If thinking about climate chaos makes you want to ugly-cry into a pillow, then Molly Kawahata (she/her) has two messages for you. The first: Wanting to hide from the planet’s problems doesn’t make you a bad environmentalist. The second: Climate change isn’t your fault.
Sure, you drive a car, take long showers, and forget to bring your reusable bags to the grocery store. It doesn’t matter, says Kawahata, an Alpine climber, former White House climate policy advisor, and the subject of Patagonia’s new film The Scale of Hope. You can keep doing all that—and taking short-haul flights and buying plastic water bottles, to boot—and climate change still won’t be your fault.
But what about carbon footprint, you ask? A sense of personal responsibility? The power of fear to motivate change? Forget it, Kawahata says. It’s all a sham.
Debunking the carbon footprint
The idea of the individual carbon footprint was popularized by British Petroleum in a massive public-relations campaign. In the early 2000s, Kawahata says BP hired a PR firm to help them divert climate blame from big oil companies to individual consumers. Which is a total misrepresentation of the truth, Kawahata says.
According to EPA data, energy, transportation, and industry are the biggest carbon producers in the U.S. Compared to those big sectors, your actions—even a lifetime’s worth of them—are just a drop in the bucket.
Besides, Kawahata adds, putting all the blame on individuals isn’t equitable. Climate change already disproportionately affects communities of color. Underserved neighborhoods are most impacted by climate-related disasters, are most reliant on traditional transportation and electrical systems, and suffer most from the health impacts associated with having to breathe dirty air. When we turn environmentalism into a game of personal morality, we’re not coming up with solutions that help those communities.
“People struggling to get by don’t often have the time, energy, resources, or interest in changing every aspect of how they live their lives,” Kawahata says. “We need to solve the source of the problem causing climate change—not create carbon-footprint workarounds that don’t solve climate for everyone.”
Why biking to work won’t fix things
Even if everyone who could bike to work, buy an EV and live off the grid did so, that still wouldn’t make a difference on climate. Because in the grand scope of things, those privileged few are exactly that: few. Even if they lived their lives perfectly and never touched plastic straws ever again, the cumulative difference they would make would be negligible.
“The math just doesn’t add up,” Kawahata explains.
Statistical relevance aside, studies show that placing the blame on individual people doesn’t actually motivate them to change. The issue with the doom-and-gloom messaging, Kawahata says, is that when we’re scared, our lizard brains switch on, and fight-or-flight thinking takes over. (Weeping under the covers, by the way, does count as flight.)
When your lizard brain is activated, your prefrontal cortex—the critical-thinking and executive-functioning part of the brain—goes offline.
“Doom and gloom and guilt and shame are antithetical to human motivation. They literally make your body physically retract and take up less space. It’s a trauma response,” Kawahata says. “So we’ve been making people feel fear, guilt, and shame, and then we say, ‘Why aren’t you acting?’”
So the power of fear to motivate people? Not so powerful, after all.