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A flight attendant wearing a face mask to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) takes body temperature measurements of passengers with a thermometer on a Shanghai Airlines flight in Shanghai, China, March 25, 2020.

The Big Fix

Coronavirus is changing how people think about fighting climate change

When it comes to the spread of COVID-19, personal choices matter. One infected person staying home instead of going out could save thousands of lives. 

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A flight attendant wearing a face mask to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) takes body temperature measurements of passengers with a thermometer on a Shanghai Airlines flight in Shanghai, March 25, 2020.

Credit:

Aly Song/Reuters 

When climate journalist Emily Atkin was asked to pledge to stop flying to help prevent climate change earlier this year, she said no. 

“I gave my whole spiel about how we put so much pressure on ourselves not to do anything to exacerbate the climate crisis,” she said. “We aren’t asking what airlines are doing or the money that they're putting into political causes, the effort that they've put in to fight any type of climate regulation.”

Related: Leon Panetta on coronavirus: ‘We’re paying the price’ of ignoring intelligence reports

Atkin said a hallmark of her climate journalism is to focus on the words and actions of the powerful: corporations, governments, very rich people and the media. 

“I just have felt for a long time that we need to take the responsibility off of the individual and start focusing it very laserlike on the powerful on our systems. Because we don't have that much time to solve climate change, and they are the ones who aren't doing anything.”

Emily Atkin, journalist

“I just have felt for a long time that we need to take the responsibility off of the individual and start focusing it very laserlike on the powerful on our systems,” she said. “Because we don't have that much time to solve climate change, and they are the ones who aren't doing anything.”

A 2017 study by environmental research organization CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project) showed more than 70% of emissions come from 100 oil and gas companies. Regulating those companies should be the priority, said Morten Byskov, an expert on climate change ethics at the University of Warwick.

“I think governments have a bigger responsibility to lift this burden of addressing climate change,” he said. “At the moment, I think it’s something that they’re kind of skirting.”

Related: How families around the world talk coronavirus with kids

This week, as Atkin watched the coronavirus pandemic spread across the world, she said it shook her worldview. When it comes to the spread of COVID-19, personal choices matter. One infected person staying home instead of going out could save thousands of lives. 

Atkin watched as people in her community started making personal sacrifices for the greater good, such as staying home, refraining from going to bars and going out dancing. 

“We all started to signal to each other that we had to sacrifice those things, and that in doing that, it would make a difference.” 

Emily Atkin, journalist

“We all started to signal to each other that we had to sacrifice those things, and that in doing that, it would make a difference,” she said. “And there is science right in front of me that said that in doing that, it would make a difference.” 

Not unlike climate change. 

“There's also science in front of me that says if everyone changed their diet, it would make a huge difference,” Atkin said. “There's also science in front of me that says if everyone stopped flying, it'd make a huge difference. How is this any different?”

Atkin said she realized her actions aren’t just about her own personal carbon footprint, but about the message she sends to others. 

Related: As it braces for coronavirus, Yemen offers lessons of survival for the world

In the last few years, Cornell University Economist Robert Frank had a similar revelation. He studies how individual actions can spur wider changes in society. He said changing policies starts with changing the culture — and that can start with one person.

People’s social environments are the most powerful predictor of what they will do in almost every setting, said Frank, who recently authored the book, “Under the Influence: Putting Peer Pressure to Work.”  

“If you want to know if your daughter will become a smoker, what you need to know is the proportion of her friends who smoke,” Frank said. “If that number goes from 20% to 30%, she is 25% more likely to become or remain a smoker.”

That peer pressure effect can be put to work to help solve big global problems, such as the coronavirus or climate change, Frank said. If someone you know takes up social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus or starts flying less because of climate change, you’re more likely to do it, too. 

For example, a 2012 study in California showed people were more likely to install solar panels on their roof if someone else in their neighborhood had done so. 

Related: Without support for India's poorest people, lockdown risks failure

Frank also says small actions for a cause, like climate change, can change the way you see yourself, and make you an advocate for wider change and collective action. 

“You think of yourself in a different way by virtue of having done those acts. You’re more likely to vote for politicians who will enact policies to cut carbon emissions, you're more likely to give money to their campaigns, knock on doors to help them get elected. And so, we really do need a social movement. But the social movement starts with you.”

Robert Frank, economist, Cornell University

“You think of yourself in a different way by virtue of having done those acts. You’re more likely to vote for politicians who will enact policies to cut carbon emissions, you're more likely to give money to their campaigns, knock on doors to help them get elected,” Frank said. “And so, we really do need a social movement. But the social movement starts with you.”

Not everyone can afford to make personal changes for causes they care about, such as staying home from work during the current pandemic or buying solar panels to reduce carbon emissions. 

When it comes to climate change, those who can afford to do the most are often in the best position to make the biggest difference. People in rich countries contribute far more to climate change on average than people in poorer countries. 

“Almost half of the carbon in the atmosphere driving the climate change we're experiencing now comes from the US and from Europe,” said Kimberly Nicholas, a climate change researcher at Lund University in Sweden

Nicholas said to reach the Paris Agreement’s most ambitious goals of 1.5°C (2.7°F) of warming, every person in the world has to reach an average personal carbon footprint target of 2.5 tons per year by 2030. By Nicholas’ calculations, the average person in India has already reached that goal, whereas the average American needs to reduce their footprint by more than 90%. 

So, what actions should people in rich countries be prioritizing? Nicholas studied that question and discovered that three things have way more impact than others: Drive Less. Fly Less. Eat less meat. 

Nicholas said that since she realized which actions make the biggest difference, she zeroed in: She sold her car, cut down her flying by 90% and stopped eating meat. 

“Focusing on the choices that really make a difference for the climate is actually relieving. It takes away a lot of the decision fatigue of these many daily choices, and allows you to focus on what really matters.”

Kimberly Nicholas, climate change researcher, Lund University 

“Focusing on the choices that really make a difference for the climate is actually relieving,” she said. “It takes away a lot of the decision fatigue of these many daily choices, and allows you to focus on what really matters.”

Nicholas said these personal actions should be part of the conversation about climate change solutions, but she agreed that governments and corporations should also be doing more. 

For both the coronavirus and climate change, personal actions and policy are both needed, and can even complement each other, Nicholas said. It’s not an “either, or” — it’s a “yes, and.” 

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