Climate Change Isn’t an Individual Responsibility, and Believing This Just Makes It Worse

Holden Rierson

Reversing and limiting climate change is the corporate sector’s responsibility because they disproportionately advance it. In the past 30 years, just 100 companies have produced over 70% of the world’s carbon emissions, with the top 15 American food businesses emitting more greenhouse gases than Australia (the 15th largest national producer in the world). Big Oil has invested more than 3.5 billion dollars into protective propaganda within that same time span. Corporations are responsible for the vast majority of destruction and the argument that diminishing individual consumption of unsustainable products would force reduced production doesn’t account for environmental consciousness being a privilege.

The lie that individual people (or groups of them) can make substantial differences in preventing climate change is an immoral tool used by the wealthiest communities, businesses, and nations working to distract from their own culpability and financial interests in an environmentally -unregulated free market. Working to shame poorer people and nations into conveniently taking both the brunt of environmental fallout (air and water pollution, displacement, nuclear waste and chemical exposure, increased natural disasters) and the responsibility for fixing it is an immoral tool, used to uphold economic hierarchies which leave liable classes blameless. The poorer 50% of the world’s population produces only 10% of individual fossil fuel emissions, while the richest 10% contribute the inverse of over half. Most importantly, because those wealthiest populations often contract fortunes through economic, racial, gender, international, and environmental exploitation, when we talk about favoring individual choices over corporate deconstruction, we aren’t talking about individuals that have the prerequisite power to make a difference.  

So blame is proportional, because it doesn’t take the same effort and financial investment to go green across the board. Outside of millionaires’ and billionaires’ ability to enforce change in how they and their circles make their money, the wealthier you are, the more agency you have to improve independently. If you can: you should. But as you make personal adjustments, avoid ignoring your own privilege to do so and the inherent classism and racism in whichthat the “it only takes shorter showers and composting” mentality is based bases itself in. Neglecting to do this results in the dangerously irresponsible and impractical mindset that overlooks the root problem of inaccessible ecological practices. 

Often, citizen’s livelihoods, at home and abroad, are exchanged for financial gain. Government agencies do not effectively protect residents against gradual pollution and, when disasters hit, their often underprepared responses leave many displaced, ill, or dead from climate change. These inequitable conditions further racial and economic divides, making groups ripermore ripe for corporate exploitation and ultimately constructing a cycle that makes the average individual consumer less and less at fault for rising sea levels.

“Good-faith” corporate initiatives are mostly ineffective, exaggerated, and/or quickly forgotten PR moves because environmental morality within wealthy capitalist corporations is an oxymoron. The most successful enterprises are frequently the most exploitative—to be at the level where you’re shamed into launching green initiatives means your business has probably been so lucrative in part because of the absence of regulation. 

Individual people aren’t the main proponents of environmental destruction and it isn’t productive or fair to force a climate martyr. Every action makes a difference, but none at the personal or community level compare to corporate responsibility. Further, because capitalist economies incentivize cutting ecological corners, the climate won’t have long-term hope until it, and similar systems, are no longer a prevailing option. The real individual responsibility is to hold these business sectors accountable: take your own data, bring awareness, look at the intersections of identity and climate, and understand and dismantle patterns of destruction inherent to (and legal within) certain political groups and structures. Yes, to also take personal accountability, but more so to understand that that won’t ever be enough on its own. Though companies won’t be sustainable without added pressure, they also profit from taking away others’ ability to choose. The responsibility for reducing climate change lands on individuals’ work to reclaim this ability.  

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