Why it’s up to governments and corporations, not citizens, to fix climate change, and what you can actually do…
On the rare occasions that potential solutions to climate change are brought up within mainstream media, the public are often advised on how best they can minimise their own personal contributions to the warming of the planet. A BBC article, for example, noted multiple ways in which people can bring down their carbon footprint such as: flying less, walking more, shopping differently and eating less meat- the article also suggested that having less children might be an option.
Meanwhile, in America, a CNN article advised people to car share, use central heating less, and generally reiterated the impact of human behaviour on mitigating climate change. Other news items have called for a reduction in single-use plastics, particularly plastic straws as well as taking shorter showers and turning lights off.
Now for a disclaimer: There is nothing wrong with doing any of these things, and they are all probably beneficial for reducing your negative impact on the health of the planet. However, these articles and the overall trends pressuring individuals to make more carbon-friendly choices completely miss the point: that the responsibility for solving the existential climate crisis lies mainly with those with the most power to affect behaviour: governments.
In comparison to the impact of ordinary people, the damage being done to our climate by corporations is simply monstrous. Recent studies have found that just 25 corporations (and state enterprises) are responsible for the majority of global emissions since 1988 (with 100 companies making up 71% of CO2 production). These numbers are mind-blowing and underlie how meaningless our individual actions are to the overall problem at hand. However, the prevailing discourse is still that we need to change our behaviour, this has become a mantra within mainstream media as well as for politicians all around the world. This, in itself, can lead to the justifiably angry reactions from right-wing political commentators: denouncing leftists for trying to take away their hamburgers and stop them from going on holidays.
How has this happened? How have giant multi-national corporations been able to deflect the blame onto citizens? The short answer: neoliberalism.
The policies of Thatcher and Reagan within the 1980’s and continued by Blair, Clinton, Cameron, Obama and now Trump have not only allowed companies to further get away with polluting through large-scale deregulation, but have also weakened the levels of collectivism within the public psyche. Thatcher famously stated that: “there is no such thing as society”, and this individualist rhetoric has been a mainstay of political discourse in the decades that followed. Now, millions of people in western capitalist democracies feel as if they are on their own in solving their problems- in getting a job and feeding their family, and now – on reducing their contribution to the death of the planet. Rightfully, many feel as if this is not their responsibility, that they don’t deserve to have to change their behaviours – especially when they are facing economic challenges in the wake of financial crises and austerity regimes.
So what can be done? We saw what happened in France when Macron tried to implement a Carbon Tax that would disproportionately affect those who have contributed the least to the overall problem, ordinary working people. Macron’s proposition would have meant that lower and middle-class citizens, who spend a far greater percentage of their incomes on fuel and transportation than the wealthy, would be taking a far greater hit to their salaries than those at the top. The ‘gilets jaunes’ protests that followed, and eventually forced the President to cancel his policy, are indicative of the attitude of much of the public across the western world: it’s not our fault, why should we have to pay?
We certainly cannot continue to live exactly as we are.
At some point in the very near future however, people across the world will have to have rules enforced on them in order to prevent the most damaging effects of climate change. We certainly cannot continue to live exactly as we are. But alterations to our lives need not be accompanied by a loss of financial security, or by completely cutting out some of the aspects of our lives people most enjoy. This though, can only occur if those at the top are made to pay their fair share, and corporations who produce fossil fuels and excessively use unsustainable materials are effectively regulated by governments.
Take eating meat, as an example. This is one of the major issues we are constantly told is essential to reducing our carbon footprint as the agriculture industry makes up 25% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. The public are regularly bombarded with articles chastising them for eating meat and therefore contributing to this disastrous process of climate destruction. A recent UN report even stated that a reduction in meat consumption was ‘essential’ for the fight against this. This line of thinking implies that the meat industry has to continue to work in the way it has been doing since the last half of the 20th century. This does not have to be the case. Already, on an individual level, cattle farmers concerned about the impact their livelihood is having on the degradation of the planet have begun to implement Carbon sharing agriculture techniques based around ‘greener’ soil, whilst others have developed new methods of interrelated grazing systems which reduce Carbon emissions. This is, of course, all happening on an individual basis without any government funding or outside help and as such, its scope is limited. However, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals report also showed support for a declaration that: “Regenerative organic agriculture can sequester carbon and reverse climate change.”. Therefore, although these processes cannot be viewed as a fix-all for the agriculture industry, with serious top-down planning, financial and legislative backing from governments already spending vast amounts of taxpayer money on farming subsidies, there is hope. This method of solving emissions problems also restricts the damage to the working of farmers all across the world, many of whom whose families rely on meat production- as well as for indigenous groups internationally, for whom meat is an essential aspect of their culture.
Of course, many people may still have to slightly reduce their overall consumption, but this does not have to be strictly enforced on the public who made such little contribution to the crisis in the first place. Instead, national governments could and should restrict, by law, large-scale manufacturers and multi-national agricultural corporations from continuing their dangerous practices of meat production and must accompany this by providing subsidies for alternative, renewable methods.
In other areas of society, such as transportation and energy use, the public will eventually have to make changes. But again, this should not be at an individual level, and should be supported by financial assistance from corporations and governments. Whilst our current forms of car will have to be phased out and replaced by electric versions, governments need to find ways of making this as comfortable for consumers as possible, providing financial incentives to automotive companies and citizens themselves in order to counteract the justifiable negative reactions such policies will have.
Now, it may seem like all these proposals being advocated will cost a lot of money.
As major corporations are constantly replacing humans with robots, many are left without work.
Too right. But the saving of the planet was never going to be able to be done on the cheap. A policy of a worldwide Green New Deal to save the environment and create millions of new jobs in renewable industry however, comes with a wondrous solution to this: it actually pays for itself. Not only would this policy give us a realistic chance of solving the climate crisis, but would also tackle another existential threat facing human civilisation, automation. As major corporations are constantly replacing humans with robots, many are left without work. What the Green New Deal would do therefore is create employment through the transfer to renewable energy, as well as through training and maintenance of new systems of technology.
What’s left to us therefore, in terms of individual responsibility, is simply for citizens across the world to elect politicians and political parties who have this as part of the political platforms, and if no such parties have this in their manifesto: make them.
This again though cannot be done on a personal basis, people need to work together collectively, organize and pressurize political leaders into bending to our will. This is what we saw in France, where public pressure led to most powerful man in the country changing his plans. The work of climate activists around the world is incredibly encouraging and climate strikes are undoubtedly beginning to have an affect. But progress will only continue if we make the right choices at the ballot box.
Another thing people must consider is providing external pressure to companies blatantly acting in ways which are unsustainable for the planet. This is not a new idea, as petitions to, for example, prevent supermarkets from using excessive amounts of plastic have already begun to have an effect. But this is another aspect where the idea of individual responsibility should be side-lined in favour of a group-wide mentality.
There is a clear difference between individuals making personal decisions on what items they buy and what companies they choose to buy from and sustained organised for more campaigns to change the behaviour of corporate institutions. If individuals choose to form groups which collectively act and pressurise such corporations this will have far greater effect than if people are doing small-scale actions on an individual basis. Corporations only claim to care about climate change because they know the public do, and cannot risk consumers turning away from them and losing business. Therefore, to make a serious impact, such action must be widespread and continuous until companies have no choice but to change their behaviour.
This is not to say that people cannot freely choose to change their own behaviour in order to counteract the effects of climate change and bring down their own carbon footprint. However, such actions are unlikely to have a meaningful effect on the overall efforts to combat environmental decay and by focusing on such minute problems we are missing the wider point and distracting ourselves from the more serious and more damaging instances of anthropogenic effects on the planet.
To conclude, sorry Maggie but: there is such a thing as society, and we must work together in order to give ourselves a shot at saving the world. Chastising individuals for their personal choices to eat a burger, take a flight or heat their homes will not make a dent in this, and may do more harm than good.
By Glyn Sheldon