Monday, January 21, 2019

​Focusing on how individuals can help combat climate change may not be the best approach

By Morten Fibieger Byskov


18 January, 2019

What can be done to limit global warming to 1.5°C? A quick internet search offers a deluge of advice on how individuals can change their behaviour.

Take public transport instead of the car or, for longer journeys, the train rather than fly. Eat less meat and more vegetables, pulses and grains, and don’t forget to turn off the light when leaving a room or the water when shampooing.

[And the case for or against vegetarianism (as a solution for climate change? Link here.]
The implication here is that the impetus for addressing climate change is on individual consumers.

But can and should it really be the responsibility of individuals to limit global warming? On the face of it, we all contribute to global warming through the cumulative impact of our actions.

By changing consumption patterns on a large scale we might be able to influence companies to change their production patterns to more sustainable methods.

Some experts have argued that everyone (or at least those who can afford it) has a responsibility to limit global warming, even if each individual action is insufficient in itself to make a difference.

Yet there are at least two reasons why making it the duty of individuals to limit global warming is wrong.

Climate change is a planetary-scale threat and, as such, requires planetary-scale reforms that can only be implemented by the world’s governments.

Individuals can at most be responsible for their own behaviour, but governments have the power to implement legislation that compels industries and individuals to act sustainably.

[I'm not sure if those are the two points. Or is the last paragraph elaborating on the point in the previous paragraph.]

Although the power of consumers is strong, it pales in comparison to that of international corporations and only governments have the power to keep these interests in check.

Usually, we regard governments as having a duty to protect citizens. So why is it that we allow them to skirt these responsibilities just because it is more convenient to encourage individual action?

Asking individuals to bear the burden of global warming shifts the responsibilities from those who are meant to protect to those who are meant to be protected. We need to hold governments to their responsibilities first and foremost.

A recent report found that just 100 companies are responsible for 71 per cent of global emissions since 1988. Incredibly, a mere 25 corporations and state-owned entities were responsible for more than half of global industrial emissions in that same period.

Most of these are coal and oil producing companies and include ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, Chevron, Gazprom, and the Saudi Arabian Oil Company.

China leads the pack on the international stage with 14.3 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions due to its coal production and consumption.

[This is disingenuous. China has about 20% of the worlds population, and from that perspective, contributing 14.3% of global emissions means that on the whole, they are less of a problem than the US, with about 4% of the world's population but emitting about 8% of global emissions.] 

If the fossil fuel industry and high polluting countries are not forced to change, we will be on course to increase global average temperatures by 4°C by the end of the century.

If just a few companies and countries are responsible for so much of global greenhouse gas emissions, then why is our first response to blame individuals for their consumption patterns?

[Or perhaps this is the second point - the few companies and countries.]

It shouldn’t be – businesses and governments need to take responsibility for curbing industrial emissions.

Rather than rely on appeals to individual virtue, what can be done to hold governments and industries accountable?

Governments have the power to enact legislation which could regulate industries to remain within sustainable emission limits and adhere to environmental protection standards.

Companies should be compelled to purchase emissions rights – the profits from which can be used to aid climate vulnerable communities.

Governments could also make renewable energy generation, from sources such as solar panels and wind turbines, affordable to all consumers through subsidies.

Affordable and low-carbon mass transportation must replace emission-heavy means of travel, such as planes and cars.

More must also be done by rich countries and powerful industries to support and empower poorer countries to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

All of this is not to say that individuals cannot or should not do what they can to change their behaviour where possible.

Every little contribution helps, and research shows that limiting meat consumption can be an effective step. The point is that failing to do so should not be considered morally blameworthy.

In particular, individuals living in poorer countries who have contributed almost nothing to climate change deserve the most support and the least guilt.

They are neither the primary perpetrators of global warming nor the ones who have the power to enact the structural changes necessary for limiting global warming, which would have to involve holding powerful industries responsible.

While individuals may have a role to play, appealing to individual virtues for addressing climate change is something akin to victim-blaming because it shifts the burden from those who ought to act to those who are most likely to be affected by climate change.

A far more just and effective approach would be to hold those who are responsible for climate change accountable for their actions. 

[So the conclusion is... not our responsibility?]



Morten Fibieger Byskov is a Postdoctoral Researcher in International Politics at the University of Warwick. This piece first appeared in The Conversation.

[I don't disagree with the general theme of this article. I agree that expecting the world to be changed by our "slacktivistic" contirbutions is optimistic at best, idealistic at worst, and reflects naive gullibility and a desperate need for control. The problem of climate change and carbon emissions is a tragedy of the commons, and it is a given that in such a situation, rational, logical cost-benefit consideration will result in the worst possible outcome. Expecting people to act against their short-term interest is laughably naive and idealistic.

Michio Kaku believes that the Solar Revolution is around the corner. Within the next 10 years maybe (and he said this 7 years ago, so it is really REALLY just around the corner.).

And once solar power is more available and convenient than fossil fuel, we would switch to it. And then in 20 years time, there would be another breakthrough in Fusion Power. And then there would not be additional carbon emission. 
"... solar power is going to become cheaper and in 10 years or so the two curves could actually cross, and in 20 years a new game changer arrives and that is fusion power. .. and if we have the power of the sun on the earth then sea water could drive all our machines.  So if this scenario plays out... it means that global warming could actually be a problem only for the next several decades as we enter the solar era and the fusion era.  The problem is we have already lofted so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and we will continue to do so for decades to come, that even before we enter the solar age and the fusion age we will have so much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that we will really screw up the weather.  But on a long-term basis I think that solar energy and fusion power will be the solution, the ultimate solution, for the greenhouse problem. "
So the takeaway from Michio Kaku is, climate change is inevitable and irreversible. But it is not permanent. In the longer term view (say in 200 years?), things will be back to normal.]

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