By Zahra Hirji
It’s been nearly two decades since the oil giant BP released a calculator to help consumers figure out all the ways carbon was creeping into their lives, from commuting to work to buying food. The PR campaign was wildly successful: It popularised the very idea of an individual “carbon footprint.”
The 2000s were a big time for climate accountability. That’s when Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, putting climate change front and centre within the world’s single biggest emitter and largest economy. Former US Vice President Al Gore released his Academy Award-winning film An Inconvenient Truth, and there was a big push to get climate legislation passed through Congress (it failed in 2010, in a cycle that appears to have just repeated itself). Today the framework of the individualised carbon footprint is everywhere: Thanks to the power of campaigns like BP’s (which still exists), you could be forgiven for thinking that the burden of tackling the crisis rests squarely on your shoulders.
Drawing consumer choices into the center of climate outcomes helped fossil fuel companies look “like part of the solution rather than part of the problem,” says Duncan Meisel, director of the Clean Creatives activist campaign, which pushes advertisers to cut ties with fossil fuel companies. “I think you can look at this as a way of BP, and the oil industry more generally, trying to take some of that really intense energy and momentum towards climate action and steer it in a way that won’t impact their bottom line.”
Today, as 20 years ago, systemic and broad-scale action, such as governments adopting aggressive climate policies and companies weaning themselves off fossil fuels, are the most important way to fight climate change. But the fact that Big Oil popularised the idea of individual responsibility doesn’t mean there isn’t truth to the notion that people can make a difference. The false dichotomy is in thinking the answer is one or the other.
“The responsibility is with every person and every institution,” says Mike Berners-Lee, an environment professor at Lancaster University in the UK. “As an individual, the question to be asking is: What can I do to help create the conditions under which the world is capable of the big systematic change that we so urgently need?”
One big lever is voting for politicians who take climate change seriously. Another, if you can afford it, is spending your money on greener products and services. In addition to reducing your personal emissions, this helps normalise the use of such goods in your community, Berners-Lee says.
Moreover, purchasing power sends a message to businesses that you support their investment in a climate-friendly world. There’s even public opinion polling to back this up. “For years, we’ve been asking, ‘Would you reward or punish companies for their actions?’” says Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, whose team has identified a growing consumer base that is “rewarding and punishing companies for their action or inaction on climate change.” Even more people would like to do this, Leiserowitz says, but they don’t know how. “When we asked, ‘Why don’t you?’, the number one answer by far is: ‘I don’t know what companies to reward or punish.’”
Taking individual action also gives the people pushing for systemic change more authority.
“We’re hypocrites if we just live high-emission lifestyles while talking about needing to stop carbon-dioxide emissions,” says John Cook, a research fellow at Monash University’s Climate Change Communication Research Hub. “That reduces our effectiveness as messengers because we aren’t consistent.”
Recent research adds new gravity to the significance of individual climate responsibility. Consumers in rich countries, especially the super-wealthy, are so disproportionately driving climate change that their personal decisions have global consequences.
Solving the climate crisis won’t happen unless everyone — including big fossil fuel companies — cuts their own pollution footprint. But individual action, as Cook puts it, is “one slice” of the climate action pie. It’s also the slice you can control.