it’s tough to take, easy to serve. A claim that you have most definitely heard, read, and seen numerous times over the past two years–– one that has been broadcasted by scientists, activists, academics, and journalists alike: humans are, unequivocally, the primary drivers of climate change. We can split up human society into three main groups: government, corporations, and consumers. These are in turn the three main actors when it comes to thinking about who is responsible for not only causing, but, more importantly, fixing the climate crisis. Each of these groups have taken turns on the stage of climate change blame. The varying roles they play in society makes pinning down a culprit a difficult task. We’ll analyse each group through three critical angles: rhetoric, reality, and responsibility. By rhetoric, we mean the language and messages that that group uses when speaking about the climate crisis. Reality, on the other hand, is the term we use to describe what’s actually going on–– the action that is being taken. And lastly, responsibility, where we’ll determine if–– and why–– that group has a role to play in the fight against climate change.
For many issues, from social inequality to, of course, climate change, governments become scapegoats. With the Earth quickly approaching alarming temperatures, pollutants soaring, and natural disasters waging, people have been left to search for a solution. Because the problem of climate change is monumental, individuals feel as though real change can only be implemented on the government level. When we see that climate change is not letting up, we are told that ‘government inaction’ is to blame. But, is that really true?
Rhetoric. When it comes to climate policy, many believe it fair that the governments in countries who have historically emitted the most carbon and greenhouse gases into the environment–– meaning the regions that have been the largest contributors to climate change–– should also be the ones implementing the most impactful laws and regulations to combat it. Greenpeace points out that the United Kingdom is included in this list, considering that it first started emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere during the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Others look toward the United States, who continue to be a world leader in the amount of greenhouse gas emissions it produces each year.
It just so happens that these countries are the ones that set the most ambitious goals. During his 2020 presidential campaign trail, Joe Biden called climate change the “number one issue facing humanity,” promising to allocate billions of dollars towards boosting renewable energy and dramatically reducing carbon emissions in the United States. The U.S.’s most recent plans include reducing emissions from 2005 levels by 50 to 52 percent within the next eight years, creating a carbon-pollution free power sector by 2035, and reaching a net zero emissions economy by 2050. At a White House climate summit last April, the administration encouraged other countries to make their targets bolder; some, including Japan, Canada, and Britain pledged afterwards to strengthen their pledges. It is clear that world leaders, politicians, and governments across borders recognise that climate change is an urgent issue that needs to be acted upon— explaining this abundance of pledges and promises.
Reality. Does ambition give way to action? Governments across the globe have demonstrated the ways in which pledges become obstructed by politics and thwarted by under-the-rug dealings. In the U.S., for example, conservative members of Congress have criticised their country’s new pledges, making the argument that they are pointless and harmful to the economy, citing mainly that China, who is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the world, has set far less energetic goals. Just months before the U.K. hosted COP26, it was revealed that its government was actively supporting and investing in fossil fuel projects overseas. It’s important to note that our purpose here is not to diminish governments and the goals that they set. We recognise happily that climate objectives set by the government have also been followed up by impactful legislation, such as, most recently, the complete ban of single-use plastics in India.
Responsibility. Governments are unique in their ability to implement wide-sweeping and deep-reaching structural changes. Climate change cannot be combated without governments setting ambitious targets–– and backing them up by policy. Having regulations on harmful industries, people in power who care about the climate crisis, and international agreements are critical for reversing the effects of climate change; so it is fair to say that governments do have an intrinsic obligation to assist in this fight. But, they’re not alone in responsibility, which brings us to the next major group: corporations.
Rhetoric. Corporations, much like governments across the world, have hopped on the net zero train. Over 300 companies have signed the Amazon Climate Pledge to reach net zero emissions by 2040, with a plethora of other companies, large and small, announcing their yearly emissions by 2050. Some major companies have obtained certifications and pledged to play their part in advancing the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Other companies are releasing product lines that are advertised as A vocabulary of corporate responsibility has developed around climate change, as companies are feeling increasing pressure from consumers (and the climate) to incorporate sustainability into their business.
Reality. With the eyes of consumers on them, many companies have been accused of what is called ‘greenwashing.’ This is a precise case where the rhetoric does not match the reality, in that companies advertise themselves and their products as sustainable as a way to attract customers and appeal to the market when they are actually doing nothing to help the environment. While this is a real concern, we find hope in recognising that those who greenwash are a small bunch out of a host of companies who are implementing tangible measures to back up their sustainability goals. Nearly all of the individual companies that have signed the Amazon Climate Pledge, for example, are already gradually reducing their carbon footprint by investing in carbon offsetting schemes. There are also a number of companies that are at the forefront of innovations, such as products from alternative materials, to work towards building a more sustainable world.
Responsibility. We believe that placing sustainability at the top of the priority list as a business no longer has the luxury of being optional. Large corporations in industries that have contributed to causing the climate crisis are undeniably at fault, and are thus undeniably responsible. Companies in all sectors have the power to build a more sustainable market, whether that be through making efforts to reduce their own emissions or investing in sustainable innovations. If companies have a responsibility to act sustainably, what about the people buying things from them?
Rhetoric. In a 2021 study, it was found that sustainability is ranked as an important business criterion for 60 percent of consumers. The term “ethical buying” has sprung up in recent years, as consumers have started to become more conscious of which brands and materials that they put their money towards. It was also found that younger generations–– as in Generation Z–– prioritise sustainability over brand name when making purchasing decisions. In an era where individuals can broadcast details of their lifestyles with the world on social media–– at the same time that the climate crisis has forged its way to the forefront of political dialogues–– the sentiment that one person as a consumer can play either a positive or a negative role in the climate crisis has become increasingly common.
Reality. Okay, so we know that the polls tell us consumers are more environmentally conscious and concerned about sustainability than ever before. However, many who say they care about combating climate change though their purchasing decisions worry about its financial feasibility. There is no denying that some sustainable products are priced higher than their unsustainable counterparts. Many consumers know that this is because of good reasons, whether that be the higher cost of material and production or fairer conditions for farmers. And, in a world that is in urgent need of our attention and action, an ‘all or nothing’ mindset can do more harm than good. That’s why there is still a bustling market for sustainable products— consumers are making sustainable choices, such as choosing the environmentally friendly packaging option for their online goods, when they can and when it is accessible to them.
Responsibility. There is no doubt that consumers are equally to blame for the climate crisis. Governments would not run without a public to govern, and corporations would cease to exist without people to buy their products. We, of course, encourage all of our readers–– and anyone else out there–– to pursue a sustainable lifestyle. This can look like, for example, minimising your use of single-use plastics, taking more public transportation, keeping your clothes for longer, and consuming more plant-based foods. It can also mean being conscious, speaking out, and taking action in the fight against climate change. When you make these changes, you are not acting alone, and we believe you will have an impact, as you are actually joining a coalition of people working towards a common goal.