With Trump's election and his first few moves (his three newest Cabinet picks as well as his potential nomination for head of the EPA are climate deniers), it is unlikely that US citizens and the world can expect much from the U.S. Federal government during the next four years in the fight against climate change. Yet instead of throwing our hands up in defeat, we, as individual citizens, should recognize that we aren't dependent on any government to act.
In fact, one of the main reasons why we push for governments to take action on climate change (besides holding polluting firms accountable) is because it forces every citizen to act, whether or not they are willing or aware to do so. Let's take a tax on gasoline as an example. At the individual level, it forces people to internalize the cost of their carbon emissions in their choices and decisions. In other words, instead of relying exclusively on people's social responsibility to think about the environmental impact of driving a car that runs on gasoline, prices act as a clear and simple incentive for people to choose the most sustainable option, i.e. driving less. At the collective level, on the other hand, it minimizes free-riding (one person assuming that since other people are driving less they don't have to) and ensures that efforts to tackle climate change are collective and thus more effective.
The failure of governments to fulfill this normative and coordinating role cannot be an excuse for passiveness and despair. A Trump government might not incentivize you to act in favor of the environment, but if you are conscious and willing to do something about it, it is unlikely to prevent you from doing so. Similarly, a government committed to act is not a sufficient condition for success. Indeed, it takes a while for policies and regulations to fight climate change to be enacted and often times, due to political dynamics, the change brought on by them is watered down and doesn't amount to what is actually needed. In sum, with or without support from the government, individuals have a duty to act.
The first step is to understand our individual carbon footprint. Being more reflective in our daily actions is one way to do so, or we can also measure and quantify our carbon footprints; The website carbotax.org is a great tool to determine individual carbon footprint by estimating how much carbon is associated with our lifestyle, calculating our emissions from transportation, energy use in the home, diet, etc. The site also offers a way to pay a voluntary offset based on our "score" or footprint, if you feel ready to go the next step. But you can also simply use the information as a way to alter your lifestyle, addressing those areas that scored highest for emissions by applying, for example, some of the following tips:
- Because one of the largest sources of our individual greenhouse emissions comes from transportation, the key thing here is to drive and fly less. Try to bike, walk, take public transportation, or carpool when you can. If there's no (reliable) public transportation where you live, look to see if carpooling groups exist in your workplace, and if not, suggest carpooling with colleagues that live close to you.
- Cut down on meat. Ideally we should limit meat to once a week, but if that isn't do-able, try to at least scale down how often you eat it. One option is to avoid buying meat to cook at home and only eating meat when you go out to a restaurant. Plus, veggie options are better for health.
- Disposal of waste. We should reduce what ends up in the landfills in the first place by donating, reusing, and upcycling products to extend their life. Only when there may not be a second life for these things should they be disposed of. When it's time to get rid of things make sure they are separated to go to the right places: recycled, composed, or to the landfill. Instead of throwing banana peels, coffee grinds, and other vegetable ends in the trash, start a compost bin or find places in your area that may collect organic waste.
- Unplug your electronic gadgets when you're not using them. It's easy to forget to unplug your phone charger once it's done being charged, but this is a simple step that cuts down on your energy use.
- Remember to bring your reusable bags with you and say NO to plastic bags at the store. In addition to being highly detrimental to the environment, plastic bags are made from fossil fuels.
- Reusable coffee mugs and water bottles are key. That means avoiding single-use (and often unrecyclable) cups at coffee stores and plastic water bottles. Try to avoid single-use containers and packaging in general, not just beverage containers.
- Wash your clothes in cold water and if you can, hang dry instead of using the dryer. Both of these actions save electricity and also make clothes last longer.
You might however question the impact of your small individual actions if other people fail to act, and you would be right about to do so. It remains crucial to mobilize your friends, family, and local communities to incorporate sustainable habits into their daily lives as well. But it is also important to recognize that individuals' influences in collective processes do not stop with voting. Every dollar you invest or spend on some goods or services is not only a vote of confidence for the final product, but also for the whole production process and its socio-environmental consequences.
We should support companies that are making their operations more sustainable and persuade others that aren't by voting with our dollars. We should also try to understand what is used in the products we buy and where they are made. For instance, by keeping an eye out for products with palm oil and try to stay clear of them, unless they are Rainforest Alliance- or Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)- certified, we can ensure that our products aren't causing deforestation. Choosing products with other third-party certifications like Organic and Fair Trade are also ways to support good practices. By using sites like EWG and free apps like ThinkDirty, we can also gain insight into the environmental and social impact of products, and allows us to choose accordingly.
While voting is sometimes perceived as irrational because the outcome cannot be affected by one single vote, most people do believe in the collective act of voting and thus do vote. The same applies to voting with our dollars. Today, in the US and in the world, it is individuals' turn to act. While the outcome of one collective process -the US Presidential Election- may not have yielded encouraging results, don't forget that several times every day you have the opportunity to use your wallet as a voter's card.