Why Are Individuals Responsible for Solving Climate Change?

Some people do their part to fight climate change by ditching their cars and riding bikes instead. (Photo: Alexey Yuzhakov/Shutterstock)

Our individual actions make a difference. I believe this strongly and have dedicated over a decade of my career to the idea, publishing a website where I helped people make choices that had a lower environmental impact. I've been vegetarian for more than two decades, choose to be child-free partially because I can't justify my genes' importance over the shocking amount of resources creating another American entails, and haven't owned a car in four years. Those things, over time, will absolutely reduce my impact on our beautiful world, and the more people do them, the greater that impact.

But it's not nearly enough.

Yet, we've been told that our personal choices are the primary way to affect change on a monumentally huge problem — probably the largest challenge that humanity has collectively ever faced.

While I will continue to do my part to avert climate change, I have to wonder why there isn't an equally robust effort by those who have the biggest impact. According to a recent report, 71 percent of greenhouse gases are produced by just 100 companies. Surely, working to minimize their emissions will do far more, much faster than me talking people's ears off on Facebook about eating less meat. After all, I have been doing that kind of work for 20 years now, and we are still headed towards climate disaster.

When I was younger, I thought it would be easier to change the habits of people for good reasons — turns out it's not. Even people who care about climate change have to pay their bills and make decisions that might not square with their beliefs or hopes for the future. I have turned down two well-paying jobs with companies whose positions on environmental issues I fundamentally disagreed with. That's not an easy thing to do, and some people don't have that option.

Who bears the burden?

power plant with emissions out of chimney
About 71 percent of greenhouse gases are produced by just 100 companies. (Photo: Paulo Resende/Shutterstock)

Why exactly is so much of the solution to global warming heaped on the shoulders of individuals? And why are so many of our best actions and solutions thus far funded by nonprofits — where much of the labor is overtime (and underpaid)? This is work that should be borne by us all since the consequences of climate change will be felt by every person on Earth.

After all, when President Kennedy decided we needed to beat the Russians to the moon landing, he didn't encourage individuals or ad hoc community groups to figure out how to get there; he got the smartest and most talented people together to solve the challenges. NASA got us there, with lots of hard work and late nights, sure, but also with the full encouragement and funding of the American people behind them. Of course that inspired and propelled many others to independently study engineering and learn about space, which had both personal and, in some cases, public benefit. But Kennedy didn't look at a huge problem and then leave it to already-busy individuals to solve.

Yet this is exactly what has happened in the case of climate change, which the latest government analysis has shown has already affected every state in the union to the tune of billions of dollars — and which will cost trillions more. And that's not even taking into account the effects on our allies and friends around the world, not to mention the poorest and most vulnerable, who will be the most negatively impacted by rising seas and worsening storms.

Some have suggested that this dependence on personal rather than collective actions is by design. Martin Lukacs writes for The Guardian, "It is the result of an ideological war, waged over the last 40 years, against the possibility of collective action." This system benefits those who put profit above all other goals (which I would argue is certainly not all companies) and puts the responsibility for many of the big problems on the individual. So, Lukacs writes, "you should not merely feel guilt and shame if you can’t secure a good job, are deep in debt, and are too stressed or overworked for time with friends. You are now also responsible for bearing the burden of potential ecological collapse."

This kind of thinking lets some big companies off the hook for their role in the problem and has us take on the huge burden of dealing with the emissions and pollution of the biggest and most powerful. That strikes me as just plain unfair.

While individuals should make change on the community level, the looming, serious threats of climate change require an all-hand-on-deck response. It's time for everyone to be responsible for their impact — and since corporations are now "people" too, according to the Supreme Court's Citizen's United decision, they need to do their part. Because I can't do it on my own.