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Do My Actions Matter?

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We’ve all been advised on how to limit our carbon footprint or do our part for the planet. Take shorter showers. Take your bike or run to the trailhead. Take public transit. Recycle. Use paper straws, or a reusable titanium straw, or, better yet, no straw at all.

2020 was tied with 2016 as the hottest year on record. The earth is getting warmer. The global average temperature is about 1˚ C (1.9˚F) hotter than pre-industrial levels according to the Global Temperature Index, established by NASA. According to the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report, scientists confirmed that at the current rate of warming, the world could become 1.5˚C warmer as soon as 2030. That’s well within the lifespan of most people reading this.

Global climate change has already had observable effects on the environment. Glaciers have shrunk, plant and animal habitats have shifted, loss of sea ice is accelerating along with sea levels rising and we’re seeing more intense heat waves. We’re expected to see more flooding, and more droughts. Less sea ice, and more wildfires. The impacts of climate change woulld radically impact how much food we can grow, and where people will live, which many expect will lead to an influx of climate refugees.

Human beings are causing this global temperature increase, largely by burning fossil fuels, according to the IPCC. Rising temperatures correlate almost exactly with the release of greenhouse gases. We’re now well over 415 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere, which means it will be very hard to keep global warming under the ideal 1.5 degrees Celsius goal that the IPCC laid out to avoid the worst of the disastrous impacts listed above.

“Trail runners should care about climate change, because we so directly interact with nature,” says Bruce Rayner, the founder and Chief Green Officer of Athletes for a Fit Planet, an environmental consulting business that specializes in working with events to make them more sustainable. If you plan on running on this planet, you should also bank on protecting it.

If you plan on running on this planet, you should also bank on protecting it.

The consequences can feel overwhelming, and the odds disheartening. It’s tempting to throw up your hands and ask, Does what I do really matter?

Short answer: yes.

Long answer: some actions matter more than others, and the actions with the most benefit are ones that involve others and seek to change systems that are drivers of the climate crisis.

“If we can incrementally single-handedly, destroy something, then we can incrementally, single-handedly fix something,” says Kathryn Mengerink, a runner, scientist and policy expert who serves as the Executive Director of the Waitt Institute. “We need individual action, and we need better policy.”

What Is Individual Or Collective Action?

Individual action is the action taken by a single person, based on their personal decisions. Collective actions are those taken by a group of people, acting based on a group decision. For instance, biking to the trailhead rather than driving is an individual action. Installing a trailhead bike rack and increasing bicycle access to trails is a collective action. Collective actions often function on larger scales.

When it comes to climate change, it’s not an either-or situation. Individual action and systemic change are both required to move the needle on climate change.

Thinking in systems isn’t really how our brains were designed to work. It’s easier to imagine that tangible actions like forgoing straws or recycling diligently have an impact, because they can feel more relevant to day-to-day life. It’s much harder to contextualize the impact of actions like voting or urging fossil-fuel divestment. The consequences of these system-oriented actions are less immediate and visible.

When it comes to climate change, it’s not an either-or situation. Individual action and systemic change are both required to move the needle on climate change.

“The most effective thing you can do about climate change as an individual is to stop being an individual,” writes Bill McKibben, author, educator, environmentalist and co-founder of

“We need individuals to get on board with changing their consumptive habits for the greater good, but we also need the help of legislation via collective action to force companies and businesses to comply with updated production regulations,” says Grayson Murphy, a professional mountain runner who’s currently pursuing a master’s degree in Sustainable Natural Resources at Montana State University, and is a member of the Protect Our Winters Athlete Alliance. “The two have to go hand-in-hand in to affect sustainable change.”

So, how should trail runners think about this complex relationship between individual and collective action, and what are the most important actions we can take?

The Big Four

A limitation of writing about climate action in a trail-running magazine is that any large-scale systemic solutions might feel out of place between articles about shoes or nutrition advice. Using our trail-running context alone and relying on trail-related solutions like buying sustainable gear  and picking up litter are both good things, as runners, we need to engage in climate actions outside of the trail-running space.

Because climate change is a big and complicated issue, the solutions are going to be big and complicated too. However, there are a few things that individuals can do that have a big impact.

According to Project Drawdown, a multi-disciplinary coalition of experts on climate-change solutions, the biggest actions individuals can take are:

  1. Eat a plant-based diet
  2. Live car-free,
  3. Avoid air travel,
  4. Have fewer children.

Having one fewer child was the lifestyle choice with the greatest potential to reduce annual personal emissions, averaging 58 tons of CO2 saved each year. But, discussions around that action can have, to put it mildly, racist overtones and it disproportionately burdens populations without access to healthcare resources available in the U.S. A better way to frame this might be providing equal economic, educational and social opportunities for women everywhere, which is correlated with lower birthrates.  Living car-free saves about 2.5 tons of CO2 a year per person, while a plant-based diet saves around 0.80 tons. The EPA reports that aircraft contribute 12 percent of U.S. transportation emissions, and account for three percent of the nation’s total greenhouse gas production.

“It comes down to changing the patterns of consumption and production and re-thinking how we value our available resources,” says Murphy.

It won’t be easy, but there are some simple steps that specifically trail runners can take to reduce their carbon footprint.

“Minimize your air travel, but if you must fly, offset your CO2 emissions for your trip [by buying carbon offsets],” says Rayner. “Race locally. Race directors are the heart of our community and they need your support. Supporting local events will reduce your own CO2 footprint. It’s a win-win.”

Outside of the realm of individual action, what’s next?

A General-less Army

The last four years have been a whack-a-mole game of executive action culminating in a total of 112 rollbacks of climate-effecting environmental rules, including 28 related to air pollution and emissions, 14 on infrastructure and planning, 15 on animal protections and 12 on drilling and extraction. But, hope is on the horizon.

The new Biden administration immediately rejoined the Paris climate agreement, revoked the Keystone XL oil pipeline’s federal permit and pledged to “review” a laundry list of Trump-administration regulatory actions aimed at propping up high-emitting industries.

“The biggest threat to our planet is lack of political leadership,” says Mengerink. “We need leadership on climate, and we need to value that leadership and vote for people who share our values.”

A primary way to engage in collective action is as a citizen. Getting involved, whether it’s through voting, volunteering or organizing locally has enormous potential for impact. We elect politicians who set policies that serve the public who voted for them. Much of your community’s energy and climate policy is set by your state and local representatives and the staff they appoint.

“What we have now is a sort of army without a general,” says Dr. Benjamin Hale, a professor of Environmental Ethics at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “And a disorganized response to climate is as bad as no response at all in some cases. We need specific and coordinated actions to confront climate change.”

We all have multiple spheres of influence. We can show up to public-input sessions for public-land management (they usually have free coffee!). We can go to council meetings and recommend that our local community sets emissions targets or invests in community-run renewable energy or invests in public transport. We can push for our professional organizations to make commitments and public statements on climate justice. We can take to the streets and protest; we can run for office; we can volunteer to bring a six-pack to the next meeting of the local climate-activism group. There is no local climate-activism group? Start one.

We can take to the streets and protest; we can run for office; we can volunteer to bring a six-pack to the next meeting of the local climate-activism group. There is no local climate-activism group? Start one.

It’s critical to vote in every federal, state and local election, including oft-overlooked down-ballot races as well as on referendums and local bills. The politicization of climate change, where specific political parties align themselves as either in line with or against established, scientific fact. In a recent Pew Survey, 85 percent of Democrats said environment should be a top priority for the president and congress, while only 39 percent of Republicans agreed. But, when you break down where people really stand on the issues, we’re not so polarized. A survey conducted in December by Yale and George Mason University researchers suggests that support for climate-friendly policies are more mainstream than we think. The survey of roughly 1,000 registered voters from across the political spectrum found that a majority of participants, 53 percent, think global warming should be a “high” or “very high” priority for the Biden administration, and 66 percent feel the same about developing clean energy.

The recent study also showed broad, bi-partisan support for eight climate-friendly energy policies. The two most popular, with 82 percent of voters supporting them, were funding for renewable energy research and tax rebates for solar panels and energy-efficient cars. Other popular proposals included using public lands for renewable energy generation (which had 80 percent support) and levying a carbon tax on fossil-fuels companies (67 percent support).

Many people are uncomfortable “getting political” or deviating from their “lane.” But the climate crisis won’t be solved by remaining a-political.

“You would never go into battle without a plan, which is what we’re doing now. Political action is the best conduit,” says Hale. “We need science-based policy, and we need to depoliticize the personal, and re-politicize the civil sphere.” That means not being afraid to engage with the political process, even if it’s uncomfortable at first.

Many people are uncomfortable “getting political” or deviating from their “lane.” But the climate crisis won’t be solved by remaining a-political.

If researching each candidate and policy feels daunting, organizations like Protect Our Winters put out trail-running specific voting guides that give in-depth information on politicians, policies, and how they affect the outdoors. POW’s policy agenda lays out a clear path on how athletes can push for policy in the realms of carbon pricing, electric transportation, renewable energy and public-land protection.

The League of Conservation Voters closely tracks politicians and policies, and ranks politicians according to their voting record on environmental issues so that voters have an easy and immediate way of gauging how effectively their elected officials are engaging with climate and public-lands policy. The Sierra Club also regularly publishes voter guides with primers on politicians and policy, and how they relate to environmental action.

“Collective action could be donating to climate action-oriented organizations, attending climate rallies and voting for climate-minded representatives,” says Murphy. “This collective action is important because that is where the most substantive change can come from.”

The Ripple Effect

The most effective actions you can take as an individual are ones that can affect systemic change. If your riding your bike to the trailhead inspires others to do the same, then that becomes a more meaningful action. Whatever climate actions you’re taking, if it’s eating plant-based or offsetting your trail-race flights, share them with others and encourage them to do the same in an approachable and engaging way.

“Social media allows people to have a bigger voice. We can communicate broadly about our experiences and advocate for change,” says Mengerink. “We just need to make sure we meet people where they are, without shoving it down their throats.”

Murphy uses her platform as both an engineer and a professional runner to advocate for climate action. Each Sunday, she highlights specific action individuals can take to live more sustainably, such as reducing the use of single-use plastic.

You can vote with your voice. Even if you don’t feel like you’re an expert, talk to people in your life about climate change. Remind people that there is actually have a lot we can do to combat the problem.

“We cannot only be users of the land, we must also be stewards of the land,” says Murphy. “It is a two-way street. To get involved, trail runners might look for ways to assist local or regional organizations that promote trail maintenance, land conservation and climate action.”

Succinctly put by Bill McKibben, “The most important thing you can do, is join with your neighbors and organize. The second most important thing you can do is join with your neighbors and organize.”

A New Hope

“Collective action is the most important thing you can do,” says Rayner. “Decarbonizing energy is the only way to move the needle on the big challenge of reducing CO2 emissions.”

There is no one solution, but cumulative actions will help mitigate the problem. Things are looking up. Renewable energy is cheaper than ever, and solar power is now considered the most affordable energy on the planet. For the first time ever, solar and wind made up the majority of the world’s new power generation. Solar additions last year totaled 119 gigawatts, representing 45 percent of all new capacity. Exxon Mobile was dropped from the Dow Jones exchange when Apple split its stock as Exxon’s shares became less competitive.

Countries like France, Spain, Belgium, Finland, Vanuatu and the Maldives are exploring holding corporations legally responsible for “ecocide,” the damage or destruction of ecosystems, a big step forward in accountability and legal deterrents for entities tied to environmental degradation. Keystone XL, Mountain Valley and the Atlantic Coast pipeline projects were all halted, thanks to both legislative and grassroots action. Pipelines, like Keystone XL, Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast are integral to fossil-fuel infrastructure, and shutting them down provides a meaningful blockage to further extraction so that more fossil fuels remain in the ground.

The recent lease sales of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge were a flop, raising just 14.4 million out of the previously anticipated 1.8 billion dollars from prospective oil and gas extractors, thanks in large part to indigenous leaders and community organization. The incoming administration has appointed veteran climate leaders to top positions.

New Mexico representative Deb Haaland is the first Native American Cabinet member in history and is charged with managing fossil-fuel extraction on public lands from as Secretary of the Interior. Halaand has strongly opposed fossil-fuel interests and has taken a bold position to limit all forms of oil and gas drilling on public lands.

As North Carolina’s environmental-quality director, Michael Regan centered communities of color in an impressive environmental-justice agenda, and will be EPA chief. The first Black man to lead the EPA, Regan is lauded by environmental activists for his work cleaning up the largest coal-ash cleanup settlement in his home state, and commanding chemical companies to clean up waterways.  Regan has vowed to bring renewed focus on evidence-based policy and science back to the EPA, and to boost morale within the organization.

Energy secretary appointee Jennifer Granholm promises a zero-emission future for auto manufacturers as part of the Biden Administration’s goal of hitting net-zero emissions in the U.S. by 2050. As the first woman to occupy this position, the former governor of Michigan has worked closely with the auto industry in pushing for electric vehicles.

Attorney Brenda Mallory, known for prosecuting polluters, will chair the Council on Environmental Quality. Gina McCarthy, former EPA director under Barack Obama and current president and CEO of the National Resources Defense Council, or NRDC — will be responsible for coordinating climate action across multiple federal agencies and Congress as “Climate Czar”. Biden has signaled that he intends to use all the tools of the federal government to take on climate change — from the National Economic Council to the Department of Health and Human Services. As the climate czar, she will be the domestic counterpart of former Senator and Secretary of State John Kerry, who will be responsible for tackling U.S. climate concerns abroad as the Biden administration’s “special envoy on climate change.”

“We have a lot to be hopeful for,” says Mengerink. “I see people who are making incredible changes, and exerting incredible influence. People are pushing the envelope, and getting involved in new ways. In everything from individual sustainability to political organizing, you’re seeing trail runners at the front.”

Zoë Rom is the Associate Editor for Trail Runner and has a master’s degree in environmental journalism from the University of Colorado Boulder.