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Opinion
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Guest Column
Sorry, but you can’t save the world from climate catastrophe all by yourself | Column
Despite what the feel-good ads and well-intentioned tips for green living might have us believe, there’s simply no way that individual actions are going to avert apocalyptic global warming.
This essay was written by an author who will participate in the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs, which runs from Feb. 15-18, 2022.
This essay was written by an author who will participate in the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs, which runs from Feb. 15-18, 2022. [ Photo illustration by Don Brown ]
Published Feb. 10|Updated Feb. 11

Editor’s note: For years, the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs has brought together diplomats, journalists and academic experts to discuss key international issues. This year’s edition is planned as an in-person and live-stream “hybrid” event. It will be held from Tuesday through Friday. It is free, but sign-up is required at worldaffairsconference.org. This column was written by a conference participant.

Like millions of other people, when I head to the grocery store I instinctively grab my cloth shopping bag. I turn the lights off when I leave the room. I buy locally sourced food, and I’ve even been given to using a metal drinking straw to avoid the plastic ones that apparently harm sea turtles (and the paper ones that are useless for drinking a beverage).

I get a little doing-my-part dopamine surge — before I remember that I’m buying into the global gaslighting campaign to shift blame from the true polluters to individuals.

And I get mad about it every time.

It’s not that these actions are burdensome — those canvas bags can haul a lot of groceries — but I know that they feed into a dangerous lie that’s standing in the way of addressing the catastrophic climate crisis that’s already arriving in Florida and around the world. Despite what the feel-good ads and well-intentioned tips for green living might have us believe, there’s simply no way that individual actions are going to avert apocalyptic global warming.

Libby Liu
Libby Liu [ Provided ]

The idea that if we each just did our part is appealing not just because it makes us feel empowered to make a difference, but because it gives us someone to blame. Take that, users of disposable plastic water bottles!

But the argument that we’re going to ease this problem through individual responsibility doesn’t add up. And it lets some of the most reckless and irresponsible actors off the hook.

In 2019, for instance a single oil company, Shell, was responsible for emitting 1.65 billion tons of carbon. That same year, the company’s CEO, Ben van Beurden, publicly chastised his driver for buying strawberries in January. Eating fruit out of season is such a climate no-no.

The truth is that it’s the actions of van Beurden, not his ill-treated chauffeur, that are driving us off the climate cliff.

Nor is it oil companies alone that deserve our scrutiny. There is plenty of culpability and complicity to go around and across virtually every major sector. The financial service industry, for instance, has a legal responsibility to conduct risk assessments for the financing they dole out for energy projects, including projects with an enormous carbon footprint. Yet they routinely ignore climate impacts — and climate risks — in order to make a profit.

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Advertising and marketing firms serving big polluters, too, are aware of the scale of the crisis, yet they use their efforts to direct our attention away from massively dangerous systems and toward the role “you” can play in shrinking your carbon footprint. It wasn’t environmental activists but rather BP in collaboration with ad firm Ogilvy & Mather that gave a big boost to the term “carbon footprint” after the company released an individual “carbon calculator” in 2004.

Big Tech firms are preaching responsibility publicly and to their employees but are enabling the polluters to wreak destruction more effectively through technology. A 2020 report from Greenpeace showed “... how the three largest cloud companies — Amazon (33% market share), Microsoft (18%) and Google (8%) — are partnering with oil companies to use artificial intelligence technologies to discover new oil and gas deposits to exploit.

How do we know that decisions were consciously made to minimize corporate responsibility for the climate crisis? Because again and again courageous individuals across industries have spoken out about what they’ve seen to raise the alarm. Yet they’ve routinely been dismissed or, even worse, ignored entirely.

My complaint about the “up by the bootstraps” approach to tackling climate change isn’t to say that individuals don’t have a role to play. But our role has to be collective, using the force of our government and our civic institutions to demand that corporate actors across industries take responsibility for their actions and for the crisis they’ve caused.

First and foremost, we need transparency. Whistleblowers who see wrongdoing should never have to choose between their conscience and their careers. Regulators and lawmakers can’t address these issues if they don’t know what’s happening and we the public cannot convey our demands through public discourse if these secrets are left to fester in the dark, so robust legal protections for whistleblowers are a critical piece of any climate agenda.

Only then can we, collectively, hold industries accountable for their role in creating the climate crisis and create clear, effective regulations that will put our collective wellbeing, and not short term profits, first.

It takes a village to ruin a planet. It’s going to take a village to repair one, too.

Libby Liu is the CEO of Whistleblower Aid, which supports public servants and private employees who seek to expose government and corporate wrongdoing without breaking the law.

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