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Am I to Blame for Climate Change?

There are many times in my life when I have felt guilty about climate change. When I see a Polar Bear stranded on the last piece of ice, as the rest has melted. When I see people fleeing their homes due to the increasing amount of forest fires. Is there more I could be doing? The answer to this is complicated.

Fossil fuel companies

Perhaps, more importantly, is that these companies have also been shaping the public narrative. An investigation in 2015 revealed oil firm Exxon knew about climate change for decades and led efforts to block measures to cut emissions. Fossil fuel firms also make environmental concerns elitist, by maintaining the narrative that if you want to make this industry cleaner in any way, then you’re unfairly impacting the poor. The Exxon Chief executive repeatedly argued that cutting oil use to fight climate change would make poverty reduction harder. Despite the fact costs don't have to be offloaded to the public. Another tactic they have employed is to push doubts about the science and work to influence how people understand the role of fossil fuels in the economy. They have done this by creating materials for social studies, economics and civics classes that all centre on the fossil fuel industry. The most damning example is BP's wide-reaching 2005 media campaign which coined the term 'personal carbon footprint' and shifts the blame onto the public.

71% of the world's greenhouse emissions over the past 20 years are from 100 fossil fuel producers

Rich people

Fossil fuels are at the start of the supply chain, but the demand for such is being driven by the rich. A recent study has found across 86 countries, the richest 10% of people consume around 20 times more energy than the poorest 10%. A big reason behind this is transport: flights, holidays and big cars driven long distances. Rich people have far more choices in how they spend their money, meaning they can choose to live very wasteful lives. They also tend to be more influential in government and the companies driving government policy.

However, lifestyle changes can only change so much, highlighted by the fact even at the height of the coronavirus pandemic in April, with many countries in lockdown, daily global CO2 emissions fell 17% compared with 2019 levels. Whilst this is a major drop, it was not big enough to suggest changes in consumer behaviour are the complete solution to ending climate change.

Rich countries

International climate change conferences have long questioned whether countries that are richer and have historically polluted more should take more responsibility for climate change than others. The US has emitted far more CO2 than any other country: a quarter of all emissions since 1751 have occurred there. Despite China’s huge rise in emissions over the past decade, emissions per person still sit at less than half those of the US, while the one billion people living in Sub-Saharan Africa each emit one-twentieth of the average person in the US. The 2015 Paris agreement brokered an agreement between all countries by agreeing upon common, overarching climate goals, and allowing the self-assignment of their emission reduction targets, based on whatever they felt able to promise.

The problem with this is wealthier countries still have an "emission debt" to other countries. Rich polluters should take lead: not only by reducing their emissions but also delivering on promises of finance and technology to help poorer countries develop via a lower carbon path, as well as support them to deal with climate impacts which are already locked in.

Not all climate experts think more focus on assigning a fair share of emissions reduction to countries is the best way to ensure global emissions are cut. After all, this is the very strategy that has proven so difficult to negotiate in the past until the Paris peace agreements. Singling out specific countries will also not help the issue.


This leads to the question of whether we need to take more responsibility for our country's actions, and therefore, does some of the responsibility fall on us? From a certain perspective, the products and services we consume are linked to emitting greenhouse emissions.

However, it is important to acknowledge the circumstances we currently live in. Some scholars argue that making climate change the common population's problem to fix is dangerous as it allows those who are responsible to hide and continue caring more about profits than lives. Most people do not have the power to create change and are instead a victim of the system they live in. If you can only afford to buy Primark clothes, is it your fault for supporting fast fashion?

We can still try to force change despite this lack of power. People like Greta Thunberg, who started missing school every Friday to protest outside the Swedish parliament about the lack of climate action are prime examples. However, the action doesn't have to be as extreme. It can be as simple as turning off the lights, or shopping second-hand where possible.

Am I to blame?

I think we all have a responsibility to do what we can. However, it is foolish to believe that climate change can be stopped by the average person. Perhaps you don't need those new pair of jeans, but there are much bigger powers out there who are causing more damage.

That doesn't alleviate the guilt.

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