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There’s One Good Way to Think About Your Carbon Footprint

Individual action is just a single slice of the climate action pie, but it is the slice you can control.

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It’s been nearly two decades since the oil giant BP released a calculator to help consumers figure out all the ways carbon was creeping into their lives, from commuting to work to buying food. The PR campaign was wildly successful: It popularized the very idea of an individual “carbon footprint.” 

The 2000s were a big time for climate accountability. That’s when Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, putting climate change front and center within the world's single biggest emitter and largest economy. Former US Vice President Al Gore released his Academy Award-winning film An Inconvenient Truth, and there was a big push to get climate legislation passed through Congress (it failed in 2010, in a cycle that appears to have just repeated itself). Today the framework of the individualized carbon footprint is everywhere: Thanks to the power of campaigns like BP’s (which still exists), you could be forgiven for thinking that the burden of tackling the crisis rests squarely on your shoulders.