I believe that we all have a responsibility to leave our planet better than we found it, to continuously improve and strive to be better. However, I am constantly feeling like whatever I do in my life to help combat the effects of climate change will never be enough. And I know that I am not alone in this constant sense of ever-growing guilt. It is an uphill battle, one that many are willing to take, but we must start holding those truly accountable for the climate change crisis. With the 2021 IPCC United Nations report clearly stating that humans have sped up the process, we must begin to ask the pivotal questions. This starts with whoever is responsible to change their processes and policy. But the issue is that those responsible have actually taken zero responsibility for their actions and blamed it on individual consumers using carefully crafted mechanisms. So, how have those who are to blame managed to go unnoticed and avoided mass public scrutiny and criticism? In this article I will be discussing how companies have led consumers to believe climate change is our doing, if all consumers should be held equally responsible (top 0.01% vs everyday consumer), and what position wealthier countries have in regards to their consumers.
I would like to mention that in this opinion piece I am not suggesting that our efforts individually are ineffective. We can, and have, made countless positive advances to the climate change crisis. But we, as regular consumers, as a collective are not the largest contributors to the heating of our planet, and we must start to hold the largest contributors accountable.
Companies have ‘successfully’ led consumers to believe climate change is our doing
It is now common knowledge that fossil fuel companies play a major role in this crisis; in fact, they account for 70% of the greenhouse gas emissions in the last two decades. Not only do they have a significant impact on the environment through the extraction of our earth’s resources, but they have also essentially created a global narrative that shifts the responsibility of their actions to consumers. This is done by deploying public relations tactics that allow them to promote the narrative that we are shown about climate change.
The narrative is that fossil fuel companies have done everything in their power to combat climate change and the problems they have caused is now the responsibility of everyday consumers to solve. The narrative also says that to make humanity more environmentally friendly will impact the poor disproportionately and that environmental concerns are elitist. But based on new evidence we know that this is false. They have made people doubt science and they wield strong influence over how we view the influence of fossil fuels in our economy. These narratives essentially mean that large companies are free from public burden and scrutiny, allowing them to continue to extract non-renewable resources and damage our planet.
An example of this narrative being promoted was the introduction of personal carbon footprint measures, which was publicized by none other than BP in a 2005 media campaign. This campaign encouraged consumers to take the entire blame for their contribution to the climate crisis, while shielding oil companies from public scrutiny of their actions. Oil companies have jumped on the idea that oil is an inelastic good that society needs to function efficiently. Instead of allowing the focus to be on the beginning of the supply chain, where it should be, they deflect the responsibility onto consumers who have no choice in whether their car fuel, for example, is derived from fossil fuels.
Another example of false public narratives is when social media was flooded with posts stating that straws were killing turtles. While this is correct to a certain extent, straws are not the main form of plastic killing turtles and sea life. It only contributes to 0.025% of the plastic found in the oceans. But companies such as fisheries and oil rigs, to avoid the blame for plastic pollution being put on them, which would lead to a damaged image and new policies to stop their destructive processes, attempt to turn the focus of conversation on to the actions of consumers, which in truth have little influence relative to the actions of large companies.
Should all consumers be held equally responsible?
The wealthiest top 0.01%:
We should always strive to be as environmentally friendly as possible, but regular consumers must not accept the full blame for the global climate change crisis. Instead, we must start criticizing how the top 0.01% is living. Each of the 16,000 families that represent this group in the USA have an annual income greater than $7 million and a net worth average of $111 million. The after-tax income of this group quadrupled between 1980 and 2014.
Can you blame the mega-wealthy for the climate change crisis? A recent international study from the University of Leeds said both yes and no. Yes, because if you can afford to fly private jet, you can also afford to fly business class. These individuals have a choice in how to spend their money, and if they choose to live in a way that is very ostentatious and extravagant and causes great damage to the environment, then they must face responsibility for their actions. But the answer is also no, we should not blame the mega-wealthy for the climate change crisis. Even the consumers in the top 0.01% are in the same system that is driven by consumption and greed, and they just have the finances consume to a much greater extent than most people.
The everyday consumer:
Demand starts with the consumer. But when did the fate of our planet depend solely on us? A plant-based diet has been proven to significantly decrease environmental impact, but there are countless factors why this is not feasible for everyone. Whilst we should strive to be environmentally conscious within our means (eating less meat and using less plastic), a fully plant-based diet can be a financial burden, socially or culturally challenging for many. We have got to stop blaming climate change on those whose decisions do not come from selfish intent and begin to look at the large, power-hungry corporations and those who are using up our resources.
You especially cannot blame the people for climate change who do not even have access to clean water and clean electricity because they lack the financial capacity to afford it. Instead, we must hold corporations and the top 0.01% who have the finances and access to resources to use clean and free electricity and water, yet still use high-emission sources of electricity. “You’re just slicing through the system at one end of the supply chain versus the other,” says Julia Steinberger, professor of ecological economics at the University of Leeds. “That alone is not enough to allocate blame.” Everyone has a responsibility to be a global citizen, and if you are using more resources, you have a greater responsibility to use them correctly, and ensure that your actions are not negatively affecting the lives of other people in other parts of the world.
The position of wealthier countries in the climate crisis
Countries all release different levels of emissions, and a great international climate debate and cause of much political controversy is whether the countries with higher emissions should take a greater proportion of responsibility. What does this mean for the regular consumers of these countries? Do we also need to take enhanced responsibility for climate change? This to some level is correct, as we are responsible for the decisions we take. But if you are limited within your financial means, should you take less responsibility as those who fly private jet by choice? We are all part of a larger system that largely downplays the responsibility of those with statistically a greater percentage of emissions.
Whether we feel that blaming others for the climate change crisis is beneficial or not, we must begin to untangle the web of lies and false narratives that have been fed to us for decades. Intensive critical change starts with looking to those whose actions are most at blame for the climate crisis. Genevieve Guenther, a climate scholar, puts this perfectly: “By hiding who’s really responsible for our current, terrifying predicament, we provide political cover for the people who are happy to let hundreds of millions of other people die for their own profit and pleasure.”
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