You Are Doing Your Best to Stop Climate Change. Businesses Are Not
As long as individuals bear the burden of guilt, the biggest polluters will continue making the problem worse.
There's a guilt narrative attached to any discussion of climate change. We drive too many cars. We eat too much beef. We, as in, the consumer, the person, the individual culprit sleepwalking over the climate cliff.
I'm here to tell you that you are doing OK.
Consumers—you, me, your mom, your dentist—are all locked into a system that requires us to consume fossil fuels. Sure, you recycle, but the truck that picks up your washed and sorted refuse runs on diesel. Acts as simple as taking medication, eating an orange, and buying shoes are all fraught with carbon. And that's not your fault. Can you honestly imagine refusing to take medication because of the medical industry's enormous carbon footprint? Of course not! Furthermore, that's not a sacrifice that you should be asked to make. It's unreasonable. So is asking someone who makes $24,000 per year and lives in an apartment to buy an electric vehicle.
The great secret is this: as long as your personal guilt about climate change crushes you and eats up all your energy, the for-profit organizations that are causing the most damage can—and will—continue their bad behavior. And as they do, they will be very happy to let you believe that it's all your fault. It's not.
About 100 companies contribute 70 percent of the carbon pollution problem. Here are the names of those 100 biggest polluters according to the University of Massachusetts Amherst's data. As you can see, Boeing and DuPont rank high on the list, as does OshKosh Corp and Berkshire Hathaway. Obviously, it's dominated by oil companies, and even if you drive a car, you're both their beneficiary and their captive. They power everything around you, even if you somehow manage to evade direct interaction with them in your daily life.
That's not to say that changing your behavior is pointless. No way! Ditching plastic straws is unilaterally a good move. Eating less meat—or at least much less beef—is a bona fide planetary hero move. If you've given up flying, that's amazing. Biking to work (which is good for a lot of reasons) is stellar and above reproach. If you do any or all of this stuff, let's celebrate you right here and right now. You really are doing more than your best.
Which makes it all the crueler for the true culprits to allow you to believe that you're not doing enough. You are! But it is not your responsibility to bear the consequences of giant emitters like Amazon, companies so huge that they could afford to convert to renewable power ten times over without endangering their market power. The fact that companies like Unilever set goals toward having greener products does not excuse a supply chain still generally dependent on carbon fuels for shipping. Even if Unilever ships eco-friendly from now on—which, by the way, does not appear to be one of their stated goals—the companies that supply Unilever won't themselves be carbon-neutral, and nor will the stores that stock their shelves with its products. The fact that you need to use soap does not mean that you're responsible for the global economy's dependence on diesel trucks. That is the responsibility of the ones who are making these overwhelming contributions to the problem.
This invites a certain elephant into the room: what exactly would a large company need to consider a good enough reason to go green? As the effects of climate change become more severe, it is fairly mind-boggling to realize that the reason that Coca-Cola doesn't take action to mitigate its carbon footprint is that they care more about their bottom line. There are shareholders to satisfy and a ticker symbol to serve. The fates of the people who buy their drinks is secondary to the next quarter's projected numbers.
Ironically, this is a way that your consumer behavior really can change the world. Companies respond to their consumers in a way that governments sometimes don't respond to their constituents. Consumers who write to companies communicate with a marketing department that's money-motivated and interested in determining customer trends. If you write a letter to, say, Anheuser-Busch, that letter's content instantly becomes a data point for that company. If five other people happen to write letters about the same topic as your letter dealt with, then your issue becomes a trend. Trends get attention.
The other way that consumers can affect corporate behavior is through boycotts, but that's not a great way to generate change. Most companies nowadays know that boycotts are hard to sustain. ,When one comes along, they'll just wait it out. It doesn't help that boycotters would have to swear off essentially the entire economy. Once again, that's an unfair ask for an individual.
So what's left? The government, that's what! If you want to change the behavior of the companies that pollute the most, especially the big oil producers that won't stop spewing carbon into the air no matter what, vote for candidates who pledge to take action. Government action, particularly carbon pricing, can move an entire economy from carbon-fueled to carbon-free better than any consumer group. Instead of working on one company at a time, like you can, your representatives can make sweeping laws that change the behaviors of entire industries.
Climate change isn't your fault. You're trapped in a fossil-fueled system owned by the Bayer Group and Sunoco. But you can make them stop. The key is to bother your Congressperson, campaign for a climate-conscious candidate, donate if you can, but above all, vote.
I'm a librarian, a green activist, and a contributor to Book Riot. I've also written for ETekly, The Trouble, and, of course, Vocal. You can also check out my website, where I blog about librarian issues. Tip me if you like my style!