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Op/Ed: Climate change -- focusing on how individuals can help is very convenient for corporations

Powerful industries are responsible for most of climate change and should carry most of the responsibility for tackling it. Lastdjedai/Shutterstock

By Morten Fibieger Byskov, for The  Conversation

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, Chevron, Gazprom, 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.


Read more: Climate action must now focus on the global rich and their corporations


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.

Author Morten Fibieger Byskov is a Postdoctoral Researcher in International Politics, University of Warwick

Editor’s Note:  Below, also from The Conversation, is one of those articles focusing on individual action -- telling people how they can change their habits to make a difference. But this article, too, acknowledges that individuals' virtuous actions alone will not be enough.  Note -- the article contains a link to credible sources of information about climate change, and other useful and informative links.  Read on . . .

Five Ways Families Can Help Tackle Climate Change

By Greg McDermid, Joule A. Bergerson, and Sheri Madigan

Hidden among all of the troubling environmental headlines from 2019 — and let’s face it, there were plenty — was one encouraging sign: the world is waking up to the reality of climate change.

So now what?

While many climate solutions require leadership from governments, we also need changes within regular households, which are collectively responsible for 42 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse-gas emissions. In the U.S., where energy exports are proportionally smaller, the figure is closer to 80 per cent.

We have drawn on our expertise as scientists in three diverse fields (environment, energy and psychology) to assemble a message of action and empowerment that we feel is necessary to address the challenge of climate change.

As the new decade begins, we offer five questions designed to guide discussions of climate action in your household.

1. What are you eating?

Food production accounts for 23 per cent of human greenhouse-gas emissions. Experts say that confronting climate change will ultimately require adjusting our diets. Eating lower on the food chain — or eliminating meat and dairy entirely — is one of the most effective carbon-cutting changes you can make in your household.

While there are many compelling reasons to eat locally, what you eat is more important than where it comes from. One influential U.S. study showed that transportation represents just 11 per cent of the life-cycle emissions of household food consumption (a life-cycle analysis considers all aspects of production, transportation, use and disposal), compared to 83 per cent for production. So if the thought of eliminating meat altogether is just not fathomable, consider buying products that use lower-emissions production processes such as regenerative grazing.

Discuss what dietary changes your household can make and how they contribute to the climate-change solution. Children learn best when adults link cause with effect: if we collectively choose to eat less meat, we can reduce the carbon emissions that contribute to climate change.

2. What transportation do you use?

Globally, transportation accounts for 23 per cent of human emissions. The numbers are higher in Canada (28 per cent) and the U.S. (29 per cent), where fuel-hungry trucks and SUVs dominate the market.

Start by biking, carpooling and taking public transportation as often as possible. Live car-free if you can. If driving is a must, focus on fuel consumption. Choose smaller, best-in-class vehicles and pay attention to distance travelled.

Air transportation is a major contributor to carbon emissions. One round-trip transatlantic flight — Denver to Paris, for example — produces the equivalent of 2.54 tonnes of carbon dioxide per passenger. That’s half the emissions of a car driven for a year.

When planning your next family vacation, carefully consider the need for flights. Vacation locally or opt for a shorter flight.

3. How does your home contribute?

Households use energy for heating, cooling, lighting and appliances. Energy consumption is not the same as carbon emissions — the relationship depends on how your home’s electricity and heat are generated — but it’s still a great target.

Heating, both space and water, makes up 80 per cent of residential energy consumption in Canada. Actions that conserve household heat can lower emissions.

These can range from small things like washing clothes in cold water to big steps like moving to a smaller, more energy-efficient home. Retrofits aimed at increasing energy efficiency are also worth considering, especially those matched with local financial incentives. A home-energy audit will help you choose the most effective targets.

4. What do you throw out?

On a per-capita basis, North Americans produce the highest average amount of waste in the world. Much can be done to curb your family’s disposable habits.

Everyone knows the mantra: reduce, re-use, recycle. However, the recycling industry is complex and much of what we put in recycling bins ends up in landfills.

Priortizing the reduce and re-use parts of the mantra will have a lasting impact on the environment. To reduce, plan carefully and buy only what you need. Buying less stuff not only saves money, it reduces emissions from packaging, transportation and production.

Families should also emphasize re-using goods. Take steps to re-purpose or exchange items, both inside the home and within your community. There are many creative ideas out there.

5. Who can you influence?

As parents, we recognize that making the time for change can be difficult. But changes can begin with small steps, like educating yourself on the evidence, causes and effects of climate change. Children are inherently curious and want to learn too. Make sure that they learn from credible sources.

Children are constant observers of adults’ choices. Many kids will notice when an adult makes an effort to reduce waste and carbon emissions. To emphasize these changes further, explain what your actions and choices mean for the environment.

You can also show children how individuals can mobilize and inspire change. The world has just witnessed a 16-year-old launch a global climate movement that is inspiring millions.

Change is the product of individual actions

Some claim individual actions won’t make a difference or that domestic changes don’t matter if others are not following suit. In addition to being incredibly disheartening, such views ignore the fact that our current crisis is the product of billions of individual decisions. Household actions lead to changes in collective behaviour and are an essential part of social movements.

A more compelling argument is that the focus belongs on altering the systems (economic and political) that pose barriers to personal changes. We agree! But it’s not a zero-sum game and transformations must happen on both fronts.

There is reason for hope. Family-based changes can shape the environmental landscape for future generations. We already have much of the technology and know-how required to transition towards a more sustainable society.

We just need to get started. And it can start with our families.

About the authors: 

Greg McDermid -- Professor, Department of Geography, University of Calgary

Joule A. Bergerson -- Associate Professor in Chemical and Petroleum Engineering and Canada Research Chair in Energy Technology Assessment, University of Calgary

Sheri Madigan -- Assistant Professor, Canada Research Chair in Determinants of Child Development, Owerko Centre at the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, University of Calgary