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Why Your Personal Carbon Footprint Isn’t the Issue

There are much better ways to impact climate change than stressing over light bulbs and family vacations.



Billionaire Bill Gates recently faced accusations of hypocrisy by a BBC interviewer because, in his work to advocate for philanthropy and technology that could mitigate the climate crisis, his private jet generates outsized carbon emissions.


Gates defended himself, saying that he more than offsets his emissions:


“Not only am I not part of the problem by paying for the offsets, but also through the billions that my Breakthrough Energy Group is spending … I’m part of the solution,” he told the BBC.


Gates grapples with the same problem every would-be climate activist faces: how can I advocate for the environment when, every day, I do things that harm the environment?


After all, even the most climate-conscious among us drives gas-powered cars, uses electricity at home, eats meat, uses disposable products, flies on airplanes, and so on.

How can we possibly square our own desire for a sustainable lifestyle in the face of all the unsustainable actions we take on a daily basis?


This issue was highlighted when I attended a Climate Reality Project-organized protest at the Dallas Federal Reserve in late 2020. The protest aimed to draw attention to the Fed’s financing of the fossil fuel industry, and to pressure the Fed to focus more investment on sustainable energy initiatives.


As we stood outside, a heckler drove by and called us hypocrites for holding banners that were, presumably, manufactured using petroleum products.


So there we were, advocating for a major, systemic change that could literally transform the climate agenda by diverting funds away from climate-destroying fossil fuels and into sustainable energy sources that would create a fraction of the carbon emissions — and we were being criticized for printing a few banners that, in theory, hurt the environment.


This is probably the only time I’ll get to say this, but, Bill Gates, I feel you.


Your personal carbon footprint


If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the daunting task of combating climate change, you’re not alone. You’ve probably heard of the carbon footprint, which is the amount of greenhouse gasses emitted by your everyday activities. There’s a wealth of information out there on how to calculate your carbon footprint and ways to reduce it.


If you are personally inclined to do any of those things — drive less, eat a plant-based diet, use bamboo toilet paper, etc. — please do them if they work for you and your family. But what if you can’t afford an electric car or don’t want to give up meat entirely?


Have you failed the movement? No, not even close.


Here’s the dirty secret all those carbon footprint calculators won’t tell you: the carbon footprint is a distraction to keep us focused on small actions while ignoring the big actions that can only come from major, systemic change.


This is exactly why the concept of the carbon footprint was invented by BP’s advertising agency in the early 2000s as a way to shift the blame onto consumers rather than the multi-billion dollar oil and gas industry.


The fossil fuel industry (and many other major polluters, such as the agriculture, manufacturing, and chemical industries) spend billions to prevent regulations that could protect our planet.

The more we’re focused on eating veggie burgers rather than pressuring our leaders, businesses, and financiers to make broad-based changes that could slow the pace of climate change, the happier (and more profitable) those industries are.


So what’s the answer?


In the face of such powerful industry interests, what’s an individual to do if they want to take action against climate change?


Easy: Stop being an individual.


Join the climate movement. Groups like Climate Reality Project (and there are many others) are committed to advocating for the kinds of systemic changes that will truly move the needle. Groups like CRP advocated for the Inflation Reduction Act, which was passed in 2022 and is the largest investment in climate mitigation in the history of the world.


Major legislation at the local, state, and federal level will make a difference. Major businesses with global footprints adopting more sustainable practices will make a difference. The financial system moving away from fossil fuels and into more environmentally sound energy initiatives will make a difference. Polluting industries becoming less polluting will make a difference.


Climate change is a huge problem that needs huge solutions. If you want to be a part of finding those solutions, find the community of climate activists that’s right for you and get to work.


And, of course, if you want to go vegan, do that too.


Amy Hunt is a Dallas Climate Reality Project leader. She can be reached at amyhunt@swbell.net.


Any participant views or opinions expressed in the Blog section of this website are solely those of the author and do not represent those of The Climate Reality Project. The Climate Reality Project and the DFW chapter welcome all points of view and opinions, but reserve the right to remove posts and comments that violate our community ground rules or contain non-evidence-based claims.

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