Scientists and climate policy wonks usually say global warming is caused by “human activities.” This shorthand obscures an important point: while we humans are certainly responsible for climate change on some level, just a few of us — particularly in industry and government — are a lot more responsible than the rest of us.
After all, I like humans. I like activities, too. And it’s industry practices and government policies that largely determine how much heat-trapping emissions our human activities produce.
Industrial-scale carbon burning is causing climate change; humans are just doing activities
From a scientific perspective, recent climate change is caused by an excess of heat-trapping emissions in the atmosphere. The gases happen to be coming from extracting and then burning massive amounts of coal and oil, as well as destroying tropical forests.
Because scientists have invested so much effort in successfully differentiating between natural and “human-caused” warming — and because a loud minority of fossil fuel companies, ideological groups and politicians have insisted for decades that scientists are wrong — the terms of the broader debate about climate change are often stuck on this point, at least in the United States.
When we focus on the “human activities” that are causing climate change, we sound like we’re laying climate blame on things like using a washer and dryer, driving, flipping a light switch and other day-to-day things many humans in the developed world take for granted and that many humans in the developing world would very much like to do, too.
In an ideal world, these human activities would continue. They simply wouldn't produce the heat-trapping gases that are rapidly altering the climate on which we depend.
As it stands, our best individual attempts at limiting the carbon footprint of our human activities can only go so far — and many steps are much harder than they should be, even in the developed world:
- I can buy the most fuel-efficient car, but if the gas I’m using to fill it up was extracted from tar sands, my carbon footprint will be larger than it would be otherwise.
- If my utility company buys a lot of coal because government policies subsidize it, LED lightbulbs, an electric car, and turning the light switch off when I leave a room can only get me so far.
- I can put solar panels on my roof — if my state and local government don’t throw up unnecessary barriers at the behest of energy companies.
- I can studiously make deforestation-free purchases, but only if companies tell me how they make their products.
Given these constraints, we need to be clearer about what is really causing climate change. “Human activities” are great. Climate change is caused by industrial activities. And those activities are incentivized by government policy, which industry goes out of its way to influence.
A few of us are way more responsible for climate change than all of us
I got to thinking about this because of Rick Heede. He’s a geographer who has done the careful work of figuring out how much of the carbon in our atmosphere can be traced back to the coal and oil that companies have extracted from the earth.
The numbers are head-turning: two-thirds of all industrial carbon emissions come from just 90 institutions. Several of those institutions, including Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, and Conoco Phillips, have extracted more carbon from the earth than most countries.
As Heede put it, the heads of these institutions could fit comfortably in a Greyhound bus. And if you’ve been paying attention to the climate debate, you know that many of these same companies have spent decades deceiving the public and policymakers about science — practices that disturbingly continue to this day, despite the scientific risks of climate change becoming ever starker.
So while we all share in the “blame” for climate change, only a few of the 7 billion humans on this planet truly have the power to determine how much more coal and oil comes out of the earth and how much stays in the ground. The Onion explained this better than I ever could. After Heede’s research was published the satirical news site went with this headline: “New Report Finds Climate Change Caused by 7 Billion Key Individuals.” Seems silly, right? But that’s effectively what we’re saying when we reduce the cause of climate change to “human activities.”
Corporate and government policies constrain our ability to make free choices
As the climate debate evolves, it may start to look like more like debates we've had — and are still having — on public health issues. Too often, those debates have involved conservatives and liberals talking past one another, with conservatives standing up for individual rights and liberals looking to hold corporations that cause public health problems accountable.
I’m a pragmatist, so those broken debates frustrate me to no end. We can’t ignore individual choice and responsibility; at the same time, we also have to recognize that our individual choices are constrained by corporate practices and government laws and regulations. It’s wrong for individuals to neglect their personal responsibility; it’s also wrong for corporations to stand in the way of government policies that would reduce the harm we face from their products.
Take obesity, for instance. It can be thought of as an individual problem — overeating and a lack of exercise. But it is also arguably a societal problem caused, in large part, by misguided public policies such as agricultural subsidies that makes 100 calories of Doritos substantially cheaper than 100 calories of bell peppers, and a junk food lobby that is fighting to keep kids hooked on their unhealthy products.
Or take smoking. Individuals bear some responsibility for choosing to smoke; tobacco companies also bear responsibility for spending billions marketing an addictive substance and trying to cover up the science linking their products to lung disease.
So, who is responsible for climate change?
This energy-conscious kid?
A company digging coal out of the ground in Wyoming?
Exxon CEO Rick Tillerson?
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee?
The answer is “yes.” It should be obvious, though, that the company extracting coal, the CEO planning for a future of more and more oil extraction and the senators we’ve elected to serve the public interest bear far more responsibility than our young superhero at the light switch.
The future is about better choices, not feeling guilty about the past
We were all born into a world that was heavily reliant on coal and oil. Our grandparents didn’t know that that these products were causing climate change, any more than they knew that smoking was causing lung cancer or that a corn-chip-based diet was unhealthy.
Now we know. That’s a gift science has given us.
Solving a problem as big as climate change isn’t an activity individual humans can decide to do on their own. We need government to create better ground rules for energy production that account for the climate risks we face. That means we need companies to stop misrepresenting the science. They also need to stop trying to tilt the rules in favor of business models that neglect scientific realities.
We’re making progress. And we need to do more. Our grandchildren can be born into a world where “human activities” don’t cause climate change because we’ve figured out how to make clean energy as ubiquitous as fossil fuels are today.
What a gift that could be.
A version of this post originally appeared on the Union of Concerned Scientists’s blog, The Equation.