Ideas — Whose Fault is Climate Change?

This is not an essay about the science of climate change.

The data behind man-made climate change is so settled as to be banal. I will treat it as factual that the earth is warming, its fragile climate is destabilizing, and its pulsing human burden is accelerating the process. Remaining uncertainty should be directed outwards—to trustworthy institutions, if that’s your thing; to studies on the influence of industry over society’s acceptance of fact, if you find yourself still chewing on “consensus”.

This is an essay about a still-lingering question—whose fault is it?

Recent reports like the latest UN IPCC report and the Trump administration’s climate assessment, both from 2018, have given an edge to a conversation that has often had the hazy uncertainty of an issue just over the horizon. To many individuals, climate “crisis” is still decades or generations away, easily jostled out of its place in the hierarchy of priorities by more tactile concerns. Problems that garner public attention are “soon, salient, and certain,” says Helen Ingram, professor of planning, policy, and design at UC Irvine.

The IPCC’s report updated the Paris Climate Accords’ data, finding that catastrophic environmental effects will be felt after several fewer degrees of atmospheric warming (and thus decades earlier, at current rates) than previously estimated. The window for taking immediate action in order to prevent devastating drought, migration, and economic fallout suddenly shrunk to a decade or two. People, doing the math, asked: wait, that would make me how old? Anxiety surged; accusations flew.

Neither this debate nor the cast of characters is new. But if, finally, the debate over climate change is resonating with a broader audience–as ascendant activism like the Green New Deal and widespread global protests would suggest–it serves us to survey our options. Fault implies responsibility implies a foothold on a path forward, and while no one’s hands are clean, the guiltiest among us should heft the most soap (Dawn works on oil spills, right?). So–

Is it you? Articles like “5 things you can do about climate change” offer tips to the worried individual looking to make a difference in their daily life. Reducing one’s carbon footprint seems more urgent than ever: you might abandon plastic straws, go vegan, drive less, or recycle. This bucket rests on the logic that millions of individual acts will accrue to massive change–the intersection of “every vote matters” and “vote with your dollar”. It enjoys the benefits of tangibility, accessibility, and individual agency. After all, we the people have gazed, unmoved, at decades of alarmed activists and overwhelming evidence. Poor Al Gore.

Is it industry? Corporations are the titans at the other end of the capitalistic transactions that individuals might opt out of–maybe change should start with the peddlers, those with dirtier hands and more unilateral control. The oil and natural gas industry receive the majority of scrutiny here, and for good reason. Investigations into internal documents have revealed that ExxonMobil and Shell understood the dangers of human-made climate change as early as the 1970s. Rather than act, they manufactured doubt and hamstrung responsible regulations. Industry is now facing attorney general investigations and local lawsuits over rising sea levels. Oil and natural gas production emits billions of tons of CO2 and methane yearly, yet they are not alone–animal agriculture, transportation, and fashion headline a litany of other shockingly dirty industries. The logic here is simple: a corporation does vastly more damage than any individual and could reform in leaps and bounds, in board meetings, not street protests.

Is it government? No other camp has greater power to tailor the socioeconomic system in which all other actors move. Governments are deeply involved with the politics of energy, from deregulation to subsidization to nationalization of resources. In theory, politicians are responsible for the health and safety of their citizens, adverse effects of environmental catastrophe included. Yet nowhere has a lack of urgency been more glaring than at the governmental level–from defiant backwardness to outright censorship, from toothless international accords to unfulfilled pledges of reform made at said accords. The lawsuits have followed this logic, accusing governments of failing to protect future generations and even violating human rights. Governance is meant to be responsive, and voters existentially imperilled by climate change (read: all of them) are making it clear that more must be done, that those controlling the system must revamp it.

Or is it even worth parsing? The 2018 UN report calls for transforming the global economy with a speed that “has no documented historic precedent”. What that action will look like and who will spearhead it is as of yet unknown, and history will offer no roadmap. No region, people, or ideology will escape the effects of a climate crisis left to metastasize. None of them can afford inaction any longer. I choose “(d): all of the above.”

Categories: Ideas

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