climate change

Opinion: Climate change and individual responsibility

Photo credit Markus Spiske via Pexels.

By Anders Lorenzen

When it comes to action on climate change in some climate activist circles there is no such thing as individual responsibility, as consuming less, as eating differently, as flying less or changing your overall carbon footprint. No, they believe that the responsibility lies solely on the shoulders on big evil corporations such as fossil fuel companies for extracting all that coal, oil and gas. 

But here’s the thing. Actions by big corporations are at least partly driven by individuals and when individuals change their behaviour it pressures corporations to change direction. There’s also a lack of understanding that a lot of individual actions together can amount to a pretty big deal and in return cause a change of policy. 

All this does of course not mean that corporations and politicans are innocent. And they should definitely not be allowed to shift the blame onto consumers.

Shared responsibility

But we should be wary of some activists and campaigners who argue it is all the fault of big corporations, the wealthy elite and so on; this while an average middle-class family continues to consume to excess but has no share of responsibility. 

If one were to take an example from the pandemic in the UK where the government has come under immense criticism for their handling of the crisis. But many people have not felt they needed to change their personal behaviour. They have continued to meet people en masse, not to wear masks or to socially distance themselves. As it happens, the government’s handling of the pandemic has been woeful, and as result the infection and mortality rates in the UK have been the highest in Europe. But equally, the people who have refused to take any responsibility and carry on with their lives as normal, bear as much responsibility as the government. 

Some campaigners argue that individual actions do not matter, and that it should not be up to individuals to take action on climate change. Our failure to tackle the climate crisis, they argue, is all down to governments and corporations and that is where the focus should be. They add that people should not cut down on their meat intakes, should not stop flying or in any other way lower their carbon footprint. But instead, they argue, oil companies should just stop drilling for oil and banks should stop funding fossil fuel projects. This, of course, needs to happen too. But it is not either-or, it is both.

Plays into hopelessness 

Statements removing any kind of individual responsibility are dangerous, and they hamper our shared ability to confront the climate challenge. And it plays into the feeling of hopelessness which many have when it comes to tackling climate change, that it is too big a problem for any individual to do anything about.  But this idea is of course wrong. Many individual actions can become big collective actions. The key thing here is that corporations and governments respond to public demand and changing consumer attitudes.

Why individual action matter

Why are so many governments coming up with more ambitious climate policies? It is because more people now demand action than ever before, and if the politicians do not respond to public demand they will be out of office in the next election. Similarly, oil companies know if they do not change course, their whole business model will fall apart and eventually they will go bankrupt. Last year BP set out a new policy, diversifying away from fossil fuels more than any other similar company. 

Did this happen because they suddenly became eco-warriors? No, it happened because changing consumer demand is moving away from oil and more consumers demand green energy, electric cars and so on, and individual shareholders are also standing up and demanding change. 

The demand to eat less meat and go vegan is also being led by individual actions. The growing demand for plant-based products means that supermarkets have to stock such products, cater to plant-based consumer-demand or risk losing shoppers. 

A household changing all its lightbulbs to the more energy-efficient LED lights might not sound like much. But a whole community doing so, while maybe also retrofitting their homes and putting up solar panels on their roofs, suddenly amounts to a big ideal. This might not sound like much in the grand scheme of things, but when many communities start doing it, a small individual action suddenly becomes a big collective action which can change policies at local and national levels and amongst corporations. 

These are just a few examples, and there are of course many more.

It goes without saying, the burden should not just be on individuals to change their ways. It should be a shared and joint effort where individuals, corporations and governments all need to play their part. 

But do not ever tell individuals that they do not have the power to change the world. They do!

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