What to do about climate change (2): a citizens’ action plan

by Ingrid Robeyns on August 9, 2022

When we ask the question what we should do about climate change, the answer to that question depends a lot on who the “we” in that sentence is. There have been many answers to the questions what governments should do, or more in general “what should be done” without specifying who the agent of change is, as in, for example, the list of action points provided by Project Drawdown. We might have responsibilities related to climate change that we have specifically in our roles as elected politicians and office holders, as professionals, as entrepreneurs, as investors, and so forth.

But what can citizens, in their capacity of citizens rather than any professional role, do? What can human beings, simply by the fact that they are human beings and thus sharing this planet with other living creatures, do about climate change and ecological degradation?

When searching for an answer to that question, I’ve been wondering whether we could help ourselves by making a compact version of what our action plan to deal with climate change could be. Something that is easy to remember; something that is put in langauge that is not just for insiders or specialists; something that could contribute to a wide range of efforts to get things in motion; something that could serve as a structure, starting point or aide in conversations; and something that can help us very concretely in deciding where to start or what to do next.

Because no matter what the already inevitable consequences of climate change are (such as more frequent extreme weather events, droughts, floodings, wildfires etc.), we can always aim to limit the even more harmful consequences that will come with additional increases in greenhouse gas emissions. Similarly, we have to prepare for what will come (even under the best-case scenarios). And in unfolding those strategies, it would help to be united as people in our capacity as citizens and inhabitants of this world, and also to feel united and empowered.

Here’s my proposal for a citizens’ climate action plan in 10 bullet points (so easy to remember!). I will only say a few words about each of these bullet points, not aiming at being comprehensive.

1. Educate ourselves about climate change
Most of us probably overestimate how much we know about climate science, climate policies, climate activism, etc. For example, what do we know about the difference between the effects of a 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius global temperature increase? What do we know about the emissions of our industries, including industrial agriculture? What do we know about the goals achieved by specific climate action groups? What do we know about how much of a difference it would make if we would halve our meat consumption, or become vegans? What do we know about which trees to plant in our garden in order to try to cool down our neighborhood? We should seek out this kind of knowledge and share it with others.

2. Only vote for politicians who protect the Earth
For those of us who are not multimillionaires, this is our most powerful weapon. Without politicians genuinely committed to deep decarbonization, the only other options available are revolution or the climate-based civil unrest that will come with a world on fire. Let’s first try the peaceful option, and vote for politicians who are sufficiently informed and can resist the pressures of the emissions-intensive industries. One thing some of us might try to do, is to talk to family members and friends who vote without being properly informed, or go door to door to try to convince people that their vote does matter. In some countries, all sorts of democracy-enhancing activism is indirectly important for this second action point – such as donations by citizens to parties that have a solid climate/ecological strategy, or activism to weaken the strangehold of big donors on politics (which is a problem in some countries much more than in others!). Ultimately, we need politicians who introduce a set of regulations, public investment and taxes that are needed to move towards a sustainable way of living, and do what it takes to move other countries that must do the same. In that sense the US has a unique opportunity to lead the international community in effective climate action, given that it always want to be a leader, but also given that of all the big and financially rich countries it has one of the highest emissions per person. But the opposite is also true: insufficient action from the USA will be used as an excuse or justification for other countries to increase their emissions up to the very high level of per person emissions that the US currently has.

3. Support the climate justice movement
This is a crucial and very effective way for citizens to do something about climate change, since we need to massively increase pressure on politicians and companies to decarbonize as fast as possible. Find a sound climate action organization that you like, and devote some time or money to its activism. The climate justice movement is currently our best hope to stay away from the worst case scenarios. Since many (perhaps even most?) people have never been activists, this might sound daunting to them. But the climate justice movement is very broad and diverse, and includes groups as different as the direct public protests staged by Extinction Rebellion, to local groups putting universities and pension funds under pressure to divest from the fossil fuel industry, to shareholder activism putting pressure on Big Oil companies to take their responsibilities for our future on this planet, to groups launching legal challenges, and so forth.

4. Let’s look critically at our consumption, but prioritize political action
Yes, we must adapt our consumption patterns: move towards vegetarianism and veganism, use public transport or bicycles and share cars, insulate houses, put solar panels on roofs, repair and recycle, and think three times before flying. However, consumption patterns change most robustly following price changes or government regulation. That’s why political action and climate activism are more important: recall that we need politicians who introduce a set of regulations, public investment and taxes that are needed to move towards a sustainable way of living, and do what it takes to move other countries that must do the same. Yet despite that political action is more urgent and potentially more powerful than merely changing our own consumption, this should not be used as an excuse to not look critically at our own consumption patterns. Because in some areas our consumption can make a difference. There is low-hanging fruit, such as moving away from meat and diary consumption, that all of us, can start with tomorrow (except the vegans, who I salute).

5. Support media that are part of the solution
We need media to report on the facts, to uncover which politicians are in the pockets of those who obstruct climate action, and to report on which companies are violating environmental regulations. In high-emitting countries, we need media who are brave enough to tell their readers what the lethal consequences of the high average emissions in rich countries are for other countries, and explain that the idea of climate reparations or massively supporting clean energy transfers to developing countries is not some form of charitable aid but rather a compensation for past harms done, as well as a very prudent investment in staging off international conflicts that will be caused by the consequences of climate change. In other countries, we need media who challange the narratives that economic development should come first – since if that development is fossil-fuels based, the world on fire will be more likely to endanger human security, which is a price not worth paying for fossil-fuels based growth. Moreover, a strong climate movement needs strong media who do the kind of reporting that is an essential part of the solution. We must support and protect these media and separate reporting based on science and facts from reporting that is part of climate denialism and obstruction.

6. Put our money where our mouth is
All of us who are not struggling to get by can financially support the climate movement with small (or larger) donations, make (small) investments in renewable energy production (either by putting solar panels on our roofs, or else contributing to the production of wind-solar-water energy by cooperatives or companies who are welcoming investments by households). The climate movement needs money to organize protests and to take governments and harmful companies to court. Given that in many countries the actions of climate activists are increasingly criminalized, they need money so as to have access to the best lawyers. For your next birthday, ask your friends to make a donation to a climate activist group.

7. Debunk the arguments by climate denialists and obstructionists, and weaken their power
One of the most worriesome parts of our current condition is the harassment of those who stand up for effective climate action. There are linkages between the dirty industries and politicians and political think thanks that are not taking science seriously and are spreading lies and other forms of harmful speech. The powers we have to fight against are strong. That’s why we need political action and independent media, since the climate movement as well as politicians who genuinely want to protect the planet and its ecosystems are constantly attacked by these climate denialists and obstructionists. If you encounter lies, speak up.

8. Motivate each other to act
It doesn’t help to blame people who are emitting too much and not engaging with any of the previous seven points, even if there are solid grounds for doing so. People who feel blamed act defensively and won’t join the transition that is needed. What we want is to move with as many people as possible in the right direction. Some have argued that this is why we need to stress what everyone has to gain from climate action, how a green and sustainable future would also entail better lives for us. If you have knowledge or novel ideas on how a world without emissions would be a better world, share that knowledge.

9. Work together with others
This is too big of a challenge for any of us to engage in individually. We also need to be able to share our worries with others. If politicians don’t act sufficiently effective, the best strategy is collective action by citizens to put politicians and companies under pressure to do so.

10. Don’t forget self-care

We should spend time with friends and in nature to remind ourselves what is valuable and to recharge; because while we do have a momentum now and can turn 2022 into a pivotal year, this struggle won’t be over soon. No matter how selfish, cruel and in some sense also irrational it is on behalf of the defenders of the status quo (at least if their children’s welfare is part of their own interests), the fossil interests are powerful, and they will resist citizens who are rising up. So lets’s not just protect the Earth, let’s also protect ourselves.



Matt 08.10.22 at 8:21 am

I have lots of agreement with this, but worry that number 2 might be a bit too categorical, at least in some countries (maybe especially the US, though possibly others, too.) I’d rather say, “always vote for the least bad candidate that can get elected.” Imagine that the releatively few people in West Virgina for whom climate change is a top issue had refused to vote for Joe Manchin because he’s not great on environmental issues, or imagine that Democrats in West Virgina had managed to get a much more pro environmental candidate to win a primary against Manchin. That would have been a disaster for the recent climate legislation in the US, and therefore whould have been bad for the whole world. So, I’d suggest that the right point is a bit more modest, focusing on governing groups and what they need to govern, and who might win in particular places, rather than saying “no” to particular candidates who are actually running.


Ingrid Robeyns 08.10.22 at 9:13 am

Thanks Matt, that’s a good point.


nastywoman 08.10.22 at 12:32 pm

As in America there is this… this ‘American? narrative’ that there are ONLY baad (political) candidates – I also used to tell any fellow American:
“always vote for the least bad candidate that can get elected.”
– while in Germany -(and/or Italy) I always tell everybody:
always vote for the BEST candidate that can get elected.” –
until I realised how absurd this is – especially since a lot of Americans – who voted for ‘Trump’ (or Manchin) actually really like(d) these candidates – and then with fighting Climate Change it#s just doesn’t work as everybody who believes in it HAS to vote ONLY for candidates who believe in it too –
and NOT believing in it –
just a compromising –
‘little bit’!


Anarcissie 08.10.22 at 11:17 pm

Instead of trying to game large, remote institutions like national elections or the business of major corporations, I’d say start with your immediate personal life and work out from there, from what and who you know well and may be effective with, to what you don’t know so well. The methods and results will be different for different people. In any case, Manchin and Trump and their competitors are really very far afield for most of us.


Omega Centauri 08.11.22 at 1:28 am

This is more from a tech standpoint rather than an individual standpoint. But all developing technologies need civilian early adopters and promoters. The basic idea is net-zero electricity coupled with electrify everything:


Sandwichman 08.11.22 at 8:38 pm

My number one would be, “remember the Sabbath to keep it holy.”

This may take a little explanation, so I have written a 16,000 word essay that I don’t expect anyone to read. But the short version is that the weekly Sabbath was the original proto-ecological commandment. Erich Fromm discussed this in a section on the Sabbath ritual in his 1951 book, The Forgotten Language. The seven-year Sabbatical and 50-year Jubilee reinforce this ecological interpretation with their instructions to let the land lie fallow for a year and two years respectively.

Of course a lot has happened in the intervening 2600 years since the Sabbath commandment was added to the Old Testament. Christianity spiritualized the Sabbath in the God/person of Jesus Christ but then the church (and the other church) submitted eventually to Sabbatarian pressure so for a while there were Sunday Blue Laws. Then came the technological overproduction of the twentieth century — to be solved by progressive obsolescence and the perpetual motion military-industrial complex: GROWTH!

But there is a way to understand the implications of all these dizzying innovations: remember the Sabbath. Remembering the Sabbath is necessary for putting all the other stuff into context. As Walter Benjamin wrote in “On the Concept of History,” the puppet called historical materialism “can easily be a match for anyone if it enlists the services of theology, which today, as we know, is wizened and has to keep out of sight.” Who would guess that “On the Concept of History” was about remembering the Sabbath?

I would.

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