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A single action can have a real and meaningful impact. | Photo by Jonathan Cosens Photography on Unsplash

Ripple Effects Matter


Published on August 17, 2021


The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report has only been out for about a week, but all the world is abuzz by what it says. A lot has been written about the dire state of the “code red” situation we find ourselves in, so I won’t rehash that here. What I do find noteworthy is that there is reason to hold some hope for the future of our planet and humanity.

There are lots of reasons why we find ourselves in this precarious situation today. One of the reasons is because fossil fuel companies launched massive PR campaigns to convince individuals they are responsible for climate change. Shouldering this responsibility, people said no to plastic straws and began using canvas tote bags at the grocery store.

One plastic bag at a time, we each attempted to chip away at the planetary-sized problem facing us.

A recent episode of the podcast How to Save a Planet recently dove into the idea of whether individual actions matter at all or whether big, systemic changes and policies are the only thing keeping Earth from burning into a pile of ash. While I recommend listening to the whole episode, there are a few points worth highlighting, especially if you’re still trying to wrap your head around the IPCC report.

The Bad News

Let’s just say this up front: Unfortunately, cutting plastic out of your singular life is not going to save this planet.

The climate crisis really hinges on a few key sectors, including energy, food and agriculture, transportation, and manufacturing and industry. Individuals don’t have control over how these industries operate, and many people don’t have a choice but to support these industries simply by living their lives.

The average American’s footprint is about 16 tons of carbon emissions per year. While significantly larger than the global carbon footprint of 4.8 tons per capita, singular individuals are barely a grain of sand compared to the mountains of carbon emitted by high-polluting companies, governments, and industries. 

According to this How to Save a Planet episode, an individual American’s contribution to the global carbon emissions problem is .0000000003%. 

Needless to say, that plastic straw you said no to at happy hour last week is not the tipping point for saving humanity.

The Good News

Many people say we need to stop blaming individuals for the mess we’re in, and I agree with them. I also absolutely 100% agree that we need major top-down changes to turn the tide on the climate crisis.

But I don’t agree with the sentiment that individual climate action is pointless — that it won’t make a difference. That we as individuals ought to just live our lives any way we please and not dwell on small action.

We are capable of holding both truths: Yes, we need massive systemic changes to address the climate crisis, and our individual climate actions matter. 

Why? Because we are heart-centered humans connecting with other humans, and as our stories intersect with others’ stories, we influence other people. Our motivation inspires our friends, family, fans, and followers to take action.

One eliminated plastic bag or one car ride might not put a dent in this problem. But cumulatively, the ripple effect of these actions have the capacity to build a wave.

The Ripple Effect

Let me introduce you to a teenage girl named Greta Thunberg. 

In 2018, she started sitting outside the Swedish Parliament during her school days, trying to get government officials to recognize and take meaningful action on the climate crisis. One by one, other students started to join her, and before too long she was a leading voice in the climate movement.

She addressed the 2018 United Nations Climate Change Conference and spoke at 2019 UN Climate Action Summit. Just about everyone has heard about her and her commitment to push for real, systemic change. And while Thunberg has her fair share of critics, dozens of world leaders have praised her efforts and support her work. 

Now, obviously Thunberg is an extreme example of the kind of individual megaphone a person can wield. But what matters is the fact that she is an individual who inspired a few other individuals who each inspired other individuals in turn. Thunberg represents a single drop in an ocean, who created ripples which have gone on to create waves.

It’s not individual actions that matter, necessarily, but collective action does. And, when enough people are able to encourage others to change their behavior in some way and take action, then a groundswell of individuals can make a real and measurable difference.

Take Action

The ripple effect is real and it matters.

But, what is most important to realize about the ripple effect is that action is required.

It’s been noted ad nauseum that the tourism industry accounts for about 8% of carbon emissions, and that transportation is a big part of that industry footprint. And, it seems as though many individuals in the industry recognize the importance in cutting carbon emissions and doubling down on sustainability efforts.

This IPCC report is not only a reminder of the dire situation we find ourselves in but also an invitation to remember that those little actions taken by individuals and within companies matter — but only if real action exists and is visible and shared with others.

With that in mind, there are several things those in the tourism should do to make sure they are more than just a drop in the great big sea of life:

  • Model responsible travel behavior: People look toward you for insight on how to act and behave when they travel. Model the behavior you want others to adopt.
  • Share your climate action with others: Let others know what you’re doing to mitigate your carbon footprint.

    For example, I have been a plant-based eater for many years, but I recently moved from a country where tofu was produced and easily accessible to one where tofu is not accessible but sustainable seafood is, so I’ve started eating seafood. I’ve talked with several people about why I made this choice and how it’s related to the climate.
  • Normalize talking about the climate crisis: We should not normalize the climate crisis but we must normalize talking about it. On tours, in destinations, and during travel experiences, the tourism industry can not just brush off extreme weather as an “unseasonably hot summer.”

    Call the consequences of the climate crisis what it is: Reality. And then, be very clear about how the climate crisis is impacting people and the environment in this particular destination. Help travelers — who tend to be privileged — see and understand how actions in one part of the world can have very real impacts in another.
  • Move beyond your climate pledge: If you’ve declared a climate emergency, it’s time to put real science-backed measurements in place and take action to cut carbon emissions from your operations and supply chains.

    Is this hard? Absolutely. Is it necessary? 100%. Words are hollow if they aren’t followed up by action.
  • Embrace radical transparency: Get real about any greenwashing you’ve been holding on to, do the hard work, and be radically transparent about your climate action with the general public. What are you committed to doing? By when and by how much? Put your goals out into the world and publicly track your commitments.

    Will you sometimes fall short? Yes. Will you make missteps? Yes. Do you need to do this anyway? Yes! It is the only way to move beyond being a drop and creating that much needed ripple effect.
  • Communicate climate action in a meaningful way for travelers: Impact is a very esoteric issue that is hard to quantify and understand, so while you’re measuring yours, learn how to communicate this in a meaningful way to travelers.

    I really appreciate that travel companies like Much Better Adventures are starting to put carbon labels on their trips. Fogo Island’s Economic Nutrition label helps people understand what their money goes toward when they travel. Both of these offer an entry point for deeper understanding and action on behalf of travelers. Plus, they require companies to have a clear understanding of their true environmental and socio-cultural impact.

Remember that change is an evolving process. None of us has all the answers and is doing everything “right” all the time. This is a journey, and the most important thing to remember about this journey is that we’re all on it together. Each step we take together absolutely makes a difference.

JoAnna Haugen

JoAnna Haugen is a writer, public speaker, solutions advocate, and founder of Rooted, a solutions platform at the intersection of sustainable tourism, storytelling, and social impact. Get in touch with her for partnership and collaboration opportunities.


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