Climate change: focusing on individuals is very convenient for corporations

Obstacles

What can be done to limit global warming to 1.5°C? A quick internet search offers a deluge of advice on how individuals can change their behaviour. Take public transport instead of the car or, for longer journeys, the train rather than fly. Eat less meat and more vegetables, pulses and grains, and don’t forget to turn off the light when leaving a room or the water when shampooing. The implication here is that the impetus for addressing climate change is on individual consumers.

But can and should it really be the responsibility of individuals to limit global warming? On the face of it, we all contribute to global warming through the cumulative impact of our actions.

By changing consumption patterns on a large scale we might be able to influence companies to change their production patterns to more sustainable methods. Some experts have argued that everyone (or at least those who can afford it) has a responsibility to limit global warming, even if each individual action is insufficient in itself to make a difference.

Yet there are at least two reasons why making it the duty of individuals to limit global warming is wrong.

Individuals are statistically blameless

Climate change is a planetary-scale threat and, as such, requires planetary-scale reforms that can only be implemented by the world’s governments. Individuals can at most be responsible for their own behaviour, but governments have the power to implement legislation that compels industries and individuals to act sustainably.

Although the power of consumers is strong, it pales in comparison to that of international corporations and only governments have the power to keep these interests in check.

Usually, we regard governments as having a duty to protect citizens. So why is it that we allow them to skirt these responsibilities just because it is more convenient to encourage individual action? Asking individuals to bear the burden of global warming shifts the responsibilities from those who are meant to protect to those who are meant to be protected. We need to hold governments to their responsibilities first and foremost.

A recent report found that just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions since 1988. Incredibly, a mere 25 corporations and state-owned entities were responsible for more than half of global industrial emissions in that same period.

Most of these are coal and oil producing companies and include ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, ChevronGazprom, and the Saudi Arabian Oil Company. China leads the pack on the international stage with 14.3% of global greenhouse gas emissions due to its coal production and consumption.

If the fossil fuel industry and high polluting countries are not forced to change, we will be on course to increase global average temperatures by 4°C by the end of the century.

If just a few companies and countries are responsible for so much of global greenhouse gas emissions, then why is our first response to blame individuals for their consumption patterns? It shouldn’t be – businesses and governments need to take responsibility for curbing industrial emissions.

Governments and industries should lead

Rather than rely on appeals to individual virtue, what can be done to hold governments and industries accountable?

Governments have the power to enact legislation which could regulate industries to remain within sustainable emission limits and adhere to environmental protection standards. Companies should be compelled to purchase emissions rights – the profits from which can be used to aid climate vulnerable communities.

Governments could also make renewable energy generation, from sources such as solar panels and wind turbines, affordable to all consumers through subsidies. Affordable and low-carbon mass transportation must replace emission-heavy means of travel, such as planes and cars.

More must also be done by rich countries and powerful industries to support and empower poorer countries to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

All of this is not to say that individuals cannot or should not do what they can to change their behaviour where possible. Every little contribution helps, and research shows that limiting meat consumption can be an effective step. The point is that failing to do so should not be considered morally blameworthy.

In particular, individuals living in poorer countries who have contributed almost nothing to climate change deserve the most support and the least guilt. They are neither the primary perpetrators of global warming nor the ones who have the power to enact the structural changes necessary for limiting global warming, which would have to involve holding powerful industries responsible.

While individuals may have a role to play, appealing to individual virtues for addressing climate change is something akin to victim-blaming because it shifts the burden from those who ought to act to those who are most likely to be affected by climate change. A far more just and effective approach would be to hold those who are responsible for climate change accountable for their actions.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. It's written by Morten Fibieger Byskov, Postdoctoral Researcher in International Politics at the University of Warwick. Read the original article here.

More about: climate change

More Stories

  • Climate change: a climate scientist answers questions from teenagers

    Your moment

    Pupils in 60 countries went on strike from school on March 15, 2019, to demand urgent action from the world’s leaders on climate change. Here, a scientist answers teenagers’ questions about climate change, gathered by the Priestley International Centre for Climate at a previous strike in February. You can find more Q&As like this on the centre’s website

    How long is the planet going to last? I heard it was 12 years…

    The “12 years” date you’ve heard comes from a special report requested by the United Nations, which looks at the impacts of global warming at 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. At the moment, the world is 1°C warmer than in the late 19th century: the earliest period for which we have reliable temperature measurements and just before the Industrial Revolution got into full swing.

    To avoid global warming above 1.5°C, humanity needs to cut its carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions to about half of today’s levels by 2030, and to zero by 2050. The 2030 date – 12 years from when the report was released in October 2018 – got a lot of media attention.

    Missing the 2030 deadline would make it very difficult to keep global warming under 1.5°C. That temperature is not necessarily safe, but the damage caused by climate change will quickly get worse with higher levels of warming.

    At today’s 1°C of warming, there have already been increases in extreme weather events (such as heat waves and flooding), as well as food shortages and effects on food production. Entire species are already going extinct, for reasons related to climate change.

    At 2°C of warming or above, rising sea levels, more frequent extreme weather and damaging effects on food and water supplies will make some parts of the world very hard to live in. As a result, it’s predicted that many people will need to leave their homes and become climate refugees, while many millions more people worldwide will be exposed to poverty. What’s more, many species will be lost and virtually all corals will die.

    Unfortunately, we are not on track to keep warming below 1.5°C, or even 2°C. If countries hit their existing targets, temperatures will rise by around 3°C – or more than that, if emissions continue to grow.

    The planet itself will survive man-made climate change. In fact, it has been warmer, millions of years ago, although the world looked very different back then. Humans are not expected to go extinct – but we will have to learn to cope with a warmer world, and all its challenges. This means cooperating and providing support and resources to vulnerable people.

    What would be the most effective policy to end climate change?

    No single policy will end climate change, but a very effective strategy would be to quickly phase out fossil fuels such as coal and petrol, which are used to create electricity and power transport. There are many different ways to achieve this goal, and it’s important that leaders choose policies that create good jobs and strengthen communities.

    For example, governments need to put money towards safe, reliable, efficient and affordable trains and buses, so people can get around without using cars. Towns and cities should be designed to be more friendly to walking, cycling and public transport. Homes should have good transport links, and be built or modified to be more energy efficient, so that they’re easier to keep cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

    International air travel is also responsible for a growing share of global emissions and governments around the world need to work together to come up with a response.

    Farming – especially meat and dairy production – also creates a surprisingly large amount of emissions. So, governments should encourage farmers to use sustainable approaches. Agriculture can also lead to deforestation. Since trees remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, forests must be protected, and new trees planted.

    What’s the single best thing I could do in my life to help the climate?

    First, you can find out what your environmental footprint is using this questionnaire from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). The survey gives advice to help you and your family reduce your impact. Research has also highlighted the biggest changes a person can make to help the climate. They are:

    1. Fly less.
    2. If you are old enough to drive, challenge yourself to live without a car, or to car-share with family and friends.
    3. Switching to a vegetarian or vegan diet can reduce your footprint (although it might be better to avoid food waste than to stick to a strict diet).
    4. It’s controversial, but true: in wealthier countries, having one less child makes the biggest impact of all.

    Smaller actions in your daily life can also help. Turning down the heating or air conditioning at home and only heating or cooling the rooms you’re using will save money and reduce carbon emissions. Try to buy less clothing, plastics and gadgets, since it takes resources and energy to make these items.

    Make, borrow, swap, buy secondhand or find things for free, and recycle as much as possible that can’t be reused. When you’re old enough, you can also choose to put your money in an ethical bank account, and get electricity from 100% renewables.

    Individual changes will only go so far, but remember that your actions can inspire others. Use your voice! Talking about climate change with your friends, family and classmates really helps to raise awareness and drive further action.

    This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. It was written by Chris Smith, Research Fellow in Physical Climate Change at the University of Leeds. Header image is by Eric Schuler. You can read the original article here

    Read more
  • Anthropocene doesn’t exist and species of the future will not recognise it

    Obstacles

    We are living through a period of unprecedented environmental breakdown which is increasingly being referred to as “the Anthropocene”. As the term becomes more and more pervasive, I want to explain why, as a psychologist and a committed environmentalist, I think it is a highly problematic way of framing our predicament.

    Originally proposed by atmospheric scientists and then geologists, the Anthropocene has come to the fore as a powerful if perplexing way of talking about our current era. This is a period in which, for the first time in its history, the Earth is being deeply transformed by one species – humans. The word Anthropocene refers to the idea that the Earth’s geological record has been transformed by humanity: Anthropos is Greek for human and -cene is a substantial geological time period within the current 65 million year old Cenozoic era.

    It is remarkable how quickly this idea has become ubiquitous. It is now the subject not just of academic texts and conferences, but artfictionmagazinestraveloguespoetry, even an opera.

    While I agree that this is an important and timely provocation, I want to pause here for a moment, and consider whether the Anthropocene narrative really does capture our predicament and our prospects.

    There is already plenty of criticism of the Anthropocene idea. Alternative terms like Capitalocene (which attempts to highlight the detrimental forces of capitalism), and Plantationocene (which emphasises the role of colonialism, the plantation system and slave labour) have been offered as a way of doubling down on the elements of human history responsible for environmental crises, rather than lumping all humans, and their responsibility, together. But I want to concentrate on the idea of time itself.

    Deep time

    Deep time” is the concept of geological time that is used “to describe the timing and relationships between events that have occurred throughout Earth’s history”. That’s a 4.54 billion year history. We struggle to grasp the huge scale of a sense of time that is so, well, deep. There are numerous analogies for helping us comprehend this enormity, like the 24-hour clock – that humans have only been on the planet for 19 seconds of it. I like the onebelow, as you can visualise it simply enough by holding out your arm.

    If the Earth formed about 4.54 billion years ago at the shoulder, animals of any kind appear within the palm, and more familiar (to us) lifeforms originate at the first knuckle. Movement along the fingers represent the periods that followed, incorporating, for example, the Jurassic. And humans? The 11,700-year-old Holocene marks the start of a global spread of homo sapiens – “a microscopic sliver at the tip of a fingernail”. The beginning of the proposed Anthropocene, whether we go with a starting point of a mooted 400 years, 70 or somewhere in between, is a tiny speck within this sliver.

    So, have homo sapiens created a new geological era? In simple terms, there is something of a case here – there’s plenty of evidence for human impact in the geological record, from signatures of human-induced climate change, atomic testing, and much more. But a fuller appreciation of deep time should actually make us wary of the Anthropocene label, maybe even shift our image of ourselves and what it means to inhabit the Earth at this time. Here’s why.

    Mass extinction

    Around 66m years ago, a mass extinction event took place, wiping out around three quarters of all species. This was most likely the result of an enormous asteroid impact – a conclusion reached after the discovery of a thin but distinct layer of sediment in the geologic record from this time, containing elements abundant in asteroids.

    Mass extinction offered an opportunity for the rise of mammals as dominant lifeforms – ushering in the Cenezoic (“new life”) era. This thin layer of comet dust in the rock record represents a brief but vital transition between much thicker preceding and subsequent layers. But no one refers to what followed the mass extinction event as the “Cometocene”. That just wouldn’t make sense – the impact was a one-off event, significant in the context of deep time only in that it ushered in new foundations for life that then stretched out for millions of years into the far future.

    What if the same could be said of our influence? What if, even with the well-documented effects of an Anthropocene still accumulating, we are talking about human impacts as a mere blip in the context of deep time? This is likely true. The spread of industrialism has aggressively and rapidly extracted and used up a finite supply of resources. The fact of finiteness, coupled with unprecedented environmental breakdown, fundamentally circumscribes the long-term viability of any possible era of human dominance.

    This is what the American writer John Michael Greer claims when he says that all forms of industrial civilisation combined, in the context of geological time, are unremarkably short-lived and “self-terminating” – simply a transition between eras. This is why he considers the Holocene-Neocene transition, H-N transition for short, as a more accurate term, with Neocene being a placeholder name for whatever emerges next.

    Our geological legacy will probably be like the comet dust – “a slightly odd transition layer a quarter of an inch thick”. As a remarkably adaptive species, humans may find ecological niches to survive and flourish in this far future, but we will not be dominant.

    A new psychology

    This does not mean we are heading towards some kind of one-off cataclysm – another extinction event. It means we are already living through one. But rather than being remembered as something grandiloquent and portentous – like the Anthropocene – it is more likely that some far future species would think of us as what historian Stephen Kern calls “a parenthesis of infinitesimal brevity”. In the context of deep time, the Earth will continue to meander on without us, and it will hardly notice we’re gone, just as it hardly knew we were here.

    This sojourn into deep time is not intended to be depressing or defeatist, certainly not to rule out hope, or to avoid acknowledgement of the damage humans can do. I think its psychological relevance is to offer a reminder of life itself as something to approach with reverence and awe; our species as interdependent and interconnected, not somehow apart; and to chip away at any residual hubris in the idea of the Anthropocene.

    Locating humanity in an even deeper story can seem scary. But it might also be liberating. For countless cultures around the world of course, this is nothing new – many Indigenous worldviews embrace nature, have a reverence for it and a deep sense of time and place. While being historically displaced from those places by the forces of colonialism and industrialism, these voices are often neglected.

    The history of our far future, if we have one, will be one where we learnt to recognise interdependence with nature, with other species. In the end, it is about what it means to be human. As the late environmental philosopher Val Plumwood warned: “We will go onwards in a different mode of humanity, or not at all.”

    This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. It's written by Matthew Adams, Principal Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Brighton. You can read the original article here

    This story features:
    Read more
  • TGIFFF - Thank God It's Fridays For Future

    Your moment

    Thank God It's #FridaysForFuture. In 123 countries and some 2050 cities, thousands of young people are rallying to press politicians to act on climate change, united under the hashtag #FridaysForFuture. 

    #FridaysForFuture started in August 2018 when 15-year-old Greta Thunberg stood in front of the Swedish parliament every school day for three weeks to protest the lack of adequate governmental initiatives to halt climate change.

    Since then, the initiative grew into a global movement with weekly climate strikes almost everywhere in the world.

    The general aim of the protest is to press governments to respect the long-term goals set by the Paris Agreement. In 2016,  the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change gathered near Paris and discussed how to curb the effects of climate change. The outcome was a document that committed its 196 state-party signers to limit the increase of global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

    #FridaysForFuture is a movement fueled by the (renewable) energy of young people from all over the world. In the end, it's their future that is at stake.

    At the same time, and fortunately, older generations are weighing in too. Just have a look at one of the latest tweets by 2020 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders: 

    It's relieving to see that the anti-climate change movement that is emerging globally is not just transnational but also transgenerational.

    Problems of this magnitude can be addressed only by bridging the gaps between as many stakeholders as possible.

    If you want to concretely contribute to halting climate change, you might also consider donating to a highly-effective non-profit that is fighting it. Like Cool Earth, a Kinder-vetted organisation that is working to protect rainforests 👇

    Read more