Embracing the right kind of personal responsibility on climate change

Worrying about your carbon footprint is useful, but it’s not the most important way to go

(credit: Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images)

Personal responsibility is deeply ingrained in the American ethos. From Abraham Lincoln (“you cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today”) to Bill Clinton (“Let us all take more responsibility not only for ourselves and our families but for our communities and our country”), America’s leaders have lifted up this laudable characteristic of owning your actions.

In the environmental space, preaching personal responsibility in the United States dates back at least a half-century. In 1971, a famous TV public service announcement depicted a landscape rife with pollution and litter. A Native American character is shown shedding a tear while a narrator explains, “People start pollution. People can stop it.”

More recently, the concept of individuals figuring out “how to reduce your carbon footprint” has become a staple in climate change discussion.

Indisputably, taking personal action to improve and protect our environment is a good thing. We should embrace an all-of-the-above approach toward combating environmental degradation. That includes doing your bit in everyday life — such as embracing energy efficiency or installing solar panels on your home.

However, as important as those steps are, we must recognize that they are only part of the equation. It is also our personal responsibility to work for a systemic policy overhaul to solve such existential threats as global warming. This may seem obvious, but for some it isn’t. The reason: Powerful interests have shaped our understanding of environmental personal responsibility in a way that emphasizes small change.

Consider this: The renowned advertisement mentioned above, featuring the Native American crying, was bankrolled by companies, such as Coca-Cola and Dixie Cups, which were manufacturing heaps of disposable containers that created large amounts of pollution. As for focusing on personal carbon footprints, that effort gained popularity through an advertising campaign created by BP, the multinational oil and gas conglomerate previously known as British Petroleum.

Why did these companies advocate this type of personal responsibility to solve the problems created by their production?

The publication Mashable offered an explanation in a recent article.

“The genius of the ‘carbon footprint’ is that it gives us something to ostensibly do about the climate problem,” the article pointed out. “No ordinary person can slash 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions. But we can toss a plastic bottle into a recycling bin, carpool to work or eat fewer cheeseburgers.”

“Ostensibly” is the key word here. While this lens for personal responsibility provides people with perceived meaning, in reality, it cannot solely solve the environmental damage created by such products as gas and oil. This was proven during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns. Even when vast swaths of the world’s population cut their individual carbon use while sheltering at home, atmospheric carbon dioxide still hit an all-time high in May. Why? Because our individual contribution to lowering emissions is helpful, but it’s not nearly enough.

At the same time, too many big businesses are still falling short on their responsibilities in this space. While numerous corporations are committing to carbon reduction, very few have a detailed plan to get there.

“Of the 55 major investor-owned utilities that serve electricity customers in the United States … just 22 have drawn up net-zero or carbon-free plans,” the environmental trade publication E&E explained in September, citing a Deloitte study.

Even worse, some corporate endeavors appear to be little more than greenwashing — trying to appear more environmentally responsible than they really are. For example, Exxon, which publicly claims it is “addressing the risk of climate change by reducing our emissions,” privately expects its annual carbon emissions to rise 17 percent by 2025, according to internal documents uncovered by Bloomberg earlier this month.

The oil and gas behemoth told Bloomberg that those numbers don’t include other offset schemes, but regardless, it’s hard to imagine the fossil fuel industry turning away from carbon-based energy when there are so many government-provided incentives to do otherwise right now. Case in point: An International Monetary Fund study last year found that the United States “spent more subsidizing the fossil fuel industry in recent years than it has on defense spending,” Rolling Stone reported.

This reality can be very disheartening. A September 2020 study published in Weather Climate and Society found that efforts to get people to alter their personal behavior to battle global warming actually “decreased individuals’ willingness to take personal actions to reduce greenhouse gases, decreased willingness to support pro-climate candidates, reduced belief in the accelerated speed of climate change, and decreased trust in climate scientists.”

The dynamic of being asked to upend our lives while more powerful entities continue whistling along surely must contribute to this result. But this doesn’t mean we should give up. Rather, we must continue to take the mantle of personal responsibility, but be sure to apply it to large-scale societal transformation.

By all means, this can include the BP-driven concern for our personal “carbon footprint,” but it must also be about changing the broad landscape by supporting policies, leaders and companies that are hellbent on sincerely and completely addressing this harrowing issue. If we get enough of that sort of personal responsibility, the resulting action can truly be game-changing.

The Public Interest Network runs organizations committed to our vision of a better world, a set of core values, and a strategic approach to getting things done. https://publicinterestnetwork.org/

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Josh Chetwynd

Josh Chetwynd

Communications for The Public Interest Network, Environment America and U.S. PIRG; book author: http://amzn.to/1SNJBJT ; avid curler/ex-baseball player

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