For thousands of years, most human civilizations thought the sky was outside human control.
As University of British Columbia climate researcher Simon Donner recently put it in a TEDx talk: "We manage the land, and the gods manage the sky."
Built on the back of fossil fuels, 150 years of industrialization have largely erased that notion. A recent survey of about 110,000 people across 110 countries found a "great majority" of respondents agreed climate change "is happening."
In Canada, over 70 per cent of respondents said climate change was a "very" or "somewhat" serious threat over the next 20 years, with an equivalent number saying climate change should be a "high" or "very high" government priority.
Yet when it came to the number of Canadians willing to participate in an organized group for climate action, fewer than 30 per cent said they would be "definitely willing" to join.
Public opinion now largely accepts climate change as a product of human influence. But personalizing that challenge has proved exceedingly hard for a great majority of Canadians.
"Fossil fuel interests are afraid of losing power. Governments are afraid of losing elections. Many of us are afraid of losing jobs, or just sort of losing what we know," Donner told the Surrey, B.C., audience in May.
"Climate change is a failure of our imagination."
But what does another way of living look like?
How can one person best lower their carbon footprint?
And perhaps more importantly, is personal guilt around personal emissions a sideshow to failed public policy?
As marine biologist and climate solutions expert Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson has put it: Is your carbon footprint BS?
What is a carbon footprint anyway?
Over the last several decades, the idea of the carbon footprint has been thrown around by everyone, from vegans looking to win over meat-eaters to fossil fuel companies calling on drivers to do their part.
One way to calculate a carbon footprint is to look at the average emissions of a country. For example, take Canada's total carbon greenhouse gas output and divide it by all 38 million-plus people.
Under that understanding, the average Canadian was responsible for 14.2 tonnes of carbon equivalent emissions in 2020.
That places Canada among the highest per capita emitters in the Western world, only surpassed by the United States and Australia.
But thinking of a carbon footprint as a shorthand for how a country is doing in its bid to lower emissions will only get you so far. For one, carving up Canada's emissions into 38 million pieces can blind people to the 179 megatonnes of emissions from the oil and gas industry, says climate researcher Seth Wynes.
At over a quarter of Canada's emissions, the fossil fuel industry is the country's largest single contributor of atmospheric carbon.
Where you live in Canada matters, too — residents of provinces like Alberta and New Brunswick still have some of their grid electricity supplied by thermal coal. In contrast, if you live in Quebec, much of your home heating comes from electricity, says Wynes.
While obsessing over a carbon footprint is controversial — or, as some put it, a fabrication warped to deflect blame from the fossil fuel industry and government inaction — experts like Wynes say it still can be useful.
But to get there, you first need to bust some myths.
No, recycling isn't the best way to lower your emissions
Wynes has spent years researching carbon footprints — what works, the psychology around them and ultimately, their limitations. As a Ph.D. candidate at the University of British Columbia, he even wrote a book about it.
In the past, he has found people often mix up what really works.
In a survey conducted among a sample of 965 people across North America, Wynes, along with Donner and another colleague at UBC, asked participants to identify the single most effective action they could take to lower their carbon emissions.
Many correctly identified driving less as a high-impact action. But a significant number also said recycling would go a long way to lowering their emissions.
Only a third correctly identified the switch to canvas from plastic shopping bags as something that would have a low impact. And nearly half failed to identify the high-impact climate actions of eating a vegan diet or avoiding one long-haul international flight a year.
The researcher's conclusion: even among relatively well-off people who want to make a change, people have a lot to learn about what climate impacts work best.
Sharing that knowledge, however, needs to proceed with caution.
Take the idea of having fewer children — a controversial measure laced with a history of racism and likely to provoke a strong reaction from large segments of society.
"You might get so much backlash saying, 'Well if you tell me to do that, I'm not going to do anything,'" said Wynes. "There's wisdom in being careful there."
Instead, the carbon footprint expert favours an approach focusing on high-impact actions that people are most likely to do.
That means focusing on countries that consume and emit carbon at a much higher rate per capita. Adjusting people's lifestyle in Canada, goes the thinking, will be much easier and more impactful than if people in Cameroon — where the average person produces 54 times fewer emissions — stepped up.
If lifestyle changes are going to be made, says Wynes, they should be made by the wealthy first.
So you want to lower your emissions
To climb out of a climate mess, you first need to figure out where you've dug the deepest holes.
The best and most up-to-date Canadian data comes from the Hot or Cool Institute, a landmark international study published in October 2021.
In analyzing the average carbon footprints of 10 countries across nearly every continent, the study found Canada had the biggest lifestyle carbon footprint of any country studied (other slightly higher emitters, like Australia and the United States, were not included).
Canadians, found the study, need to reduce their personal emissions by 82 per cent from 2019 levels by 2030 if they want to do their part to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 C — the threshold scientists say will lead to catastrophic damage to the world climate system.
So, where do your lifestyle emissions come from? It breaks down like this:
HOW YOU GET AROUND - 35%
An average Canadian's biggest source of atmospheric carbon comes from transport.
At 35 per cent of a Canadian's total carbon output, flights and our addiction to cars dig a deep hole, but also one Wynes says that offers the greatest chance at shrinking your personal carbon footprint.
Like to travel? Avoid one international flight a year and you could drop your carbon footprint by 1.6 tonnes.
Own a gas- or diesel-powered car? Ditch it or transition to an electric vehicle and you will shed another 2.4 tonnes of carbon emissions.
For some people living in rural areas or with jobs that require a vehicle, that's not an option.
If you can't get rid of a car and can't find or afford an EV, the next best thing is to switch from an SUV or pickup truck to the most efficient car you can find.
Alternatively, finds the Hot or Cool report, you could drop your travel by about 6,900 kilometres per year to meet the 2030 target.
WHERE YOU LIVE - 22%
At 22 per cent, housing comes in as the second-largest source of emissions for the average Canadian.
To meet the 2.5-megatonne per person threshold, an average Canadian would have to drop their personal living space to 345 square feet from the current roughly 625 square feet per person.
If you are wealthy or simply own a home in a region with a clean grid, switching to a heat pump from a gas furnace is a great start — especially in a country where carbon-intensive energy sources like natural gas are "notably higher," according to the report.
Federal government rebates can also help. One recent program will cover up to $5,000 for all sorts of window and door renovations or heating and cooling upgrades.
Together, they can put a dent in emissions from burning oil or gas or consuming energy from the grid, which together makes up about 80 per cent of an average Canadian's emissions from housing.
Lowering your housing emissions can be hard, if not impossible, for many Canadians.
Still, if you rent, turning the thermostat down when you leave home, investing in window shades in the summer or putting on a sweater inside in the winter can also help lower emissions, make you more comfortable and lower your monthly bills.
But ultimately, housing emissions come down to how a building was built in the first place. And that requires changes beyond a single person.
WHAT YOU EAT - 16%
In your quest to lower personal emissions, eating more beans could sound counterintuitive.
But a combination of a vegan diet and more efficient food production could drop the average Canadian's dietary carbon footprint to 400 kilograms per year, down from a current average of 2,300 kilograms per person, says the Hot or Cold report.
"The big thing is going plant-based, reducing or eliminating meat, reducing or eliminating dairy," says Wynes.
If that's asking too much too fast, dropping beef, even for other meats, can make a huge difference.
Together, meat accounts for over 60 per cent of all emissions from an average Canadian diet. And according to one 2018 study, beef produces eight times more carbon emissions than pork and 10 times more than poultry.
Going vegan will help you reduce your personal emissions from food the most. But Wynes says it's only marginally better than eating vegetarian.
"How much emissions you save depends on your starting point. If you eat a ton of meat, you can save a ton of emissions by switching over," he said.
HOW YOU SPEND AND PLAY - 18%
When it comes to consumed goods, leisure and services, Canada again had the highest per capita carbon output of all 10 countries studied.
Buying consumer goods like clothes, furniture, appliances and daily items made up over a third of emissions in this category, altogether accounting for over 2.5 tonnes of annual emissions per Canadian.
Clothing purchases dominated Canadian spending on consumer goods at 37 per cent. Altogether, buying consumer goods made up 18 per cent of the average Canadian's carbon footprint, more than double that of the United Kingdom.
Leisure services, meanwhile, accounted for five per cent of the average Canadian's carbon footprint and were dominated by spending on things like games of chance and pets.
But Wynes says day-to-day spending is tricky to navigate, largely because everyone has habits.
"Like, you can make a recommendation, 'consume less: don't replace your phone as soon as the newest model is ready for an upgrade, and buy less knickknacks. And don't buy a giant screen TV,'" he said.
"But everyone's lives are so different that it's really hard to put one number on that."
Whether it's turning away from fast fashion or hanging on to the latest piece of technology just a little longer, every push Canadians can make toward lowering individual consumption is desperately needed. This is especially true in a country with a per-capita carbon footprint four times larger than the global average.
The Hot or Cold study found that Canada's high rates of consumption, and therefore high emissions, were so entrenched that to lower them significantly would require "massive interventions" and "significant political actions" to help reorient households.
The good news — while reducing your carbon footprint is helpful, it's also rarely done in isolation.
Buy an electric vehicle and your friends and neighbours are going to notice. Order vegan or cook vegetarian and the people you dine with may try out too.
"If there's a change in what people are eating, that's a change in social behaviour," said Wynes.
"We know that a lot of these actions are contagious. When people install new solar panels on their roofs, research has shown that other people in the neighbourhood often follow them."
Moving beyond your carbon footprint
To expect every Canadian to change how they get around, eat and shop is unrealistic, says Wynes.
Many are unwilling to make the lifestyle changes required to lower their carbon footprint significantly.
But walking a line between guilt and self-sacrifice is not the only way to make a meaningful difference.
Climate change is a collective action problem — you are one of nearly eight billion people on the planet and one of tens of millions of voters in Canada. The feeling like you can't make a difference can lead many to inaction.
To avoid taking that defeatist attitude, Wynes says, ask yourself, what are the biggest levers I can pull on? What do I have control over? Then go ahead and do everything that you can.
If you have a hand in buying office supplies at work, push for ENERGY STAR-certified computers, copiers and even the break room fridge or dishwasher — a step that, if rolled out across the United States, could take the emissions equivalent of 158,000 cars of the road.
Push your manager to swap out halogen bulbs for LED lights, which last longer, are brighter and use up to 85 per cent less energy.
While not the highest impact in terms of reducing emissions, there are proven ways you can push to recycle better.
And as many have learned since the pandemic, flexible scheduling and telecommuting can greatly reduce emissions from the daily commute and improve workers' lifestyles.
People in positions of power can do even more, such as switching over a company vehicle fleet to electric or scheduling conferences in a geographically central part of the country, so people don't have to fly as far.
Then ask yourself, "Where do you have influence?" said Wynes. That influence could flow through a relationship. Maybe you know a city councillor. Maybe you know an engineer at a big company. Or perhaps you are that engineer and have a direct line to the CEO.
Of course, you can speak with your bank account too.
If you're wealthy, "political carbon offsets" — putting money towards political campaigns committed to tackling climate change — have proven effective, says Wynes.
"Campaign donations allow political candidates to run more ads and buy out more lawn signs and hire more staffers and so on. So it does increase their chances of winning an election," he said.
To donate cleverly, Wynes says you might want to avoid giving money to incumbents or popular candidates who already have a high profile or large donor base.
In one 2021 study, the researcher found it's best to avoid incumbents, instead focusing on tight races where there are climate stakes and promising challengers.
"It just tends to be easier to vote in people who will act on climate than it is to persuade people who are already in office to change their minds," he said.
It's often more effective donating to a pro-climate politician than to an environmental group helping to plant trees, found Wynes, Donner and another UBC researcher.
And when combining the act of donating money with openly discussing those campaign contributions, the effect "has been demonstrated to be contagious," found the study.
Volunteering is a good alternative if people don't have the money to donate to a campaign.
At the very least, says Wynes, you can vote — and not just in the federal election but also in provincial and municipal elections.
According to Wynes's research, voting appears to have an outsized impact on any lifestyle changes you could make to lower your carbon footprint.
Once in office, several levers hold politicians' feet to the fire.
In another study, Wynes asked participants to contact their MP, asking them to tweet about climate change. It had some success. But the researchers concluded that while generic emails somewhat work, joining friends to contact a city official, MP or MLA is much more effective.
The medium matters, too, found Wynes's study.
"Analog is better," said Wynes. "Phone calls or handwritten letters are better than personalized emails, which are better than generic campaign emails that just say, 'Click here to contact your MP.'"
"If you can persuade someone to meet with you face to face, that's really good."
And if your message still isn't getting through, Wynes says protest has been shown to work, in some cases successfully prompting power plants to reduce emissions or shut down altogether.
It's one more example of why focusing on individual actions will only get you so far in a world where big systematic problems need big solutions.
"It is easy to take on a defeatist attitude if you want to. But that is the struggle of our time," said Wynes.
"It's better to focus on what can you do and how can you do it to the fullest."