Seeking individual responsibility, Part 2: Balance

Some advo­cates aren’t wait­ing for reg­u­la­tions to change their behav­ior, and are doing it themselves.

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Surfing = challenging, low carbon fun, especially if you take the subway to the beach. (Photo: Maureen Drennan)
Surfing — no batteries required. (Photo: Maureen Drennan)

As the US political process gradually moves forward on climate, new candor has appeared among economic analysts about the reality of global emission targets and our regulatory tools to reach them. That overdue discussion is really just beginning in earnest in the mainstream media in the US, but some advocates aren’t waiting for regulations to guide our behavior, and are doing it themselves. Here’s Part 2 of Erin Wong’s look at personal responsibility and our options to act. 

Nearly every climate expert will put ‘use less energy’ at the top of the list of fast climate fixes. Outstanding advice on how to do it comes from Eric Holthaus, writer and meteorologist for Slate (and former meteorologist of the Wall Street Journal), and Saul Griffith, a leading inventor of sustainable technology, co-founder of a Google-funded wind energy project, and MacArthur “genius grant” winner. Both Griffith and Holthaus believe that we must reduce our demand for fossil fuels now, as we work toward political and industrial reform.

[pullquote align=”right”]How much of our lives should we change for the benefit of the world and how much are we allowed to keep for ourselves?[/pullquote]In an appearance on The Colbert Report, Saul Griffith told viewers that he was planning to increase his quality of life while simultaneously using only 1/10th of the carbon he did previously. On the way to his Colbert interview, Griffith chose to ride in a pedicab instead of taking a car, an experience, he said, that was not only more enjoyable than a taxi ride, but entirely emissions-free. In addition to the occasional pedicab ride, Griffith never drives above the speed limit, eats meat only once a week, and has reduced both the number of flights he takes and the items he purchases to nearly zero.

Griffith explains that we are not capable of solving climate change with technology, at least not yet. While we develop more efficient infrastructure and renewable energy, we must also tackle our high energy demand. “We do have to change some of our behaviors,” Griffith says, “It’s hard to imagine that 7 billion people could live the way Americans live today and you still get a solution for climate change that you want.”

If everyone were to aim for Griffith’s personal reduction goal, we would vastly reduce our carbon use. Mass individual behavioral adaptations would steer markets to lower carbon methods of production and prompt greater political action in response to climate change.

Griffith is an optimist, and his faith in personal behavior is essential. For collective change to happen, we need to believe in our own power. Eric Holthaus of Slate shares Saul Griffith’s perspective.

Last year in October, following the release of the fifth IPCC report, Holthaus decided to give up flying. Holthaus, also a vegetarian in the name of sustainability, became a symbol of personal responsibility for the climate movement.

While doing a recent Reddit Emergency Climate Ask Me Anything (AMA), Holthaus noted that “Becoming vegetarian is more of an impact than buying a hybrid car…[and] if we could get an economy-wide price on carbon, the cost of meat will go up and people will make the switch for monetary reasons.”  During the AMA, when asked about the greatest change one could make to protect our climate, Holthaus pointed to the vast national emissions of the U.S. and China; “since neither you or I are U.S. or China,” he added, “we should bring that down to our individual level.”

We continue to run up against the same question: How much of our lives should we change for the benefit of the world and how much are we allowed to keep for ourselves? Yet this question presents a false dichotomy. Personal carbon reduction benefits both our world and our own lives.

[pullquote align=”left”]Globally-minded citizens tend to fly more than other Americans, and even a little flying can offset all one’s other environmental lifestyle changes. [/pullquote]

In my own life there are many changes I can make to reduce my carbon impact. With family in Hong Kong and my university in a different state than my home, I can’t refuse to take flights, but I can consolidate the number of trips I take and reserve travel for special occasions. On a student budget, and living in the city, I can’t grow my own food or afford to purchase only locally grown, but I can buy basic groceries from the farmer’s market and eliminate meat from my diet. I can’t avoid using a car to travel in areas where there is no public transportation, but I can make the decision not to own a car. I can’t make my friends and family reduce their own carbon footprints, but I can educate them on the latest information about how dangerous climate change will be if we do not each take steps to ease our fossil fuel dependency.

Ian Monroe, the CEO of, invented a climate impact tracker that compares your carbon footprint with that of your friends, which led him to discover the surprising fact that many people who say they care about climate change actually have footprints that are far larger than average.

Globally-minded citizens tend to fly more often and travel farther than other Americans, Monroe explains, and even just a little flying can offset all the other environmental lifestyle changes because of the immense amount of fuel airplanes use. “You have a lot of people who are using reusable bags and water bottles, driving a Prius, maybe eating a bit more of a veggie friendly diet,” Monroe explains, “but then they’re flying to Bali or South Africa or something once a year.”

Ways to track your energy use abound. Eric Holthaus suggests the University of California Berkeley’s carbon footprint calculator, a powerful but simple online tool that determines the user’s carbon demand. will sync your Mint financial statements with the Berkeley calculator to give you a monthly dashboard.

Saul Griffith helped develop WattzOn (now run as a separate initiative), a personal energy management platform which compiles the data of each user’s carbon footprint, and becomes more accurate over time. We also like a free calculator built by a recent Columbia University graduate, And a site called offers tips on effective lifestyle changes. [Saul Griffith’s illuminating summary of the global energy outlook can be found by scrolling down the page for his Long Now talk from 2009.]

While scientists and politicians are more likely to discuss energy supply than demand, our energy supply can’t change fast enough to limit climate change. And to get started on the rapid downward emissions trajectory that we need, we all have a part to play, and individual choice, which can begin when you wake up tomorrow, is the fastest method on Earth.