technological innovations made it financially advantageous. But behavioral norms matter, too. As solar goes mainstream, fossil electricity could become as uncool as littering; as electric cars get cheaper, the same thing could happen to internal combustion engines. The Crying Indian illustrated how an individual ethic can be as contagious as a virus, inspiring people to do things because they just seem like the thing to do.

When I recently mentioned to Cathy Zoi, who runs the electric-car-charging company EVGO, that one electric car won’t make much of a difference to global emissions, she pointed out that one vote won’t make a difference in most elections. Most Americans vote anyway, and while government policies can make voting easier or harder, most voters believe it’s a civic responsibility.

“Nobody has to vote, and if we accepted this notion that nobody has any individual responsibility, nobody would,” Zoi said. “The thing is, we do vote, and our votes add up.”

Emissions add up, too, contributing to hotter temperatures, higher seas, more intense storms, more climate refugees and all kinds of terrible outcomes that are damaging nature and hurting people. Most of us don’t want to hurt people, even people we don’t know. We don’t shoot random strangers, and while our individual emissions aren’t quite that destructive, we don’t slap or poke or give noogies to strangers, either. If we did, we’d feel guilty about it.

So yes, we should feel guilty about littering the atmosphere. My family’s other car is an SUV, and I feel guilty about that. I fly much too often, another source of shame. I pay to offset my carbon emissions at Cool Effect, but that doesn’t assuage all my guilt. I’ve cut down on red meat, but I still eat too much, because red meat is delicious.

Does that make me a hypocrite? I’m afraid it does. Most human beings who aren’t Greta Thunberg seem to be hypocrites to some degree, and I’m not as bad as the climate celebrities who fly private jets or the activist who justified his carbon footprint by telling the writer Jason Mark that “my whole life is a carbon offset.” But hypocrisy is still bad.

In her Vox essay about how she doesn’t care about whether you recycle, activist Mary Annaïse Heglar warns that carbon-shaming “turns environmentalism into an individual choice defined by sin or virtue, convicting those who don’t or can’t uphold those ethics.” That’s a fair point about those who can’t; some people can’t afford some green behaviors, and the onus should be on public policy to drive down the costs to encourage more widespread adoption. But those who don’t, well, if they care about the climate, they should try, and they should atone. Emitting carbon isn’t the worst sin, and all of us carbon-based life forms do it. Still, less would be better.

In any case, it’s weird for activists to pretend that hypocrisy doesn’t matter, that our climate sins aren’t sinful. Personal emissions matter because all emissions matter—and if climate activists won’t say that, who will?

Earth Day was born amid the tumult of the civil rights movement, the women’s liberation movement, the protest against the Vietnam War. Its founders wanted to change mindsets, not just reduce particulate matter and nutrient concentrations.

“Our goal is not just an environment of clean air and water and scenic beauty,” Gaylord Nelson, the father of Earth Day, said at the first rally in Denver. “The objective is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all human beings and all other living creatures.”

Nelson was a United States senator with a political mission, but he understood the connection between the political and the personal. He knew that long-term environmental protection would require a true environmental ethic, a visceral and widespread belief that it was wrong to desecrate our common home, just as long-term progress on civil rights would depend on convincing hearts and minds that racism was wrong. Today, that environmental ethic is so pervasive that even Trump pays lip service to the importance of clean air and water.

The climate does not yet have an ethic like that in America. That may just be an inevitable result of the nation’s partisan divide. As Washington pumps trillions of dollars into the pandemic-shattered economy, Trump and other Republicans have thundered with outrage that they won’t let Democrats exploit the crisis by steering even one penny to anything green, as if the climate were just another special interest rather than a different kind of existential threat to humanity.

But it will be hard for the climate movement to develop that kind of ethic, to mobilize and organize ordinary people to fight the most important crisis our species has ever faced, while simultaneously assuring them that their personal contributions to the crisis aren’t really important.

It’s tempting to pretend that climate change is something that happens to us, that we’re all just victims of malevolent forces beyond our control. But everyone’s emissions make the crisis worse. The movement is doing a pretty good job at inspiring righteous anger at obstacles to progress, but it will also need to inspire solidarity, the feeling that we’re all in this together as a species.

The coronavirus is doing that right now. The noisy protesters raging against the tyranny of social distancing are getting a lot of press, but most people seem to be listening to the experts and doing their part to protect their communities. The virus is a vicious reminder that our actions have consequences beyond ourselves, and most of us are trying to avoid doing inadvertent harm to others. After so much climate commentary about the futility of trying to persuade individuals to change behavior for the common good, the virus is making it happen.

Climate change is a more insidious threat than the coronavirus. It’s slower-moving and less immediate; it’s also going to be with us for the rest of our lives. It’s often portrayed as a pass-fail test, where awful things will happen unless we cut emissions by a certain amount by a certain date, but it’s more accurate to see it as a cumulative disaster. Awful things are already happening, from the Bahamas to Australia, and more awful things are going to happen.