Everyone has a role in fighting climate change. This has always been the message through Canadian schools. Children are taught about recycling from a young age, and high schoolers learn about their carbon footprint and how they can reduce it by biking to school or eating less meat. You are the one who needs to make the change to mitigate climate disaster. But really, where does this sentiment come from?
Of course, there is some validity in the argument for individual changes to lifestyle to curb climate change. Changing habits will have a reduction in carbon emissions, and every reduction has a positive impact (read this article for more on the importance of incremental changes). But, an average individual’s decision will only do so much. There are certain individuals or small groups of people, however, whose decisions have a huge impact on climate change and have been historically negative. Fossil fuel giants are the main culprits of climate change. Since 1988, 71% of global emissions can be traced to only 100 fossil fuel companies. But, this business of destroying our only home makes them and their investors ridiculous amounts of money, so they don’t want to change. Even if there were ways that they could change to be more sustainable and remain profitable, it is so much easier to just continue doing business as usual.
So, what did they do? Two things: Deny climate change, its importance, and human’s ability to stop it, while also promoting ideas like the carbon footprint (coined by British Petroleum) and the possibility of large-scale recycling. And if these two concepts, denying climate change while also promoting ways individuals can fight it seem weird next to each other, it’s because they are. These are two logically inconsistent ideas that no one who was acting under the assumption that one or the other was the correct course of action could possibly work towards at the same time. But fossil fuel companies are not interested in logical consistency or a greater good or even the truth. They are interested in profits, whether or not that leaves any food to eat and air to breathe.
In fact, oil companies are so uninterested in truth that even when internal documents showed that prominent figures within the company were certain that climate change was real and human-caused, they still promoted the idea that climate change was false, then later that it was natural, then later still that humans could not do anything to stop it. They ran ads opposing climate action in newspapers, they lobbied against governments when they acted to save the planet. Oil companies have known the impact of their products on climate change since the 1950s and still invest enormous sums of money into PR campaigns to avoid making changes.
But for those who still knew the truth, that fossil fuel use caused climate change, fossil fuel companies blinded them with a mirror. Promoting recycling and the idea of an individual carbon footprint, especially for young people, stalls the true action that needs to happen; oil companies must start phasing out the production of fossil fuels now. But PR campaigns by the industry have been extremely effective in taking the heat off of themselves and transferring that heat to our climate. These giants even take the stance that they are “just providing what the consumers want”, but that holds no water when consumers are constantly being force-fed advertisements to buy more plastics, use more fuel, and consume more of everything, as well as articles downplaying climate change impacts, all sponsored by oil companies (for more on the impacts of advertising on the climate, try this article).
So what can be done? How can oil companies be held accountable for their destruction of the planet? To continue avoiding focusing on the individual, there are two major actions which must be taken. The first is to make fossil fuel giants internalize the externalities of their business. Every gallon of oil produced has a positive impact on an oil company – they make money, but also a negative impact on literally the entire rest of the planet. But, because industry demands one acts in self-interest, it is the common decision to still produce that gallon of oil, even when the overall impact on society is net negative. Internalizing the externalities means calculating the monetary cost of the environmental impacts of each gallon of oil and making oil companies pay for it. Of course, this will never be mathematically perfect, as it is impossible to calculate the true cost of environmental degradation to human health and the economy, but advancements in attribution science can help calculate oil companies’ direct impact on ocean acidification, weather regime shifts, rising temperatures, etc. Even if this is only calculated for the citizens of one country, it will help reduce the amount of fossil fuel production and hold oil companies accountable for their impacts.
The second important macro-level change is the divestment from the oil industry. Canada subsidizes the oil industry to the tune of 3.3$ billion every single year. It is completely illogical to even allow an industry which kills people to exist without extremely strict regulation, let alone support it so that it operates at a level above what would normally be profitable. There are issues with removing subsidies, such as lost jobs, but the 3.3$ billion could be invested in retraining for renewable energy sources. Furthermore, CEOs of major Canadian oil companies such as Al Monaco could take a cut to their 17 million dollar salaries to save lives. Other major investors in oil such as McGill University (which pours in almost 50$ million annually) must also divest to keep the planet and the people who live on it alive.
Luckily, there are grassroots movements such as student-led divestment campaigns which are making a difference. In this fight against climate injustice, the best solution is to make your voice heard. In the spirit of this article, the discussion of individual actions will be kept short, but they aren’t useless. Speaking out against the fossil fuel industry’s lies will help combat the misleading and misinformation. Voting for parties who will crack down on subsidies and implement the internalization of externalities will save lives. And most importantly staying educated and informed will help protect you from the lies whose only goal is to profit off of your suffering.
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