Wynes and Nicholas (2017 Environ. Res. Lett. 12 074024) claim that some of the most important actions individuals can take to mitigate climate change have been overlooked, particularly in educational messages for adolescents, and estimate the potential impact of some of these, including having fewer children and living car free. These estimates raise questions that deserve serious analysis, but they are based only on the technical potential of the actions and do not consider the plasticity of the behaviors and the feasibility of policies to support them. The actions identified as having the greatest potential are lifestyle changes that accrue benefits over a lifetime or longer, so are not realistic alternatives to actions that can be enacted immediately. But presenting lifestyle choices and the relative impacts of different actions as discussion starters for adolescents could be promising, especially if the discussions highlight issues of behavioral plasticity, policy plasticity, and time scale. Research has identified design principles for interventions to achieve the strongest emissions reductions at time scales up to the decadal. Design principles for achieving longer-lasting changes deserve careful analytic attention, as well as a stronger focus in adolescent textbooks and messages to the general population. Both adolescents and researchers would do well to think carefully about what could promote the generational changes needed to reach a climate change target such as ‘well below 2 °C’.