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What you're doing isn't helping

A jet being bathed in the glow of a sunset on the tarmac at Schipol airport.

Long-haul flights are terrible for the environment, particularly if you fly private. Not taking one is one of the most effective ways to reduce your carbon footprint. Photo by Ramon Kagie on Unsplash

From Quiz: What’s the Best Way to Shrink Your Carbon Footprint? by Sander van der Linden in the New York Times:

Lists of ways to reduce your personal greenhouse gas emissions are plentiful online, with recommendations ranging from using energy-saving light bulbs to not having children. The number of options can feel overwhelming, and there’s another problem: Researchers have found that people often adopt habits that may seem significant but actually have a very small effect on limiting climate change.

Every few years, we go through another environmental awareness campaign. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the problem was acid rain. In the 1990s, we were all harangued to recycle our paper, plastic, and glass. Last decade, some California cities waged a war on single-use plastics, including grocery bags and straws.

Now that climate is the most urgent environmental issue, we're just kind of assuming that all environmentally-friendly advice is advice about reducing our carbon footprint. It's not. Here's another quote from the essay.

Looking at the survey results, it appears that many Americans conflate the primary benefit of recycling — less pollution and waste — with the potential to meaningfully address a very different problem: climate change.

Some measures, like car-pooling, are more about improving local air quality by reducing traffic congestion. Switching to energy-efficient appliances is at least as much about preserving the capacity of the electrical grid and the conservation of non-renewable resources. None of these things have much of an effect on reducing your personal climate impact.

What has a big effect on your personal footprint? According to this essay, doing hard and occasionally unpleasant things.

  • Going vegan.
  • Going car-free.
  • Avoiding cross-country and intercontinental flights.
  • Using electricity produced from renewable energy sources.

Of course, media coverage of these harder-to-do measures is far less robust. You might find vegan recipes in the cooking section, but it's rarely framed as an environmental choice. It's much harder to find op-eds or news features about living car-free.

And that's before we get to the feasibility of these actions. How do you use renewable energy when our country produces precious little of it? If you rent your home, you can't necessarily put up a windmill in the back yard or install solar panels on the roof.

All of that said, the most powerful thing we can do is to vote for politicians who actually want to address the problem. We need more politicians who are pro-clean energy, pro-density, pro-transit, and maybe some who are willing to reduce agricultural subsidies so that we have no choice but to consume less meat. Our climate depends on it.