Small Individual Actions vs. Changing Govt. Policies?


Small Individual Actions vs. Changing Govt. Policies?

"Convincing people to live greener lives makes them less likely to support real climate policy" concludes a new study published online at

 This study plus an experience with a field trip discussion among Audubon members have convinced me that I need to re-examine the focus of my climate education efforts.  The discussion was about the pros and cons of wind vs. solar energy. When I asked about insulation, noting that for my own home, adding insulation and sealing my townhouse led to a 40% reduction in energy consumption, the group's consensus was that it would be impossible to reduce consumption by increasing the use of insulation because "that would take money."  To be fair, one person mentioned that perhaps the money could be found by reducing or getting rid of subsidies for oil and gas production; but that idea fell flat as "something that would never happen."  While a field trip setting is probably not the ideal place for a deep dive into this, it was clear to me that a concerted effort would be needed to delve into the systemic policy changes required to reverse GHG emissions and the collective strategies necessary to move our political system to implement such changes.

As the study discovered, in the face of a challenge as massive as climate change, it can be daunting to try to figure out what you as an individual should do to help. Should you focus your efforts on getting learners to change their light bulbs? OR ...take transit to work? While all those things are important, changes in government policies are going to be necessary for the world to rapidly decarbonize the economy over the next decade. Now researchers have found that when people are encouraged to make small personal sacrifices to help the climate, it can actually make them LESS likely to support policy changes (like a carbon tax).

Materials to support groups in both informal and formal education settings have been developed by the Kettering Foundation’s National Issues Forum, titled “Climate Choices” – see -- could get you started.

By promoting collective societal action at the local level (e.g. in terms of building and renovation regulations requiring standards for insulation) one can accomplish lots.  And my community’s pride as we move forward with those kinds of policy changes at the local level generates not only climate change success, but also a sense of camaraderie that brings our town together. And, within that larger context, we also do little things like changing light bulbs.

I hope you’ll share with all of us the ways that you/your learners and larger community have achieved policy changes that are moving us towards achieving meaningful reductions in GHGs.  We all need to double down on BIG reductions to achieve our 2030 goals.


In reply to by Jeanine Huss

Thank you for this article! I've been thinking about this topic for a while, and I'm still wondering what this means for us as educators. Like others have said, the study linked in the blog post has limitations, and I'm skeptical of the idea that individuals who change their behavior are less likely to advocate for larger changes. This may result from individual-focused behavior change campaigns, but I think education can also show people the bigger picture, and their individual actions can be a reminder of the bigger changes that need to happen. It's something I'd definitely like to see more research about. But the main point still holds true from what we know about environmental issues: individuals deciding to recycle does nothing to change systemic problems in the production of disposable goods and inefficient waste management systems (as an example).

I'm wondering how others have changed their messaging to reflect this. I still find myself and my coworkers defaulting to "easy" (for many) behavior changes like reusable grocery bags, because I don't think we know how to talk about systemic solutions to a general audience (and definitely not without putting on our "advocate hats").

In reply to by Jeanine Huss

Kelley - thanks for posting this. I had not read the article in Scientific American and found it interesting. One of the most powerful ideas that run through all of these posts is that we don't have to limit our solutions to those things that we are able to undertake on our own. Rather, as individuals we have the power to advocate for change at a more systematic level. Once we are released from this idea that the only impact we can have on the environment is by changing our own behavior the opportunities for change blossom. And, if there is anything we need right now it is a return to democratic governance where the voice of the people is really heard. This article reminded me of a piece I read in the Guardian a few years ago (…). It is not nearly as eloquent as the Scientific American article, but perhaps more bold in its statement of the problem. Thank you for keeping this conversation going.

Hello again,
I have a second response to this. Did anyone else read this article about Tragedy of the Commons in Scientific American (…)? It was shared in a behavioral scientist newsletter. I pulled out some applicable quotes below.

"The truth is that two-thirds of all the carbon pollution ever released into the atmosphere can be traced to the activities of just ninety companies. These corporations’ efforts to successfully thwart climate action are the real tragedy. Let’s stop saying that we are all to blame because we all overuse shared resources. Let’s stop championing policies that privilege environmental protection for some human beings at the expense of others. And let’s replace Hardin’s flawed metaphor with an inclusive vision for humanity—one based on democratic governance and cooperation in this time of darkness."

"This is what makes attacks on individual behavior so counterproductive. Yes, it’s great to drive an electric vehicle (if you can afford it) and purchase solar panels (if powerful utilities in your state haven’t conspired to make renewable energy more expensive). But the point is that interest groups have structured the choices available to us today. Individuals don’t have the agency to steer our economic ship from the passenger deck."

My supervisor, Stephanie Feldstein, at the Center for Biological Diversity recently wrote an op-ed in Yes! about this topic. You might enjoy the read. Some good quotes are below.

"The claim goes, if individuals just chose the right burger, we could slash our carbon footprints and fight climate change. But consumer choice is misleading: We can only choose from what’s available, accessible, and affordable."

"When I choose a veggie burger, I’m not only making a choice to reduce my own climate footprint. I’m taking a small stand against the meat industry’s devastating impacts on land, water, and biodiversity."

"When I enjoy a plant-based burger, I’m helping normalize the idea, among my friends and family, that beef doesn’t have to be what’s for dinner."


Thanks for posting. I agree with the sentiment of both the article and your post. For a few years now I have had these feeling that we are winning the hearts and minds of people (all of the polls show that concern for the environment), while at the same time losing a disproportionate number of the policy discussions (we are taking a step backward in addressing climate at a national level). I have come to the conclusion that people don't understand the importance of collective action to address environmental issues. Here is an example: According to a survey by Chesapeake Progress in 2017, 70% of residents believe the watershed is important, 43% believe that residents should attend meetings or publicly speak out in support of clean water but only 14% of them have actually taken any kind of civic action to support Bay conservation. In short, our belief in the importance of local advocacy is outstripping our action. As the Chesapeake Progress report put it “there is plenty of potential for civic engagement around water protection to expand.”

While I question the statistics presented in the article you reference - I have to admit it "feels like" much of what they are saying is accurate. That said, maybe there are other reasons people don't engage in collective decision making.

Vox had another interesting article a few weeks ago. In this one a conservationist makes that case for collective action vs. individual actions. In a humorously titled, "I am an environmentalist, and I don't care if you recycle" Mary Annaise Heglar makes the argument that the potential impact of our individual actions pale in comparison with what we could accomplish by focusing on systemic change. You can read it here:…

For me (and my organization, Earth Force) we have come down in favor of shifting our efforts toward systemic change and teaching people how to engage in the civic system. That is not to say that individual action is not valuable or important. Rather, we are just making a choice of where we think we can do the most good.

I agree with Jane - this is an important discussion for the field to have right now.

Thanks for sharing Karen. This is a very important conversation to crack open. I will say that the conclusive title of the Fast Company is damaging given how very limited the study was. A few critical thoughts:

1. It is a hypothetical situation.
2. It is a very isolated group of participants.
3. The assumption that a carbon tax is the silver bullet is dangerous.
4. I would like to see how the answers differ across varying levels of awareness and over a period of time.

I think referencing a recent NYT article in tandem with this article might be helpful -

What a wonderful catalyst for a very important conversation to have. Through their research the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation has begun asking visitors to their zoos, aquariums, and other sites about what steps they are willing to take to address climate change. . . . and then asking them if they can think of ways to "kick it up a level", say to the "community level. The language I hear in serious discussions revolve around questions like: "Is the proposed solution matched to the SCALE of the problem?" In light of that question, individual steps, though laudable, are not currently at the SCALE of the problem. So let's all learn to start conversations that move us toward that level. As educators, we often are concerned about that fine line between the "educator hat" and the "advocate hat." Using materials like the Kettering environmental issues forums encourages people how to think at a larger scale. And I have seen educators engage in bipartisan work, such as support for the Energy Innovation and Climate Dividend Act. Strong challenges call for strong measures. Thanks for this thoughtful thread! Jane Heinze-Fry