Sustainability | October 2022
No One is an Island: The Misdirection of the Individual Climate Impact Narrative
Elyse Colville, Heather Hutchinson & Grace Pratch
This paper seeks to examine, through secondary, mixed methods research, the ability of the individual to affect positive change regarding the climate crisis through their specific choices. By reading myriad scholarly, scientific, and journalistic sources, we found that though positive changes can be made on a smaller government scale, individuals’ ability to reduce environmental harm through their own choices and habits is minimal. Further, corporations and others in positions of power engage in both long- and short-term efforts to actively sabotage efforts of groups working to make societal changes or bring attention to the issues of the climate crisis. The researchers suggest that ecological communications should change direction from scolding the individual to emphasizing systemic change. It is recommended that further study be conducted of cohesion in activist organizations and collectives and the effects of education in rhetoric.
Citizens of an increasingly changing planet struggle not only with the effects of climate change, but also with what they can personally do to forestall disaster, such as recycling, bicycling, and adopting reusable water containers. But how much one person can mitigate a looming global catastrophe is a fraught issue, and corporations have a vested interest in pushing a narrative of personal responsibility. Corporate advertising campaigns and government propaganda utilize rhetoric and messaging to minimize their role in the climate crisis and shift the responsibility onto the individual. With the support of qualitative secondary research, the researchers use a critical lens to explore the various strategies fossil fuel corporations use to redirect blame. In dissecting the tactics used by those in power, we argue that climate crisis framing needs to redirect theoretically and actively away from individual action and toward societal change. The researchers critique the messaging predominantly used in the media and illustrate that blaming the climate crisis on the individual leaves harmful power structures unchallenged as the climate emergency careens onward.
The climate emergency has not worsened by accident. Over centuries, a series of intentional monetary choices ensured that specific value systems were honoured by society while others were ignored or vilified. Corporations obfuscate their own responsibility through messaging that demonizes and discredits activists and scientists who speak out against climate-harming laws and practices. Some environmentalists attempt to communicate the functional impotence of measures like recycling, but their warnings have been largely dismissed as Cassandra-like hysteria by those in power. These practices sow seeds of doubt in the minds of some and distract others from thinking about the issues in the first place while establishing power structures that render the climate emergency seemingly unsolvable. Understanding the philosophical and ideological patterns that corporations have cultivated for decades can show us how to reframe the climate crisis to hopefully stave off environmental catastrophe.
Do You Smell Something Burning?
Carbon dioxide, the dominant greenhouse gas emission caused by human action (United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2022), is wreaking havoc on the planet. Due to its reaction with infrared waves, carbon dioxide is more likely to remain in the atmosphere than either oxygen or nitrogen (Fecht, 2021). The waves (and heat) are less likely to escape through the atmosphere (Fecht, 2021), which increases the earth’s temperature and results in larger and more frequent storms, rising sea levels, mass migrations, and intolerable living conditions on large swaths of the Earth (Brannen, 2017).
Ekwurzel et al. (2017) report that between 1880 and 2010, the top ninety fossil fuel companies were responsible for nearly 50% of the global temperature increase and 33% of sea-level rise. Twenty fossil fuel corporations are responsible for one-third of carbon emissions globally, totalling 480 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent since 1965 (Taylor & Watts, 2019). Of those twenty, four corporations—Chevron, Exxon, British Petroleum (BP), and Shell—are responsible for over 10% of carbon emissions in the last 50 years (Taylor & Watts, 2019).
The average Canadian consumer is responsible for approximately 14.2 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year (Bernstien, 2021). As global COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020 saw fewer cars on the road and fewer planes in the sky, the first stages of the pandemic offered the possibility of reduced emissions worldwide. However, in 2020, worldwide carbon dioxide emissions only dropped by only 2.3 billion tonnes—a mere 6.4% of global emissions (Tollefson, 2021). A worldwide pandemic which greatly reduced passenger vehicle usage was a mere blip in the world’s global emissions.
Blame Shifting Strategies
The science of the climate crisis is undeniable, though fossil fuel corporations will do so anyway. ExxonMobil, for example, has known of the damaging effects of its business for decades (Powell, 2021). Despite this awareness, the company has actively worked to shape public perception of climate issues in the direction of skepticism by selectively focusing on certain issues over others (Powell, 2021). This crafted misdirection has undoubtedly contributed to the public’s perception that major fossil fuel-producing companies are ignorant to their contribution to the climate crisis, if not absolved of responsibility altogether. The efforts of big industry to shape how environmental impacts are framed show a foresight that one wishes would have been applied to protecting the planet (Powell, 2021). The oil industry in particular has crafted messaging that shifts the focus away from the harms they cause and towards the nagging voices of those who point out environmental concerns (Powell, 2021).
One of the blame-shifting strategies that corporations use is the appropriation of terms that began as objective descriptions of climate phenomena to greenwash or divert attention. Carbon footprints are usually reported annually in tons of carbon dioxide emissions (Fang et al., 2014). The popularisation of the individualized carbon footprint can be credited to a 2005 British Petroleum (BP) advertising campaign, “Beyond Petroleum” (Kaufman, 2021). BP’s bright and inviting website, adorned with plenty of white space and green flourishes, invites visitors to calculate their yearly carbon footprint by estimating car or airplane travel. Once calculated, visitors are presented with a total dollar equivalent of their carbon footprint for the year. The website then prompts users to make a payment to offset their estimated travel emissions. BP pledges to “purchase emission reductions of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) at least equal to the tonnage of CO2e that the website calculator or app indicated needs to be purchased to neutralize your CO2e emissions from travel” (BP, n.d., para. 13). The brilliance of this marketing campaign, in which a regular person uncovers their meagre contribution to the carbon emission problem and pays an indulgence for their sins to one of the most environmentally egregious corporations in the past few decades, must be respected.
In this instance, a systemic issue became the responsibility of the consumer. BP benefited from this ploy as the advertising campaign shifted the blame away from the company. In 2020, BP produced 45.5 million metric tonnes of CO2e (BP, n.d.). Though that output is a reduction of 16% from 2019, considering that worldwide CO2 emissions in 2020 were 34.8 billion metric tonnes, BP’s environmental impact is significant (Tiseo, 2021). BP attempted to demonstrate to the public that they were tackling the climate emergency by rebranding themselves as environmentally responsible. Thanks to the reframing of the issue, no consumer could reduce their footprint enough to be “pure” and criticize the company, a clear example of the hypocrite’s trap (Westervelt, 2021).
If Someone Else is the Villain, It Can’t Be My Fault
The hypocrite’s trap is a rhetorical strategy commonly used to vilify climate advocates (Schneider et al., 2016). The captains of the fossil fuel industry utilize it by suggesting that climate activists are inauthentic as they advocate against the use of fossil fuels while still reaping the benefits of the resource. Schneider et al. (2016) posit that this rhetorical strategy invalidates the activist’s claims in the eyes of the public while simultaneously demoralizing the collective from taking action. This framing also takes away an individual’s power, as they “become hamstrung from acting to hold the systemic failures to account that are locking [them] into this fossil fuel status quo society” (Westervelt, 2021, para. 19–20). Demoralization is among a rhetorician’s most potent weapons—one may still have the physical strength or even material means, but if they lack hope or will, strength and means are valueless.
Futurist scholar Alex Steffen (2017) asserts that blame-shifting communication contributes to predatory delay, a strategy he defines as “the blocking or slowing of needed change, to make money off unsustainable, unjust systems”. Predatory delay is exemplified through large fossil fuel companies redirecting the blame onto individuals’ carbon emissions (Westervelt, 2021). As a result of predatory delay and the hypocrite’s trap, consumers often feel responsible for an issue they have no feasible way of fixing. Consequently, the consumer resorts to band-aid solutions to reduce their emissions; they reduce their use of single-use plastics, ride their bicycle, or boycott plastic straws. Though these actions serve to soothe individuals’ guilt and grant them a sense of control, the efforts are insignificant on a larger scale. This framing appeals to Canadian and American individualism and offers seemingly productive solutions; however, it discourages individuals from pushing for systemic change or accountability from massive companies (Westervelt, 2021). Simultaneously, activists’ arguments are invalidated as they as individuals rely on a sociological system that revolves around fossil fuels (Westervelt, 2021). Though individuals can be inspired to support more systemic change if they engage in individual action, ultimately, the responsibility must fall to corporations.
Those in power use hypocrisy to render environmentalists—and the climate protection movement in general—ineffective (Stuart, 2022). A specific example of this rhetoric was used against the Extinction Rebellion (XR) movement. XR is a “decentralized, international and politically non-partisan movement using non-violent direct action and civil disobedience to persuade governments to act justly on the climate and ecological emergency” (Extinction Rebellion, 2022, para. 1). Stuart (2022) examines XR’s struggle with hypocrisy and how its accusation is weaponized to erode the movement and its message. Though members of XR espouse a belief in “no blame, no shame” (Stuart, 2022, p. 2), some members judge fellow activists for their use of fossil fuels. Intergroup discord resulting from this kind of policing can lead to division within activist groups as it sets up an “us vs. them” dichotomy.
Though society has a powerful influence on how individuals act, citizens alone cannot steer the direction society heads (Stuart, 2022). One is destined to fail if they try to shift the ever more dire climate crisis with individual action, as their choices are limited by the existing sociological system (Stuart, 2022). The true power of the individual, at least in terms of societal change, is their power to work together collectively. Rhetoric that distracts from collaborative action keeps the powerful unchecked and free to act in their own best interests. Finding fault with any action of a comrade that does not meet an arbitrary purity test is a powerful strategy in preventing cooperative movement.
Environmental sociologist Robert Brulle asserts that placing the onus for the climate crisis onto the individual negates the nature of our sociological systems, economic factors, and behaviour (Westervelt, 2021). In other words, our society and systems prevent individuals from diverting their reliance on fossil fuels. Positive reform is unobtainable without a mass shift in the system under which we all operate (Revkin, 2021). In an interview with Revkin (2021), Steffen asserts, “We have grossly overemphasized the idea that we are all responsible and that each of us plays an important part…when, in fact, much of this crisis is a professional crisis” (11:20). The decisions that will make a substantial change need to be made by those in power. While individuals can call the powerful to action, foisting systemic change onto the individual’s level slows or halts progress (Revkin, 2021).
Garcia and Tschakert (2022) write of how the climate crisis affects communities differently depending on factors of marginalization. Disparities in the impact of the climate crisis are bound up in complicated and interlaced power dynamics (Garcia & Tschakert, 2022). Power, and those who wield it, are rarely static. An individual’s choices regarding climate change are never made separately from the influence of their culture. Notably, Garcia and Tschakert (2022) emphasize that there has been insufficient study regarding how to effectively engage with marginalized voices in changing the unequal distribution of climate-based misery. A multiplicity of viewpoints can be a powerful agent in rewiring society and finding sustainable solutions for myriad social ills, including climate change (Garcia & Tschakert, 2022). All populations must be part of the solution, as a sea change requires the sea, not merely the specific drops therein.
Van Schalkwyk et al. (2021) challenge systemic power structures to examine how the COVID-19 pandemic can instruct us on future crises. The authors highlight that not only do formidable entities work to establish structures and systems that benefit them at the expense of those with less power, but the powerful will oppose any attempts made to curtail their influence. Further, industries frequently work to profit from crises, and climate change is no exception (Van Schalkwyk et al., 2021). Those in authority regularly orchestrate “the weakening of societal structures and environmental protections, thereby increasing susceptibility to the harmful impacts of crises and diminishing the public resources needed to respond and protect the most vulnerable” (Van Schalkwyk et al., 2021, p. 472). The authors propose a new paradigm of decision-making on a societal level that strays from the status quo and pushes back against narratives spun by the powerful.
The Middle Path: Small Government and Effective Climate Action
Many local governments create sustainability initiatives to improve the environment in their area. Ji (2020) observed local governments’ sustainability initiatives by looking at the impact on the ozone in 102 regions between 2003 and 2013. Ji’s research suggests that local governments can positively impact the environment when programs are created to focus on a range of environmental issues rather than just one. Ji notes that local governments typically have little incentive to implement effective and thorough sustainability policies. Therefore, the policies are often designed to appease stakeholders without considering the environmental impact (Ji, 2020).
To create effective sustainability programs, regional governments need to understand the causes of their specific environmental issues and craft a solution that addresses the root of the problem (Ji, 2020). Therefore, it is essential for governments, on a local, provincial, and national scale, to fully understand the cause of the climate issues they are working to counteract. Critics state that regional governments develop sustainability programs as a method of virtue signalling (Ji, 2020). Nonetheless, Ji (2020) found that regional governments’ sustainability initiatives were linked to improvements in local ozone quality. To create a positive impact, local governments need to “design their sustainability programs more comprehensively, regarding the number of programs and the breadth of environmental issues addressed in the programs” (Ji, 2020, p. 1047). Counties that improved their sustainability initiatives positively influenced surrounding counties’ environmental concerns (Ji, 2020).
Ji (2020) notes that local governments often fall victim to the collective action problem, where individuals in a larger group will attempt to free ride to evade responsibility in the hopes that their actions, or lack thereof, will not be noticed as they are carried by the team. The collective action problem asserts that people act purely out of self-interest (Ji, 2020), and assume their impact will be insignificant, which leaves the other members to pick up their slack (Tschakert et al., 2020). However, this phenomenon is less likely to occur in smaller groups, where an individual’s contribution makes a significant impact (Tschakert et al., 2020).
While popularising and creating a significant acceptance of climate action is necessary, the current crisis demands more than just setting the stage for approval. As Steffen (2017a) asserts, “every molecule of carbon dioxide we emit is a failure, and the only sensible plan is to create a carbon-zero economy at breakneck speed” (para. 8). The global community will not achieve climate action by individually pledging to reduce its consumption, as that time has long passed. To move forward culturally with positive climate action, we need to use the resources and infrastructure we already have to shift away from a capitalist society.
To a certain extent, individual choices matter, both on a personal and a global level. Introspection on an individual level will also be required, as the societal upheaval that will result from a drastic behaviour change may be as great as what lies ahead if we do not reverse course (Revkin, 2021). However, responsibility needs to be apportioned to the appropriate actors.
Individuals cannot rely on the government alone to save us in time from the ravages of climate change. To make a positive impact on the climate, individuals can push for systemic change. Improved community efforts can be implemented to deemphasize the car and emphasize public transit (Revkin, 2021). If a person feels daunted by compelling a national leader to act in the interest of the environment, working for change on a smaller scale is manageable, sustainable, and likely to bear fruit. However, an individual’s focus should not be on reducing their emissions, calculating their carbon footprint, or recycling, but instead pushing for change at a systematic level, even if the system is local.
The misdirection by big industry has effectively obfuscated the necessary work required to halt the climate crisis. With the popularization of the term carbon footprint, BP began a movement that pushed the burden of climate change onto the individual, a narrative which ensures collective action is left undone. It is essential to communicate sustainability in a way that empowers, not impedes. As we live in a capitalist system that relies on fossil fuels and carbon, a focus on the habits of one person is unproductive, at best. However, it is important to acknowledge that the actions of individuals can influence social movements and shift ideologies, which can eventually impact sociological systems. If the system as it currently operates remains unchecked, the relatively inadequate actions of individuals cannot be expected to truly matter. Though the public must be informed of the horrors of the climate emergency, we are past the point of awareness campaigns. We must focus on disseminating the path to societal reform, change our systems, and shift away from the industries we have relied on for decades.
Further research is needed to understand the effect individuals can ultimately have on positive climate impact. Practical studies and surveys would be helpful tactics to improve group cohesion and cooperation in the face of philosophical disagreements and interpersonal strife. Additional analysis on ways individuals and groups can benefit from education in rhetorical tactics and the effects on their ability to discern messaging would be valuable. Of particular value would be extensive work on the impact of intersectionality and the effects that sustained efforts at its achievement could have on equitable outcomes and representation in sustainability efforts.