The climate crisis: It's not your fault after all

Many of us feel some pressure, or even guilt, about our environmental footprint and our role in creating climate change. West Coast's Anjali Appadurai breaks down this common narrative and points to the need to hold Big Oil accountable for the much bigger part it has played in creating and perpetuating the climate crisis.

The Climate Law in Our Hands initiative aims to hold major fossil fuel corporations legally and financially accountable for their role in creating the global climate crisis. This is no easy task!

The hold of these companies upon our lives goes beyond economics and energy politics: we also hold deep-seated misconceptions about who is responsible for climate change, and especially about the responsibility of the fossil fuel industry for harm caused by their products.

Paradoxically, as individuals we often place this responsibility upon ourselves instead of the fossil fuel industry. We feel social and moral pressure to make more sustainable lifestyle changes and seek out greener alternatives. While being a conscientious consumer is a worthy effort, it should not take the spotlight off the huge industrial players and the more systemic roots of climate change.

Does it help to hold ourselves responsible?

In the mid-to-late 1980s when global concern was rising over a hole in the ozone layer in the atmosphere, everyone understood that the goal was to control products that contained ozone-destroying substances, such as those used in refrigeration. Similarly, efforts to phase out lead additives in gasoline focused on ensuring that companies that produced gasoline stopped putting lead into it.

During these debates, nay-sayers did not generally ask, in a confrontational tone – “So, you’re concerned about the ozone layer? Do you own a refrigerator?” Nor did they accuse those concerned about lead pollution harming their kids as hypocrites because they owned cars.

Individuals were not seen as responsible for what was clearly as an issue of unregulated corporate activity. These were systemic problems that could not be solved by individuals acting alone.

Polls show that Canadians are deeply concerned about climate change. They want to do their part – and for others to do their part – to reduce their impact on climate change. In fact, we believe that most people are fundamentally conscientious when they are aware of the facts.

But the main public conversation about climate solutions (at least in affluent nations) centres around lifestyle activism and green consumerism, which places undue judgment and guilt on the individual. It also ignores the reality that we, as individuals, are caught in a climate-unfriendly system, and can only do so much. It is a disempowering conversation because it sets up a grand problem that needs solving – climate change – and gives people a solution that lacks the power to make a real difference.

When it comes to “green” alternatives and conscious consumerism, it also becomes a question of access and privilege: we cannot all afford to buy electric cars or retrofit our homes to be more energy efficient – and even if we did, would that really solve the crisis?

The role of the fossil fuel companies

Why didn’t we connect individual usage of ozone-depleting chemicals with the global problem? Perhaps it was because individual ozone-damaging appliances, like refrigerators, were too essential for daily life. Or perhaps it was because the industries that emitted the most chemicals hadn’t spent time and money to convince the public that everyone was equally to blame.

In the case of the fossil fuel industry’s rampant extraction, burning and marketing of dangerous emissions, we encounter a similar situation. The difference is that in this case, we’ve been misled for decades by the industry as it embarked on a well-funded campaign to take the spotlight off its own responsibility for climate change and make us believe that we, individual citizens, bear equal responsibility for reducing emissions.

Individual Canadians are made to feel guilty for causing (on average) 20.6 tonnes of greenhouse gases per year (and in reality that includes a share of Canada’s industrial emissions). Meanwhile, global oil giant Exxon Mobil is largely applauded for its operations and products that resulted (in 2014) in about 560,600,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. For this contribution to climate change, Exxon made US$32.5 billion. In total, about 3.1% of the human-caused greenhouse gases emissions in the global atmosphere come from Exxon’s operations and products.

Exxon Scientists have had some awareness of some the risks of fossil fuel use and climate change since at least 1957, and it was well aware of the risks that its products were causing by the 1970s. Since that time, the company used its considerable resources to fund public misinformation on the science of climate change, while aggressively lobbying against government action. 

It should also be noted that the fossil fuel industry worldwide is subsidized to the tune of US$5.3 trillion per year, according to an IMF estimate.

This cocktail of factors: massive deception campaigns, Big Oil’s deep reach into our political and economic systems, and the ubiquity of oil in our daily lives, has meant that the industry has historically never been held accountable for a fair share of the ever-rising costs of climate change. Meanwhile, these costs are being incurred anyway, and communities are currently paying for them.

People power, not corporate power

Oil flows through every corner of our economy, embedding itself as our primary source of energy. To live outside this system means having the privilege (of either time or financial resources) to buy or build energy alternatives. And yet, the burden of guilt that many face from their perceived responsibility for climate change continues to grow as we hurtle towards a disastrously warmer world.

The onus to reduce climate change-causing emissions should not be placed upon the individual who is stuck within a system that creates oil dependency.

Individuals can take personal and symbolic steps to reduce their own contribution to climate change.  However, real systemic change will come from organized, collective action, and a recognition that our voices must be raised together in order to be heard by fossil fuel companies and governments alike. We need to be prepared to engage with power, and take on the vested corporate interests that benefit from our fossil-fuel addicted system. Our true power lies in our collectivity. 

Who should pay for the costs of oil dependency?

Right now, it’s communities all over world who are paying for the costs of preparing for, and recovering from, climate impacts. This cost should not be placed solely on our communities. If the main players causing climate change (the fossil fuel industry) had to pay for the true costs of the damages they cause, they would be forced to pivot away from business as usual. Climate change and its ever-accelerating costs would become a responsibility to take seriously, if only for their financial bottom lines.

It is estimated that climate change will cost the Canadian economy $5 billion per year by 2020.  Metro Vancouver municipalities are expected to pay $9.5 billion for sea level rise before 2100. Our communities will not be able to afford the rising tide of climate costs that is bearing down on them, unless we have a fundamental question about who should help pay these costs.

Add to this the devastating impacts of climate change upon vulnerable nations and communities around the world, multiple human rights abuses by oil companies, health impacts faced by communities in extraction sites, and the numerous spills, leaks and environmental disasters from  oil infrastructure projects, and the true cost of our fossil fuel economy looms large.

It is time that we discuss the responsibility and accountability of the industry that has played a major role in creating that system, which continues to oppose changes to the oil-addicted system and which, as a result, profits to the tune of billions of dollars from selling products which it knows are destroying our atmosphere and our communities. 

Through Climate Law in Our Hands, we hope to work with BC communities to assess climate change impacts in their regions, to request a fair share of the costs of those impacts from the fossil fuel industry, and to demand this type of accountability. We have every right to expect this from the industry that in many ways created the climate crisis as we know it.

It’s time to stop granting immunity to Big Oil by taking personal responsibility for climate change.

Anjali Appadurai, Climate Communications Specialist
Andrew Gage, Staff Counsel