March 18, 2021

Is Your Carbon Footprint BS?

by How to Save a Planet

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Your carbon footprint – everything from eating meat, to flying, and driving, all have carbon costs associated with them. We tell you what’s at the top of the American carbon footprint list, and then we take a step back and ask a bigger question...does your carbon footprint even matter? In this episode, we answer that question, and settle a sibling debate on individual actions vs. systemic change.

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Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: This is How to Save a Planet. I'm Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson.

Alex Blumberg: And I'm Alex Blumberg. And this is the podcast about what we need to do to address the climate crisis, and how to make those things happen.

Ayana: So there's this question we get from a lot of listeners, and one listener in particular summed it up perfectly. She wrote in to ask us to settle an argument.

Anna: Hi, Ayana and Alex. My name is Anna, and I love your podcast. I just listened to the episode about which type of car is better for the environment, and I was wondering if you could weigh in on another debate. So my brother and I, we agree on a lot of things, but one topic that we always argue about is individual versus systemic, policy-based change.

Alex: Oh, this debate.

Ayana: This debate.

Alex: How much do our individual actions actually matter when it comes to climate change, versus how much is it all about big systems and policies sort of beyond our individual control? Like, how important is it to look at how sustainably sourced our sweatpants are, or how important is it to go deep into the weeds on which LED light is best for the climate, or that sort of thing.

Ayana: Yeah, and Anna says her brother thinks none of that stuff is actually gonna get us out of the climate crisis. That climate change is a huge, systemic problem, and the only way to fix it is with big, systemic solutions.

Alex: But Anna says in her voicemail, she's not so sure about that.

Anna: I know that we're not gonna recycle and bike and beyond burger our way out of climate change, but I do have a slightly more optimistic view that individual consumer choices can make a difference. So am I just a sucker, or can individuals actually do something?

Alex: So we focus a lot on this show on big-picture solutions.

Ayana: Yeah.

Alex: Things like government policies to limit climate-harming refrigerants, or things that we can do to increase renewable power or change how we farm.

Ayana: But we know—because you tell us—that a lot of you are wondering, what should I be doing as an individual in my daily life? And do those individual actions even matter?

Alex: One listener even told us about a spreadsheet he made tallying up all his family's actions.

Ayana: I love a spreadsheet!

Alex: And the associated carbon footprint of each action, sort of like trying to winnow their footprint down. And another one of our listeners, this listener named Mark wrote, "Is there just one thing that would make a real impact? Maybe cutting out cheese or something?" Oh, Mark. [laughs]

Ayana: [laughs] Oh Mark, if only it were that simple.

Alex: On today's episode, we are going to dive into this debate between Anna and her brother: do individual actions even matter? And if so, which ones are the most important? That's all coming up after the break. Although spoiler alert: cutting out cheese is not at the top of the list. Sorry, Mark.

Ayana: Which is really unfortunate, because I'm allergic to cheese. So if that were the answer, I'm a frickin' angel.

Alex: You'd be even more of an eco-angel, than you already are.

Ayana: I've never eaten cheese in my entire life. All right. Stick around.


Ayana: So we have a debate. Anna says that individual actions matter, her brother says they don't. So today, we're gonna devote half the episode to one side and half to the other, and see who comes out on top.

Alex: And in the first half, we're gonna argue Anna's brother's side—that individual actions don't matter that much at all. And to help us in this debate, Ayana, we brought in your friend, friend of the show, Katharine Wilkinson.

Ayana: Dr. Katharine Wilkinson is my partner in all things feminist climate renaissance. She and I co-edited the anthology All We Can Save, we co-founded a new nonprofit, The All We Can Save Project, to support women leading on climate. And the reason Katharine is the perfect person to talk to about this topic is not because I adore her, it is because she was the lead author on a book called Drawdown, and that book looked at what are the biggest sources of carbon emissions, and what are the solutions out there to reduce those.

Alex: And Katharine says, in arguing Anna's brother's side of this debate, that part of the reason your individual choices don't matter that much, is because a lot of the ways greenhouse gases get emitted are things you don't have control over as an individual.

Ayana: Exactly. And Katharine broke this down for us.

Katharine Wilkinson: At a global level, greenhouse gases are coming from basically six different kind of sectors of the economy, human society, however you want to think about it. So electricity production globally is about 25 percent of the problem.

Alex: 25 percent is just making electricity?

Katharine Wilkinson: Yep. 25 percent is just burning coal and fossil gas to make electricity.

Alex: Okay.

Katharine Wilkinson: And then right behind that globally, food, agriculture and land use is about 24 percent of global emissions.

Alex: Okay. And what does that mean, food and land use?

Katharine Wilkinson: So that means what we grow and how we grow it, and kind of to simplify it, the deforestation that gets created by clearing more land to grow more food. And in particular, this is where we see the issue of livestock. So meat and dairy is a big piece of that puzzle.

Alex: So for example, what's happening in the Amazon, where a lot of rainforest is being cleared to make way for farms or cattle ranches.

Katharine Wilkinson: Yeah. Or to grow the things that get fed to animals, like corn and soy.

Alex: Got it. Right.

Alex: Okay, so roughly half our emissions come from making electricity and making food. Or making the food to feed the animals that become our food.

Ayana: Yeah. Turns out destroying ecosystems releases a lot of carbon, especially from the soil.

Alex: Right. And then Katharine says the rest, the other half, is made up by a few more categories. For example, a category Katharine calls "industry," which is basically, all the factories and businesses making the stuff that we as humans use. Everything from steel to concrete to consumer goods, paper.

Ayana: Paper clips.

Alex: [laughs] Paper clips, everything.

Ayana: All of it.

Alex: And this industry category, it accounts for 20 percent of the world's greenhouse gasses.

Ayana: And making cement in particular, is a surprisingly big part of this industry category. By some measures making cement is responsible for about eight percent of carbon dioxide emissions globally.

Alex: That is crazy. Just from cement.

Ayana: Yeah, it's a lot.

Alex: Way more than paper clips.

Ayana: [laughs]

Alex: And then industry also uses lots of refrigerants, many of which are greenhouse gases, which we've talked about in previous episodes as well. That sort of thing. And to be clear, these are direct emissions from the manufacturing and industrial processes. They are in addition to emissions from the electricity the industries are using. The electricity that is counted under the "Electricity" heading in Katharine's accounting.

Ayana: Right. And then there's transportation. All of our internal combustion engines that are powering cars and trucks and buses and boats and planes, all that adds up to about another 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Alex: And then there's buildings, which is mostly oil burners and gas burners for heating and hot water systems. That's about five percent. And again, that's not counting electricity, it's just the oil and gas that you're using to heat.

Ayana: That are in the buildings themselves.

Alex: Yeah.

Ayana: The emissions at that location, not at the power plant that's powering the rest of it. So rounding to the nearest five percent, agriculture and land use is about 25 percent, electricity is another about 25 percent. And then industry is about 20 percent, transportation 15 percent, buildings another five percent. Collectively, those five categories account for about 90 percent of total emissions. And then there's this other category, the last 10 percent, which is mostly from the extraction and processing and transport of fossil fuels. Things like methane escaping from natural gas wells and storage sites.

Alex: So that is where all the carbon is coming from. And here is the point of all this, why this is all an argument for the "individual actions don't matter" side of the debate. What stands out about all these systems that are contributing so much to climate change, is that they're things we don't have a ton of control over as individuals, right? So let's say I live in Florida, it's super hot in Florida, I'm gonna probably have to run my air conditioning. But if the electricity is coming from coal, just flipping the switch I am already hooked into a fossil fuel carbon system.

Ayana: Yeah. Or if you have to get to work and there's not good public transit from where you live to your office, if you don't have an electric vehicle, then your only option really is to use a car with an internal combustion engine. And that is, of course, releasing greenhouse gases out of your tailpipe.

Alex: Right. So this is one of the big arguments on the "individual choices don't matter" side of this debate. Like, a lot of this stuff is just outside of our control. We just can't change it ourselves.

Ayana: Mm-hmm. And there's a second argument against individual actions mattering, which is that even if we do change the things that are in our control, it only makes the teeniest, tiniest difference.

Alex: And I think it's instructive to point out here Ayana, just how teeny we mean. [laughs]

Ayana: Put it in perspective for them.

Alex: Put it in perspective. How meaningless are we as individuals? We're about to tell you.

Ayana: [laughs] How does it feel to be an ant?

Alex: [laughs] So we're gonna compare the total amount of global carbon emissions with an individual's carbon footprint.

Ayana: So as many of our listeners will be familiar with, this term "carbon footprint," which is when you total up all the greenhouse gas emissions that basically go into making your way of life: your food, your travel, your home. And for the average American that quote unquote "carbon footprint" is about 16 tons of carbon emissions per year.

Alex: All right. So that's the average. The average American emits 16 tons. People with lower incomes tend to emit less, wealthier people tend to emit more—in some cases a lot more. Like tens or even hundreds of times more than the average, because of their big houses and lots of air travel and stuff like that. But when you roll all Americans together, our average emissions are 16 tons per person.

Ayana: And for context, that is definitely one of the larger national average carbon footprints compared to all the other nations in the world. So globally, it's Americans, Canadians, Australians, and oil rich countries like Saudi Arabia and Kazakhstan that have the most massive carbon footprints as a per-capita average. Meanwhile, the global average is around 4.8 tons per capita, so a little more than one-fourth of the average American footprint.

Alex: And if you are focused on reducing your individual carbon footprint, there are lots of lists to look at which rank the highest-impact actions you can take. And all of these lists differ a bit in methodology and accounting and stuff, but the same actions generally make it to the top of each list. So ...

Ayana: So drumroll please! Here are the top five actions that can have the greatest impact on your individual carbon footprint. Number one: Make fewer new humans. Also known as have fewer children.

Alex: Whoops, already blew that one.

Ayana: Which Alex has already blown it on that one. He made two.

Alex: Yep, two.

Ayana: This is super controversial, and we're not gonna get into it now, but indeed having fewer children can have a big impact, especially if you have what is euphemistically referred to as a high-carbon lifestyle.

Alex: So number two: Drive less. Or if you do drive, drive electric.

Ayana: Number three: Fly less. Full stop.

Alex: Number four: Become more energy efficient, insulate your home. And if you can, put solar panels on your house.

Ayana: And number five: Switch to a plant-based diet.

Alex: So that's the list, or at least, you know, sort of generally what are the top five items on that list. But remember, we're arguing in this half of the episode that individual actions do not really matter that much.

Ayana: Because even if you do all five things on this list perfectly, you as an individual are a tiny, tiny percent of the overall problem.

Alex: We did the math.

Ayana: Alex loves math, let me remind you.

Alex: [laughs] I love doing the math. We compared the average American's carbon footprint to the overall amount of carbon emissions globally. And remember, average American, pretty big footprint, 16 tons. Overall global emissions, 50 billion tons.

Ayana: Yeah.

Alex: What this means is that the average American's contribution to the total global problem is 0.0000000003. That is a decimal point and then nine zeros and then a three. And statistically ...

Ayana: That's basically zero. [laughs]

Alex: It rounds to zero. [laughs] So individually, I think the math would suggest that we have zero impact on the larger problem.

Ayana: And as professor Dr. Leah Stokes, who's been on the show before puts it, even if you are the perfect, zero-waste, low-carbon footprint human being, that doesn't change the world unless you do something bigger than yourself. Because if you disappear tomorrow, we would still be facing exactly the same magnitude of climate crisis because you're just a rounding error to global carbon emissions.

Alex: And this might make certain people feel sad and maybe hopeless and defeated but, you know, Ayana, you and I talked with Katharine Wilkinson about this, and we actually think it is good news. Because it means, if you change the systems, then you're changing millions of people's carbon footprints without them having to do anything.

Katharine Wilkinson: My feeling is, thank goddess we don't have to rely on every individual getting everything right in their own lives, because New Year's resolutions don't even last a month, you know? [laughs]

Alex: Yes!

Katharine Wilkinson: Like, we'd really be in a lot of trouble. Like, more trouble than we're in if we were dependent on every single person on the planet doing every single thing right.

Alex: Yes. But this is what makes people throw up their hands, right? Like, that feels out of my control, right? Like, well, I can't change a coal plant to a wind farm. I can't, you know, make everybody drive an electric car or whatever.

Katharine Wilkinson: Yeah.

Ayana: I can't put in bike lanes.

Katharine Wilkinson: Yeah.

Alex: But when I look at that, I have the opposite feeling, which is like, we have solutions for lots of things right now.

Ayana: Oh yeah, big time.

Alex: If we wanted to, we could, like, convert the grid. Like, we have the technology right now.

Katharine Wilkinson: Yeah.

Ayana: Well I mean, it would take approximately 15 years, so they say. You know, so 2035. And you can check out our "Party Like It's 2035" episode for more details on that.

Alex: Yeah. But the same thing goes to the transportation sector, right? Like, electric vehicles are sort of well on their way. We know a lot of the industry, a big chunk of it is refrigeration. We have solutions right now to—natural refrigerants that deal with the refrigerant problem. And so this feels actually more doable than if we had to convince every single person through shame and hectoring and sort of like, it's a good thing to ride their bike, you know?

Ayana: To one by one go vegan.

Alex: Yeah.

Katharine Wilkinson: I feel like we have to quote Bill McKibben, right? He's like, climate change is a math problem, and the numbers are really, really big. And now the timelines are very, very tight. So we have to be thinking in terms of, like, our greatest leverage to get the biggest reductions possible.

Alex: I'm gonna paraphrase Katharine Wilkinson here.

Ayana: Okay.

Alex: And perhaps put it more strongly than she would have, but essentially my takeaway from our conversation, is screw your carbon footprint.

Ayana: [laughs]

Alex: Screw devoting all of this time and energy to sort of like trying to minutely lower your impact.

Ayana: Yeah.

Alex: Because when you focus all your effort on this, you're focusing all this effort on something that makes a pretty tiny difference in the grand scheme of things. A very tiny difference. And by the way, do you know who else seems really interested in having us focus on our own personal carbon footprints? BP. Or at least, the BP social media account.

Ayana: Oh, yeah. They had a tweet in 2019 that was just, like, the most ridiculous. Quote, "The first step to reducing your emissions is to know where you stand. Find out your #carbonfootprint with our new calculator, and share your pledge today!' Exclamation point, end quote.

Alex: The chutzpah!

Ayana: I mean, how rich is that? They might want to, you know, look in the mirror, as they say.

Alex: It's like the, let he who is without sin cast the first stone?

Ayana: Oh yeah. Or, you know, whoever smelt it, dealt it? [laughs]

Alex: [laughs] I went to the Bible for my quote.

Ayana: I went to fart jokes. Cool. High brow.

Alex: But you, yes.

Ayana: Fossil fuel companies' suggestions aside, it might seem like at this point in the debate, we're coming down super decisively in favor of Anna's brother. But as we promised, we're going to argue both sides. So coming up after the break, we'll make the argument for individual actions, and how they might actually matter a lot. Stick around.


Ayana: Welcome back. We're talking with Dr. Katharine Wilkinson, and we're trying to settle a sibling debate between our listener Anna and her brother about whether your individual actions actually matter when it comes to addressing the climate crisis.

Alex: And we spent the first half of the episode arguing in favor of Anna's brother's side, which we did pretty convincingly.

Ayana: If you say so yourself. [laughs]

Alex: But now we're gonna lay out the case for Anna's position, that our individual choices do matter. And Ayana, let's start here. Our guest, Katharine Wilkinson, who was just arguing that what we do as individuals barely registers against the total amounts of carbon in the atmosphere, when you ask her about her own personal choices, though ...

Katharine Wilkinson: So I'm vegetarian. I love composting. I'm chipping away at energy efficiency upgrades in my home, blah, blah, blah, right?

Alex: Right. All of which will matter not at all, as we just said.

Katharine Wilkinson: And there's some research—all of which matter, tiny, tiny, tiny minuscule amounts.

Alex: Right.

Katharine Wilkinson: But, anything that keeps us focused kind of moment to moment on the world that we want to create is a good thing, right? Like, I can't vote three times a day, but I do eat three times a day. And I think every time we do these things, it gives us a chance to reflect on our values, reflect on our connection to the planet's living systems, to think about what it is that we're trying to do here.

Alex: So aligning your actions with your values is part of it, right? But Katharine and a lot of the experts we spoke to about the importance of individual actions emphasized this one thing: you have to think of those actions outside the scope of just lowering your own carbon footprint. You know, because If you're focused only on reducing your own emissions from, you know, I don't know, 16 tons to 12 tons a year, you know, being the best climate gold star sticker winner you can be, you're having a negligible effect.

Ayana: But if you instead think about your actions as a form of communication, as an invitation for others to join you, then your action can lead to other actions that can actually lead to change. One great example of this is the trend around flying in Europe.

Alex: Starting a few years ago, more and more people in Europe started making the conscious choice to fly less for the climate. Those people included Greta Thunberg, the very famous Swedish climate activist. She very publicly took a boat across the Atlantic to come to a UN conference in 2019 instead of flying.

Steve Westlake: And then in response to that, there's been a movement in Sweden and Europe and beyond, and I'm sure people in America as well, to also change their own behavior.

Alex: This is climate researcher Steve Westlake. Our producer Felix Poon talked to him. And Steve has conducted research where he asks people: do you know anyone who flies less because of climate concerns? And if so, do you also fly less because you know these people? And he found that yes, 75 percent of the people he surveyed who knew somebody who gave up flying said they also changed their own attitudes about flying and climate change, and about half of them actually started flying less themselves.

Ayana: And Steve admits this is a small study, and it was people who wanted to participate, not what is called a stratified random sample. So the people he talked to already cared enough about the issue to answer his questions. But this still might suggest that people taking this individual action led to more people taking that action, and more people and more people, and so ...

Steve Westlake: That sends a message, sends a strong message, that this is what people want, more and more people want systemic change. And that has a ripple effect. And so support for policies, messages to politicians become stronger. So my view on individual change, it's a way of communicating. It's saying this is really important, it has influence on other people.

Ayana: And these changing social norms in Europe around flying? That might be why there are a growing number of policy proposals to address this in Germany and France and Austria. And in the UK in particular, there's a proposal for something called a frequent flier tax. And the idea is that, as you take more and more flights, the tax goes up. So it would be a progressive tax that targets those flying the most, and therefore contributing the most to carbon emissions.

Alex: And the fact that these policy changes are being discussed are, at least in some way, due to the actions, individual actions that people took. But it wasn't just taking these actions, it was also communicating about the actions. It was sharing it with their friends, and getting them to take the actions too. And that is the key. The communication, that has to be part of the action. The action's important, but it's the talking about it that gives it power.

Anthony Leiserowitz: And that's one of the single most important things that anyone, anyone can do. When people say, "What can I do about climate change?" My answer first and foremost is talk about it.

Ayana: This is Dr. Anthony Leiserowitz, who runs the Yale Center for Climate Change Communication. They've been doing polling on Americans' opinions on climate for over a decade now, and what they have learned is that people assume there are more climate deniers out there than there actually are, because deniers are just louder. But actually, it's only about 10 percent or so of Americans who are firmly in denial about climate science, and the rest of us can team up and get some really cool things done.

Alex: Yeah. And Anthony's research indicates that, like, because we have this feeling that the people who disagree with us are in much greater numbers than they are, we clam up.

Anthony Leiserowitz: And this is something we've called the spiral of silence. That people assume other people don't want to talk about it, so they don't talk about it. So let's take you and I. If we meet, and I may want to talk about climate change, but I don't know what you think, and so I don't want to cause waves. I don't want to get into a fight with a climate denier, so I don't bring it up. Meanwhile, you are actually interested in having a conversation about climate change too, but you're looking at me going, "Well, gosh, I don't know if he thinks about climate change, and so I'm not going to talk about it." So neither of us talk about it. And as a result, we end up in this downward spiral, spiral, spiral of nobody talking about it. And if you're not talking about it, how important can it be?

Alex: So talking about it? Super important. But also super important? How we talk about it.

Ayana: Here's Katharine again.

Katharine Wilkinson: We have to be really careful because nobody wants to come to a finger-wagging party, right? And a lot of these, like, individuals ...

Ayana: That sounds terrible and kind of creepy. You're doing it wrong. You're not a perfect environmentalist.

Katharine Wilkinson: Right? And that's kind of been what the environmental movement has done. Like, you need to do these things and not do these things. And, like, if I see a light bulb that's not an LED, like, you are off the list, you know? Like, we need to be welcoming people in, inviting them in. And I don't want people consumed with shame and guilt when we should be thinking about how powerful we can be together, right?

Alex: Right.

Ayana: Mm-hmm.

Katharine Wilkinson: And what makes me feel courageous and powerful and keeps me in the work are the wins that we get when we do things together.

Ayana: Katharine has such a way with words.

Alex: Yup.

Ayana: So put a pin in that gem, and let's zoom out for a minute to think about what we even mean when we say individual actions. Because so far, we've been defining that pretty narrowly. We've been talking about our individual diet and travel, etc. But of course, those aren't the only actions we can take. There are heaps of opportunities for individuals to be part of pushing forward these larger changes that we need, the changes that will affect the major sources of emissions that Katharine laid out at the beginning of this episode. So if you take a step back to think about it, there are individual actions you can take based on your skills and what you can bring to the table, that could actually make a way bigger difference than even overhauling your diet entirely.

Alex: And Ayana, I know you get this question all the time, and I know people ask you, "What's the one thing I should do?" Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, what do you tell them?

Ayana: So here's how I think about this.

Alex: Yes.

Ayana: What I actually encourage people to do to figure out where they as individuals can be most useful, is to think of it like a Venn diagram. So there's three overlapping circles, and one circle is: what are you good at? Like, what skills, resources, networks, reach, influence are you bringing to the table? What you got? And then the next circle is: what is the work that needs doing? Like, which climate solution are you gonna focus on? And how does that overlap with the skills that you have? And then the third circle would be: what brings you joy? Like, what gets you out of bed in the morning? Because this is the work of our lifetime, right?

Ayana: So if you pick a way to contribute or a thing to talk about that you, like, hate and makes you miserable and you're just cranky, you're not gonna attract more people into the work, and you're gonna make yourself miserable and probably burn out on it. So I think we need to include that joy and passion piece in here as well, because there's so many different things we can do that we each get to choose what we're gonna focus on to be most useful.

Alex: Yeah! So just to sort of like talk about how this works. I got some paper here. I'm gonna like—I'm gonna start drawing the Venn diagram. Okay, ready?

Ayana: Look at you, good student! Let's do it.

Alex: Drawing the top circle. Sorry, what is the top circle again?

Ayana: I always put joy at the top, but that's just me.

Alex: The top, okay. So the top, I'm gonna put joy. So my joy. So I love my family, NBA basketball.

Ayana: You do.

Alex: And explaining things clearly [laughs]

Ayana: Sometimes overexplaining, and then we have to cut whole paragraphs of Alex explaining things.

Alex: Sometimes too clearly.

Ayana: Yup. Can vouch for those things.

Alex: Uh huh. And making podcasts. I love making podcasts. Okay.

Ayana: What are you good at?

Alex: I'm good at exactly one thing, which is making podcasts. That's literally the only thing I'm good at. And okay.

Ayana: And what climate solutions do you want to work on?

Alex: Well I want to—I want to work on helping as many people as possible to get involved. You know, build a bigger team. That's what I want to do.

Ayana: Build a bigger team.

Alex: Build a bigger team.

Ayana: So Alex, this is really out in left field. I have a crazy idea for you.

Alex: Yeah?

Ayana: What if ...

Alex: Make a podcast about climate change?

Ayana: [laughs] You made a podcast about climate solutions with calls to action at the end of every episode.

Alex: So right in the middle—right in the middle of all those things, like, here's what I love, I love making podcasts. I'm good at making podcasts. And I want to, like, sort of communicate with as many people about climate change and build a bigger team.

Ayana: And maybe we could interview your favorite NBA player on a future episode or something, just to, you know, really hit the sweet spot.

Alex: Well, I'm glad that my Venn diagram didn't come up with something completely different than what I'm doing. That would have been a weird sort of a surprise ending for this episode.

Ayana: Your intuition led you in the right direction.

Alex: Yeah. And I love this approach, right? What I love about it is it's not cookie cutter. It's not like, oh, just read a list and do what's on the list. It's tailored to you. And when you pick your own personal actions, those actions will have so much more impact than if you're just sort of like following something from a list somewhere.

Ayana: Totally. So for me, this is actually how I came up with the idea of starting a think tank for the future of coastal cities, right? I'm a marine biologist. I'm a policy nerd. I'm from Brooklyn. I just really care about design. So clearly, all those things intersect when we think about what is the future of coastal cities in the context of climate change? And there wasn't an organization already doing that. And that's how this new nonprofit Urban Ocean Lab came to be. So I find this to be a very helpful exercise, and it doesn't have to take a long time or be super complicated. And the answer will be different for everyone. I think this has been a real shortcoming of the environmental movement is asking everyone to do the same thing, right? Everyone march, everyone vote, everyone donate, everyone spread the word. And of course do that, but if we don't ask people to bring, like, their special talents to all this work that needs to be done, then what a waste.

Alex: Yeah, exactly. And you know, we're doing this, like, I guess this is our job now. This is my job now: professional climate communicator.

Ayana: Here we are, living in the center of our Venn diagrams.

Alex: Exactly. But even if it's not your job, you can still take this approach and sort of like figure out, like, what can I do when I'm not at work? Or how can I involve what I do at work in climate work, you know?

Ayana: Absolutely. I think that gets really overlooked. This is not about quitting your job, but maybe there's a way that you can bring your skills to the table within your company to change things there. Which would again, be a much bigger difference than just thinking about your own carbon footprint. Think about how to change your company, think about how that might help change the standards of your industry, right? Like, how can we think in these ever-expanding circles of influence?

Alex: And that's the approach that Katharine Wilkinson, our debate coach for this episode, takes as well, right? What can I specifically do that will have ripples beyond just myself?

Katharine Wilkinson: And that doesn't have to be at the scale of a federal climate policy. That can be, you know, taking a cafeteria at your school or your workplace and migrating it towards composting and plant-rich food options, right? It can be, no, you can't do those bike lanes, Alex, alone, but you can run a campaign that gets your city council to commit to putting in more bike lanes in your city. You can show up to your public service or utility commission when they're making dodgy decisions in your state about continuing to invest in dirty electricity and make your voice heard. And sometimes it only takes a hundred or two hundred or a thousand people to really shift things.

Alex: Right. And to that point, like, if your community is, like, powered by a coal plant and it switches to renewable energy, that is gonna have a much greater effect than lowering your individual carbon footprint by five tons, you know?

Katharine Wilkinson: Yeah. And there are climate decisions being made all around us, right? So something little like, I live in a community of about 30 condos, and I got compost pickup for our homeowners association, right? So it's like, okay, it's more than just me. It's me plus 30.

Alex: Right. Right.

Katharine Wilkinson: And that's cool. It also was cheaper for me than doing it alone. So that's nice, right? But, like, even when we're thinking about just these little kind of like ...

Ayana: What's one circle out from just you?

Katharine Wilkinson: Totally. And I think that's a really great image to keep in mind. Like, if you're thinking about operating in this one ripple, what might it mean to go one ripple further. Where would that take you?

Ayana: So, Alex.

Alex: Mm-hmm.

Ayana: We've played both sides. We've argued our listener Anna's case that individual actions matter, we've argued Anna's brother's case that individual actions do not really matter. We've called in some experts to provide us with some numbers, and the results of the insights gleaned from their rigorous research.

Alex: Mm-hmm.

Ayana: Who won? Who won and who lost?

Alex: [laughs] Well, I mean, I think—I think we're saying they both won?

Ayana: I'm not like an acolyte of the participation trophy world, but it seems that where we've landed here is that individual actions can matter, but that's only if they're used as a tool to affect changing the larger systems.

Alex: Right. If your individual actions make ripples. So trophies for everyone!

Ayana: Trophies for everyone. Yeah. Trophies and plant-based meals and bike lanes for all. As the podcast's resident marine biologist, I do appreciate the aquatic metaphor of the ripples. I think that's really important, because sometimes this carbon footprint stuff gets, like, super navel-gazey and sort of self-centered and, like, obnoxiously holier than thou. And that is not helping.

Alex: Not at all.

Ayana: That is not actually gonna change things. That is your, like, 0.0000000003 scenario.

Alex: Right. Yep.

Ayana: So—and in fact you might actually be convincing people not to change their behavior because you're just a jerk. So don't be a jerk. Step one to saving the planet: don't be a jerk. So I would say our first call to action this week is try actually writing that out for yourself. Draw three circles, write down what you're bringing to the table, which solutions you want to work on and, like, what kinds of things you like to do. And think about whether there might be something new you could be a part of.

Alex: Yes.

Ayana: If you do take our suggestion and make your own Venn diagram of how you want to participate in climate solutions, please show it to us. I would be legit excited to receive a lot of photographs of Venn diagrams. It would make my day. So you can email them to us: You can post them on social media and tag @how2saveaplanet with the number two.

Alex: And we'll repost some of those that you send to us.

Ayana: Oh, for sure. And then hopefully, that will be a part of what Anthony was talking about as a way to start the conversation about how each of us are gonna show up.

Alex: Awesome!

Ayana: Maybe your Venn diagram will create a ripple.

Alex: And if you can't think of anything on your own, our intern Ayo has come up with this amazing idea of putting together every single call to action that we have ever sort of put forward on this podcast and making them all available by episode. We'll be sharing a link to this in our show notes.

Ayana: Yep. So you can just scan the list of things that we have recommended over the course of our episodes of the podcast so far, and see if any of those are things that you're jazzed about. And then you can click through to the links, learn more and jump in.

Alex: We have another pretty nuts-and-bolts action item that came up while we were in conversation with Dr. Anthony Leiserowitz who, again, runs the Yale Center for Climate Change Communication. He was in the middle of making the sort of individual actions don't matter point, and he sort of interrupted himself and said, "But there is one thing everyone should do."

Anthony Leiserowitz: There's no way that you and I and all of our fellow Americans through good, you know, changing what we eat, buying more fuel efficient cars, becoming more energy efficient, insulating our attics. Please insulate your attic if you haven't. That's one of the best things you can do.

Ayana: This is my favorite sidebar of all time. [laughs] You guys, just do me this one solid, just insulate your attic.

Alex: For the love of God, people. If you take one thing from this interview, insulate your fucking attics.

Anthony Leiserowitz: Insulate your damn attic!

Alex: There you go. Aside from insulating your attic, I believe, Ayana, your framework is by far the way more powerful one.

Ayana: I am attic-less, but Venn diagram full.

Alex: Yeah. And if you're someone who likes to understand the big picture first before you jump in and get involved, another thing you can do is check out Project Drawdown, where our debate guide Katharine Wilkinson used to work. The Project Drawdown website shows the big picture: where are the biggest sources of greenhouse gases, where are the sinks—the parts of our planet that are absorbing the greenhouse gases—and what are the solutions that will get us to the point of drawdown, where we start to actually reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, rather than adding to it.

Ayana: Links to Project Drawdown, and to the podcast A Matter of Degrees that Katharine co-hosts with Leah Stokes, and a list of all our calls to action are in our show notes and our newsletter.

Alex: You can sign up for the newsletter at

Ayana: It's a pretty cool website, a dot show.

Alex: Dot show. Dot showbiz, baby. All right. Are we ready for the credits?

Ayana: [laughs] Definitely. It's time to call it on this episode.

Ayana: How to Save a Planet is a Spotify original podcast and a Gimlet production. It's hosted by me, Ayana Elizabeth Johnson.

Alex: And me, Alex Blumberg. Our reporters and producers are Kendra Pierre-Lewis, Rachel Waldholz, Anna Ladd and Felix Poon. Our intern is Ayo Oti.

Ayana: Extra shoutout to Ayo this week. Thanks for the Google doc.

Alex: Yeah! And our listeners thank you as well. Our senior producer is Lauren Silverman. Our editor is Caitlin Kenny. Sound design and mixing by Peter Leonard, with original music by Peter Leonard, Catherine Anderson, and Emma Munger.

Ayana: Our fact checker this week is Claudia Geib.

Alex: Special thanks to the Stamatogiannakis siblings Anna and Emmanuel for sharing their debate with us. And thanks to Seth Wynes and Nick Pigeon.

Ayana: Thanks for listening, and we'll see you next week.

Alex: [singing] If my words could glow with the gold of summer.

Ayana: What?

Alex: It's a Grateful Dead song called "Ripple."

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