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Who’s to Blame for Climate Change?

Photo by @juniperphoton on Unsplash

For most of our lives, we have been told that all of us have to do our part to stop global warming. We learned in schools to memorize the colours of recycling bins and turn our trash into art and crafts projects. Under the notion of “every little bit counts”, individuals are encouraged to make small changes that will apparently make a big difference for the environment. While taking steps such as switching to more energy-efficient appliances and saving water whenever you can significantly reduce your household carbon footprint, this perspective fails to consider one crucial fact: not everyone is equally responsible for climate change.

Climate change certainly affects everyone on the planet, but should everyone bear the same blame for it? Rich countries disproportionately produce far more pollution than others, yet poorer countries are often the ones most affected by it. Many developed nations have fallen short on their promise to aid developing nations with funding and technical support to mitigate climate change while struggling to keep up with their own targets to reduce carbon emissions by 2050. Instead of dealing with their own waste, they also have shipped off tonnes of plastic to smaller countries like Malaysia to be processed in illegal factories, which have released hazardous chemicals in the local environment and food chain.

Climate change is also a catalyst for wealth inequality. According to an Oxfam analysis, the world's wealthiest 1% emits more than twice the amount of carbon pollution as the poorest half of the population. Yet, ordinary people have to give up certain habits and conveniences while the upper class gets to spend excessively and take private jet trips as they please. When disaster strikes, young and marginalized people will be the ones who suffer the most. As sea levels rise, millions of people in low-lying areas and coastal regions—which are predominantly in developing countries in Asia-Pacific—will be displaced from their homes and lose their food security. However, the richer class is able to move away from these disaster-prone areas, whereas those left behind desperately need money and resources to adapt to the effects of climate change.

Parasite (2019) dir. Bong Joon-Ho

In 2017, the Carbon Majors Report revealed that just 100 fossil fuel companies are responsible for more than two-thirds of the global carbon emission. Though there have been remarkable strides towards renewable sources, we still depend on coal, oil and natural gas to produce 84% of the world’s energy. Another major offender is the fashion industry where clothing is mass-produced with the eternal need to be faster and cheaper—at the expense of its labour force and the environment. Fashion trends have now turned into micro-trends with extremely short life cycles, which push consumers to buy and wear clothing only once before it gets donated or ends up in a landfill.

The narrative has been purposefully constructed to shift the blame from corporations to individual consumers. Since the 1950s, oil producers like ExxonMobil have already known about the threat of climate change, and to safeguard their own interests, they lobbied governments and launched various campaigns to cast doubts about the link between burning fossil fuels and climate change. Over the years, their public messaging has questioned climate change research, downplayed their role in causing pollution and implicitly guilted consumers for climate change. It is clear that these companies are more focused on short-term profitability than making an actual impact on climate change.

In order to appeal to the environmentally-conscious consumer, some companies are overly focused on branding themselves as a sustainable and eco-friendly business, rather than actually embracing the green practices they preach; this was first described as ‘greenwashing’ by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986. They tend to use over-the-top language, cherry-picked information and sometimes baseless claims to sell their products. Walmart and H&M are examples of such corporations that have been accused of greenwashing. You might find it peculiar that Shell is planning to become a net-zero carbon company by 2050, but instead of reducing drilling for oil and gas, it wants to achieve that by selling more renewable energy to offset its carbon emissions.

This past decade has seen a rise in green movements among the youth such as going vegan and the zero-waste movement. While these are commendable efforts to reduce individual consumption and enough collective action might change market demand, we cannot substantially reverse climate change on our own when faced with the damage wreaked by megacorporations. Some argue that the most effective action we can take is to be more politically active and vote for more competent leaders who can create a tangible action plan for our country to tackle climate change. People also need to realize that not everyone has the same access to practice a greener lifestyle. Ethically-sourced ingredients and eco-friendly products often come at higher price points, some people do not have the time or resources to always make sustainable choices, and some alternatives such as metal or bamboo straws are not suitable for disabled people.

So what now? Well, it is not to say that you are completely blameless for climate change and only corporations and the developed world are at fault, but there are many layers to the climate crisis and there is no simple answer that can solve all these conflicts. Nonetheless, remember to be mindful of your own consumption and do what you can to help make a greener future.

By: Jordan Lam Tien Wei


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