Opinion

A Drop on the Scale

Considerations for those dismayed by climate change

As I scroll social media, I continuously run into sentiment that individual climate actions are futile when they oppose the few, large companies that account for the majority of industrial greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. I’ve seen this echoed around the internet, presumably with the intention of easing people’s fret over their individual contributions to the climate crisis. The statistic that is frequently mentioned, or rather misrepresented, comes from the Carbon Majors Report in 2017. The term “industrial” is often omitted. It concluded that 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global industrial GHG emissions. The report finds that only 50 fossil fuel companies contribute half of these emissions. Essentially, the report is saying that polluters do a lot of polluting.

Firstly, I’d like to ask, is it surprising that fossil fuel companies account for the majority of these industrial emissions? Who else would this point back to? Industrial civilization has been relying on fossil fuels for a long time, and this sector has quite naturally grown to enormous proportions. Someone  with a sense of the scale and order of the industrial world shouldn’t be shocked by the results of the Carbon Majors Report. And, someone with a sense of the ecological havoc that results from the sky-high emissions should recognize that the implications of the modern industrial process are grave. It’s important to note that the statistic only reflects those emissions produced by industry, so it is not a useful metric for understanding other emissions sources. According to a 2020 paper published in the PNAS journal, household energy use was estimated to contribute a fifth of GHG emissions in the U.S. There is room for improvement in quite a few places.

There’s no doubt that these polluters are doing immense harm to the climate system. Greenhouse gas emissions are just one mark, albeit a huge one, of the imbalance between human civilization and the natural world. We’ve been imposing our unsustainable wills on the environment, failing to take seriously the consequences that these next few generations will inevitably be forced to cope with. It’s safe to assume that this adjustment won’t be pretty. 

We dig our shared ecological grave not only deeper, but sooner, when we let the reality of our current energy systems convince us that we don’t matter in the scope of the climate crisis. It’s in the polluters’ best interest for us to believe that our actions are futile, that it’s better not to think about our place in the global environment, that business as usual is the only option. But these are lies, of course. Each of us is an Earthling after all, and our relationship to the Earth matters. 

It’s also important to remember that we likely can’t rely on those top polluters to turn around the crisis for us. Addressing an issue so global in scale will require a more widespread effort than this. Positive, transformative change, I believe, can start with people like you and me. This change should at least come as a shift in attitudes. Leaning on the idea that our actions are insignificant must be the worst place to start when the planet is crying out for our help.

If anyone looks a little deeper at the climate crisis, it becomes evident that it’s about more than just major polluters versus individual behaviors. The way humanity regards and interacts with the environment must be the result of our feelings about our place in the natural world and our duties to protect it, or rather, the feeling that we have the right to destroy it. Or maybe instead of feeling one way or another, we simply don’t care. Apathy in this respect, to me, reflects a tragic disconnect between Earthlings and the home they share. My guess is that this insistence that our choices are insignificant decreases our collective sensitivity to the climate crisis in general.

I doubt anybody reading this wants to destroy the environment. I’m also not claiming that your individual actions will make or break our climate system. I think what bothers me about the viral TikToks spouting out that statistic on emissions responsibility is that it might change the way we think about the climate crisis. I can’t help but feel like this sort of rhetoric damages our morale in this respect. We desperately need empowerment (and its forthcoming action). The enormity of climate change is already so intimidating that it discourages people from believing there is anything to be done. But this is another lie. There’s plenty to do. 

Addressing climate change will not be easy or simple. Ultimately, sweeping, systemic change will be necessary to confront our emissions problem, our waste problem, our land use problem, the list goes on. One can imagine that there are countless actions, ranging from small-scale to large-scale solutions employed in a range of regional contexts that could together redefine our abusive relationship to the environment. Surely we need some collective hope to really get this going. 

As someone riddled with climate worries, I am energized by my little commitments to tread more lightly. I know I’m not changing the world single-handedly, but it’s comforting to know that my “good” actions will add up over time, and maybe even rub off onto others. Trying to reduce my waste or the emissions attributed to my lifestyle gets me excited to do more ambitious climate advocacy. Climate action is more than just a drop of good in the ocean of environmental wrongdoing, as it reminds me of the power in each of us, and it pulls me a bit closer to my own sense of balance. I imagine that this comfort, the peace that comes with believing I may play a part in a shift to a greener, more just world, is self-sustaining. And gosh, I want the future to be a better place, so I’m going to do my best to live like that.

I can say with certainty that you, reader, did not cause climate change. If climate guilt is holding us back from taking action, we’d better absolve ourselves of it. With that guilt off your shoulders, I’d encourage you to think kindly of our climate and your place within it. Instead of focusing on the environmental abuses that may or may not be within your control, consider all the opportunities to get on the right track. There is so much good work to be done in our homes, communities, and workplaces. A little bit of hope and pep will take us much farther than resignation, and it could feel better, too.

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