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We need to talk about our carbon footprint. Not how much of it comes from driving versus eating meat, but the popular concept of dividing up all the greenhouse gases polluting the atmosphere into the fraction that you personally own. Today we have an abundance of handy online calculators and apps that estimate your individual footprint for you. Everyone’s getting involved in the effort; one newly released app called VYVE is even backed by oil giant BP. The app’s home page succinctly captures the motivation behind calculating your footprint: “Take responsibility for your carbon impact.”
To be sure, we should take responsibility. A carbon footprint calculator can help bring an overwhelming global crisis into your backyard. You can compare the average carbon footprint of an American (around 16 metric tons CO2e) to that of neighboring Mexico (about 4 metric tons) and grasp that a high-consumption American lifestyle has a much heavier impact on the environment than others do. It can also be a good jumping-off point for those who want to take action but are unsure of what changes they can make in their lives.
But we also need to admit that the obsession around personal carbon footprints has been harmful. For too long, the dominant call to action has been encouraging the public to opt-in to a set of different lifestyle habits, through carbon footprint quizzes and by invoking the duty to take charge of your personal contribution. Despite this messaging, 88% of Americans still owned a car in 2015 and car ownership has continued to rise. U.S. airlines carried a record number of passengers in 2019. Even though there’s recently been a lot of coverage on the role of animal products in climate change, as of 2018, only 3% of Americans said they were vegan. In 2018, the U.S. also hit record-high energy consumption.
It’s not that shrinking your own carbon footprint isn’t necessary to avoiding climate catastrophe. It is. It’s that, given the state of things, dedicating so much space to the concept clearly hasn’t worked on a wide enough scale. We don’t just need to shave emissions here and there; we need to make them disappear at incredible speed. But according to a Washington Post poll from 2019, most Americans still believe small personal sacrifices will be enough. We have until 2030 before much of the climate damage becomes irreversible due to the triggering of tipping points that can collapse entire ecosystems. The damage is already enormous; more people are being harmed by the climate crisis every year. We’re not on track to keep temperature rise below 2°C of the pre-industrial era, the limit set by the Paris Agreement in 2015. More likely, we’ll see a global rise of at least 3°C. Affluent countries like the U.S. need a revolution in the way we live, and that requires systems, not just individual lifestyles, to transform.
Even the most commonly recommended lifestyle changes often require people to swim against strong currents. The fact that most Americans rely on personal vehicles over public transportation might lead you to write us off as hopelessly obsessed with gas-guzzling cars — but cultural fixations don’t arise from nowhere. The post-WWII era was dizzy with incentives, policies, and mass infrastructure projects that made owning a car much more feasible and attractive than in other nations. To this day, a stunning variety of laws help maintain a landscape where having your own car is either the safer, cheaper option, or the only option. U.S. cities with well-connected, affordable public transportation remain extremely rare, partly because public works in general are underfunded, but also because groups that have a stake in the auto or fossil fuel industry use their piles of money to help ensure they don’t get built.
Even when it comes to reducing energy use in your home, there are larger factors at play that can outweigh the good you’re trying to do. A recent University of Michigan study found that in some states, the climate benefit from households consuming less energy than the national average was erased by their grid’s method of producing electricity being carbon-intensive. In Florida, for example, there’s less need to heat homes in winter, leading to energy savings, but its electricity production is more intensive in producing greenhouse gases than average. Power companies in Florida, as in many other places, have also been fighting wider adoption of renewable energy. The sunshine state only generated 1% of its electricity from solar energy last year.
Or take recycling. Americans recycle or compost about 35% of waste. Is the rate so low because of laziness? Maybe partly. But considering that over 90% of the plastic we were told to recycle wasn’t actually recycled — which Pepsi, Coca Cola, Nestle, and others are being sued for right now — it’s not fair to blame individuals.
Obsessing about reducing our individual footprints, then, is an exercise in missing the burning forest for the trees. It’s based on the hope that, by pointing it out, an enormous wave of people will be swayed to live differently — and that massive systems and corporations will also support that goal. Maybe this messaging convinces you to shrink your footprint down from 16 metric tons CO2e to 5 metric tons. Annual global greenhouse gas emissions are around 50 billion tons CO2e; only 49,999,999,989 to go. The climate crisis is a problem of mind-breaking scale.
And this discourse didn’t come about by accident. Even though scientists began loudly calling for climate action back in 1988, “carbon footprint” wasn’t a well-known concept until BP helped popularize it in the mid-2000s. The premise of a carbon footprint is that we’re all contributing to the emergency — so deal with your share. But what if we aren’t all equally to blame? What would the solution look like then?
The fact is, climate crisis denial is thriving. Attacks on the science of it may not be as fashionable as they once were, but the footprint of disinformation remains: many Americans are still fuzzy on whether scientists have formed a consensus (there never wasn’t a consensus), and whether climate change is mainly caused by human activity (it is). In 2015, an investigative report by InsideClimate News uncovered evidence that ExxonMobil knew about the climate crisis as early as the late 1970s, thanks to research conducted by its own scientists. Oil companies then spent decades spilling money into the effort of confusing the public. They didn’t need to provide air-tight proof that temperatures weren’t rising, or that it wouldn’t impact the Earth very much. All they had to do was nudge some doubt into the discussion.
These days, more of us accept that global warming is happening than in the past. Oil companies have changed their tack too, taking a public stance on how they intend to fight climate change. Instead of poking holes in the science, denial today increasingly takes the form of greenwashing — crafting an image that makes corporations seem more environmentally conscious than their business practices would indicate. But this kind of denial still works by spreading confusion; confusion over the best strategy to combat climate change, confusion over the degree of fossil fuel culpability, confusion over what “environmentally conscious” even means in our late-stage capitalist world.
In 2020, you can hardly find a company that hasn’t made a commitment to social and environmental responsibility, whether it’s by partnering with environmental groups across the globe or helping developing nations grow their economy sustainably. Keywords like “innovation” and “growth” get thrown around a lot. In 2000, BP unveiled the slogan “beyond petroleum” and soon launched an ad campaign around the theme that included TV commercials asking people about their carbon footprint and portraying the company as a beacon of progress. But do these amount to real efforts to address the climate crisis?
The answer is no, at least according to a recent analysis on the activities of ten major oil companies between 2008 to 2019, including U.S.-owned Chevron and ExxonMobil. The researchers found that none have been moving away from fossil fuels. At best, companies increased their share of natural gas production, which has been extolled as a temporary “bridge” to carbon-free energy because it emits 50% less CO2 than coal. But natural gas is not clean energy. It’s mostly made up of methane, a greenhouse gas that traps heat 86 times more effectively than CO2. Scientists now believe the amount of methane released by extracting natural gas has been underestimated by up to 40%. Currently, millions of abandoned, uncapped gas wells are leaking methane.
The 2008-2019 analysis found that “not a single major oil and gas firm has invested more than 0.1% of revenues into renewable energy” during this period. In 2011, BP sold off its solar assets, facing financial difficulties in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. It recently announced a commitment to more renewables investment — but whether it pans out remains to be seen.
Oil companies haven’t just continued to extract fossil fuels; they’ve been busy constructing new pipelines and developments, which has major implications for future carbon emissions — once a new development is built, it’s likely to be extracting for at least the time it takes to recoup the cost of building it. All ten companies analyzed by researchers “are planning significant expansion of oil and gas assets, totalling some USD$1.4 trillion in the period 2020-2024.”
The podcast Drilled, which describes itself as “a true-crime podcast about climate change,” lays out how the deception of the fossil fuel industry is an obstacle to the systemic change we need. In its first season, it references a 2018 issue of the New York Times Magazine that was wholly dedicated to climate change as a case study in diffusing blame. “The story makes the problem of climate change global,” notes Drilled host and producer Amy Westervelt. “We all failed to act, not just the handful of men in power. The solution, or lack thereof? Individual. It’s human nature. We make short-sighted decisions and there’s nothing we can do to change that.”
The fact is that since 1988, just 100 fossil fuel companies have produced roughly 70% of industrial greenhouse gas emissions. We know that burning fossil fuels is incompatible with having a future. Yet today, about 80% of energy demand in the U.S. is still met through fossil fuels. To be fair, it’s not solely the fault of oil companies. In 2015 alone, the U.S. government gave the industry $649 billion in subsidies. In 2018, we got the dubious honor of becoming the largest producer of crude oil in the world, thanks to the modern fracking boom. At least 82,000 fracking wells have popped up across the country since 2005.
And yet too often, we nod along with blaming the climate crisis vaguely on “human nature.” This fatalistic view isn’t just a dead end, it suggests we apologize for existing at all, especially when coupled with the myth that overpopulation is a leading cause of rising temperatures. Man-made climate change is a modern emergency representing a sliver of the 6,000 years human civilizations have existed. The start of man-made warming coincides with the explosion of industrial capitalism in just a handful of wealthy countries — whose incredible riches were accumulated through the systematic looting of labor and resources from around the world. While we all have to act, the idea that we all shoulder the blame for a crisis spurred by deregulated capitalism doesn’t create solidarity. It’s not showing humility or personal integrity. It only upholds the people and systems that have perpetuated climate change, and creates fog around those who have been most violated by it.
By seeing climate as a human rights problem, not just an environmental one, a clearer path opens up. For environmental group 350.org, the goal is simple: no more fossil fuels. “The climate change is a systemic crisis, so we need systemic solutions,” says Thanu Yakupitiyage, head of U.S. communications at 350.org.
“Ultimately we're talking about capitalism, right?” she says. “When we talk about consumption, we're talking about the level at which we consume and the level at which we're engaged in these capitalist forces.” It’s another reason why corporate greenwashing is dangerous; promoting your product as being “greener” than another one perpetuates the idea that the solution is to consume differently, not consume less.
The climate justice movement isn’t new, but it has gained more attention in the past few years. It points to the perpetrators of the crisis, and also demands restitution. At the 2009 U.N. climate change conference, several nations in Latin America and the Caribbean began calling for wealthy nations like the U.S. to pay their climate debt. The logic is that the economic growth of the U.S. has been achieved at the expense of global wellbeing. When we say modern climate change is caused by human activity, we mean economic activity. In its rush to grow fast and never stop growing, the U.S. has single-handedly released a quarter of all the greenhouse gas pollution since 1750. “350 really believes in climate reparations,” says Yakupitiyage. “The fossil fuel industry must pay for the damage they've caused to our communities and climate.”
Climate change is also entangled with racism and structural violence. In the U.S., people of color are more likely to live in polluted places. An area along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, which has a majority Black population, is known as “Cancer Alley” due to soaring cancer rates connected to the abundance of petrochemical factories. In order to extract resources to be consumed by wealthy economies, indigenous homes and livelihoods are ripped apart. Later, they are often among the earliest to face the consequences of global warming.
Then there’s the violence that comes from resistance. According to environmental rights NGO Global Witness, at least 212 environmental activists were killed around the world last year, a vast proportion of them indigenous people defending their land. One of the most infamous acts of environmental violence was committed against the Ogoni Nine in 1995. The nine men were members of the Ogoni ethnic group in southeastern Nigeria and involved in the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), which demanded reparations from the oil industry for polluting their community until they could no longer farm or fish. The government brutally cracked down on protestors, allegedly encouraged by Shell. When four local Ogoni chiefs were killed by a mob, the nine activists, including MOSOP leader Ken Saro-Wiwa, were put on trial and executed by the Nigerian government. Shell has been accused by Amnesty International of helping frame the activists, and according to the testimony of their widows, prosecution witnesses later admitted they had been bribed with money and job offers at Shell.
“We really must see the climate crisis as inherently linked to all forms of injustice, from racism to anti-immigrant sentiment,” says Yakupitiyage. Immigration is a lens that Yakupitiyage has particular expertise in. Before she became involved in the climate justice movement around the time of the 2014 People’s Climate March, she was working in immigrant rights. “It's really important that the climate movement is both calling for the protection and safety of people, and also advocating for people's right to migrate,” she says. “You see within nations like Bangladesh or India, in places in South America, people moving because of drought or because of floods. It’s estimated that up to 1 billion people will be displaced because of climate change by the year 2050.”
Anti-immigration policies deny the reality that a great climate migration has already begun, as well as the cause of it. “Why is it that people are moving in the first place? They're moving because of the fossil fuel industry and companies in the Global North who’ve made conditions in the Global South even worse,” says Yakupitiyage.
Of course, transforming political ideology and holding corporate power accountable isn’t easy. In 1993, 30,000 locals of Lago Agrio, Ecuador filed a landmark class-action suit against Chevron, accusing the company of dumping 18 billion gallons of wastewater and 17 billion gallons of oil into their community. An Ecuadorian court ordered Chevron to pay $18 billion to the plaintiffs in 2011, later reduced to $9.5 billion. That same year, Chevron filed a fraud case against Steven Donziger, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, claiming he had bribed the judge. According to documents obtained by The Intercept, Chevron sought to demonize Donziger. He was charged with criminal contempt for refusing to hand over his electronic devices, he's been disbarred, his bank accounts have been frozen, and he was put under house arrest in August 2019. Since the class-action suit, Chevron has withdrawn all its business from Ecuador, which has made it difficult for the plaintiffs to collect on the $9.5 billion.
Saving the planet will clearly be a herculean effort, but it’s the fight of our lifetime. That’s exactly why the climate justice movement has to grow. The best way to lower your carbon footprint is to stop being an individual and become a part of a movement. It requires demanding more from elected leaders — refusing to settle for “at least it’s better than nothing” — and ensuring that, at the very least, the Green New Deal passes. It means clashing with institutions, recognizing that reducing your individual consumption is important but not the same thing as justice.
“It can be intimidating to take on these huge industries,” Yakupitiyage says. “But I think where I found security is in being part of a movement. A movement that has each other's backs.” When she feels defeated, she finds strength in activists who’ve helped pave the way for a more equitable society, against incredible odds. “Folks like Assata Shakur, Angela Davis, Audre Lorde,” she says. “I look at their teachings in terms of what it means to be intimidated, and to be jailed, and to be told that you’re crazy.”
When asked whether the fossil fuel industry is intimidated by the climate justice movement, Yakupitiyage’s answer is immediate. “Absolutely.”