Individual action versus systemic change: lessons from COVID19 for climate change

Just because individual action doesn’t tangibly move the needle on unprecedented challenges doesn’t mean they are not meaningful.

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In 2020, the World Economic Forum listed climate change as the biggest challenge facing humanity [1]. As climate concerns enter our daily life experiences and conversations, everyone seems to have an opinion on what to do about it. One of the key aspects of this debate is the supposed dichotomy between individual action (does my recycling or shifting to a vegetarian diet make a real difference?) and systemic change (perhaps voting for governments with a green agenda is more effective). Studies arguing either way continue to grow, often leaving individuals disheartened by the enormity of the issue or flummoxed by the different ways they should eat, travel, live, and work. 

Fast forward to today. The early months in 2020 have unfurled frighteningly, and we find ourselves facing a novel, urgent challenge: the global COVID19 pandemic. It has taken a devastating toll in terms of human life, economic growth, and societal wellbeing. As lockdowns and uneven death tolls expose the inequalities that our societies are so sharply marked by and we so easily turn a blind eye to, we are confronted by a familiar question. What can we do? What can I do? And further, do my actions matter? As we sew homemade masks, form citizen groups to plug holes in state social safety nets, and sing and clap from balconies and doorsteps, the lessons we learn about individual actions in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges hold lessons for climate change as well.

 The false promise of a COVID-tinted silver lining for climate change

In the early days of the pandemic, there were feverish pieces about how reductions in global air travel will reduce carbon emissions. Driven by widespread lockdowns and halted economies, current estimates suggest that COVID might result in global carbon dioxide emissions reducing by almost 5.5% (compared to 2019 levels). Pollution levels have fallen drastically in some of the most polluted cities across the world and city-dwellers are discovering skylines they had all but forgotten.

However, others have been quick to point out that this euphoria is premature and that “there is little reason for celebration, for people or the planet.” For one, the scale of emission reduction does not come close to the aspirational climate change goal of limiting warming to less than 1.5C above pre-industrial temperatures. This would require global emissions falling by ~7.6% every year till 2030[2].  Second, the current state of unprecedented lockdown is unsustainable – it is disrupting economies, upending material wellbeing, and expected to have deep psychosocial impacts. While necessary to contain the pandemic, lockdowns cannot continue without end. So what then? Do we continue to self-isolate and hope for a miracle drug while cursing inadequate healthcare systems and ineffective political leaders? Do we stand by and watch the grim impacts of complete lockdowns such as stranded migrants in India? Where do we fall on the uncomfortable scale of individual action versus systemic change? And how do we decide what to do and where we fit in as individuals and as members of society?


Climate action as deeply personal. Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash


Individual action and meaning-making

Large global problems that threaten our very existence are moments of acute pain, of tremendous grief. The changes they signify can inspire anger and anxiety, heartbreak and hopelessness. Some find meaning in asking what they can do to alleviate the crisis, others retreat, overwhelmed by the enormity of the task at hand. As we make sense of the COVID19 pandemic, we are slowly finding we all have a role to play – medical staff at the frontlines are saving lives, grocery store workers and delivery persons are keeping us fed, most of us are staying indoors, sacrificing personal freedoms for the collective good. These individual actions do not take away from the pressing need for systemic change – countries need better health infrastructure, more inclusive safety nets, and higher wages for frontline staff. But as we tread the line between individual action and systemic change, it is critical to understand that individual actions, contained in space and time, give us hope and help us make sense of the generational challenge we face. A physical distance maintained or a grocery run for an aging neighbour, make us feel like we’re contributing, in a small but significant way.

And so it is with the deep challenge of climate change. The scale of the problem seems difficult to grasp, impossible to overcome, and induces in us anger, fear, anxiety, grief, and despair. However, these paralysing emotions can be balanced by finding individual purpose and hope, both key to emotional coping for climate change. Of course we must continue to push for systemic solutions: demanding our governments invest in production systems that emit less and proactive adaptation for those most at risk. But we must also recognise the role individual actions play.

Urgency drives individual action. Photo by Ronan Furuta at Unsplash

The efficacy of individual actions as measured in CO2 emissions reduced, can seem miniscule, laughably modest. Yes, individual action alone will not push the needle on climate change and the scientific evidence converges to highlight that unprecedented, cross-sectoral systemic change is imperative to meet a 1.5C target. But when we measure the true value of individual actions – how they can help us make sense of grave long-term challenges, how they can make the distant and intangible personal, how they make us feel part of a collective whole, and how they can help provide meaning in the face of seemingly unsurmountable targets, their importance becomes clearer.

Moving forward on an agenda of hope

Making sense of the grand challenges we face in highly personal, individualised ways; and believing that our actions, minute though they may be, will accrue in ways we may not always be able to quantify is critical. For problems like climate change that require collective action, hope acts as a “distinct motivator to support goal-consistent action, particularly when the odds of success are low”. And individual actions, modest as they might be, can become precursors of wider change; critical levers to incentivise climate action.

When we choose to maintain social distance, we tell each other, when faced with an unprecedented challenge, each of us will try to do our bit. When we self-organise to feed stranded migrants in our city we signal to one another that if the system fails, individuals will stand up to shoulder burdens, as best as we can. And so it is, when we fly less, we indicate our concern and the possibility of change. When we eat green, we inspire a few others to try. These gestures of what we value can shift the normative needles a society lives by.  And that, though small, is a start.


[1] “Climate-related issues dominated all of the top-five long-term risks in terms of likelihood” Global Risks Report 2020 http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_Global_Risk_Report_2020.pdf

[2] Carbon brief estimates that COVID-related emissions reductions in 2020 will be approximately 2,000m tonnes CO2. To meet a 1.5C target as laid out by the Paris Agreement, the UN Emissions Gap Report estimates that we would need to reduce CO2 emissions by nearly 2,800MtCO2 in 2020 (and every year till 2030).

Chandni Singh

Researcher, Indian Institute for Human Settlements, csingh@iihs.ac.in

Chandni is a researcher and faculty member at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS), Bangalore. Her research examines the human dimensions of global environmental change focussing on drivers of vulnerability to climate change and natural hazards, linkages between climate change adaptation and development, and behavioural aspects of climate adaptation. She is a Lead Author on the IPCC Assessment Report 6 Working Group II, Contributing Author on the IPCC's Special Report on 1.5 degrees, and serves on the Editorial Boards of Regional Environmental Change, Climate and Development, and Progress in Development Studies.

1 Comment

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Jahnavee Palsodkar 3 days ago

very well said!