Sponsored By
Susan Robinson

November 11, 2020

5 Min Read

What do COVID-19 and climate change have in common?  Well – for starters, you and me.

Over the past several months, as the scope of the global pandemic has grown, we’ve all had to make significant changes to our daily routines – whether we wanted to or not.  COVID required us to take responsibility for our individual actions in ways that we never could have imagined previously.  From the interruptions to social interactions and travel, to working at home, to wearing masks in many public places – we have been compelled to act and adapt.  With a growing death toll and the almost immediate, unprecedented global economic crisis, no one has been left untouched by the crisis of the pandemic.

The global pandemic caused by COVID-19 and climate change are distinct, unrelated challenges. Like COVID, mitigating the impacts of climate change will require each of us to make some small, and some not-so-small changes to reduce our carbon emissions.

At the same time, there are important differences between COVID-19 and climate change: While the global pandemic arrived quickly and with little warning, causing worldwide chaos, we will eventually develop a vaccine for COVID and our daily lives will return to a post-COVID semblance of normalcy.  Conversely, when it comes to climate change, experts tell us we have a window of about a decade to take very specific and manageable actions to mitigate irreversible impacts of global warming.

There is no vaccine for climate change, but with preventive personal actions we can all contribute towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preventing a future climate crisis.

The responsibility that comes with individual rights

Individual rights are fundamental to our country and citizens, extending from the Constitution to state and local laws. This independent spirit is one of the traits that distinguishes the U.S. from other countries across the globe, and one that we work hard to preserve.  And with these individual rights, comes an individual responsibility to contribute to the collective health of our planet and its inhabitants.  Taking individual action for positive change is the inevitable next step that comes with our commitment to the foundation of individual rights that our country is built upon.

Individual actions make a difference.

As part of its Driving Sustainability Series, Waste Management recently featured Christiana Figueres, former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Action Ms. Figueres played an instrumental role in delivering the historic Paris Agreement on climate change, calling for actions to keep global warming within 2° C.  Ms. Figueres has made it her life’s work to combat climate change, and she does so with a careful balance of Outrage and Optimism (the name of her weekly podcast: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/outrage-optimism/id1459416461). 

On her podcast, she pulls no punches in describing the need for dramatic changes over the next decade if we are to mitigate the impacts of climate change.  Yet, she also offers optimism in making it clear that we can each take simple steps to reduce our own carbon footprint in that timeframe. The individual actions she suggests, when considered in aggregate, create an important collective effort that is needed to avoid a climate change crisis. 

Understanding how individuals can make a difference is the first step, followed closely by accepting accountability and taking decisive action. Pursuing all three – understanding, accountability and action – empowers us to exercise our deeply-valued individual rights and contribute to the greater goal and our shared future.  And, this is one challenge that we can’t afford to not accept.

The waste and recycling industry as an example. 

In our industry, we have direct experience with the role of the individual when it comes to waste and recycling. For decades, we’ve tried technologies – sometimes the same ones over and over again– to solve for solid waste challenges linked to human behavior. We’ve learned that technology can help us manage waste and recyclables safely and more efficiently, but it cannot eliminate waste altogether – or on its own.  We’ve also learned that recycling starts with each of us making decisions about what we buy and what we put into our trash and recycling bins.  It’s no surprise that the communities with the best results have committed to consistent, successful outreach to teach individuals how to recycle the right things – year in and year out. 

Applying this knowledge to climate change

We can learn from our successes and failures with recycling in teaching the individual steps that will make a difference with climate change. On a recent version of Ms. Figueres’ Outrage and Optimism podcast, she explains that we can each start to make changes over the next 10 years that will reduce our individual carbon footprint by 50% by 2030.  Her suggestion is supported by a new website called https://www.count-us-in.org/, which describes 16 individual actions to consider taking to reduce emissions. 

She lists several examples, such as: flying less; eating a plant-based diet; reducing foodwaste; turning the temperature up or down a few degrees (depending on time of year and where you live); and eating produce that is in season.  Some are easier than others, and some have a greater impact than others.  By committing to even one of these actions, an emission reduction calculator works its magic, calculating the aggregate impact of one person’s emission reduction efforts. The individual actions are then aggregated to the collective impact of all participants on the site.  

Yes.  It is not too late.  We can each make a difference.

Wrapping up and bringing it all together

While COVID poses enormous challenges for our nation and world, it has also brought us together in many ways, creating a deeper understanding of the role of personal responsibility and societal interdependency to benefit all.  COVID has reminded us of the responsibility that comes with preserving America’s value on individual freedom in order to protect the greater good.  We have the opportunity to use this knowledge and to take our responsibility seriously, applying it to the challenges of climate change, mitigating its impact now, one person, one action at a time.

About the Author(s)

Susan Robinson

Senior Director of Sustainability and Policy, Waste Management

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