One of the perennial debates around global warming has to do with the role of individual choices. What responsibilities do individuals have to fight climate change? Are people who advocate for political action on climate change hypocrites if they drive to work, fly to climate conferences, or have three children?
A new study has pushed that debate back to the forefront and, perhaps inadvertently, demonstrated why it is so goofy.
The study, from researchers in Sweden and British Columbia, analyzes 148 separate individual actions available to citizens of the developed world and, drawing on 39 different sources, attempts to calculate their carbon impact.
As you can see, your light bulbs and laundry verge on meaningless, carbon-wise. The only "high-impact" actions are ditching your car, flying less, switching to a plant-based diet, and, the biggie, not having a child.
That last bit — refraining from procreating — has totally dominated discussion of the study. The implication that people in rich countries should consider not having any, or any additional, children has sparked the usual outrage and counter-outrage, but everyone seems to be missing the point.
It is precisely this finding that exposes the silliness of the individual-choices framing. There are three problems with it, each worse than the last.