THE BURDEN OF CLIMATE CHANGE- WHOSE SHOULDERS SHOULD IT FALL ON?
Article by Ellen Khan
For anyone living in contemporary society, climate change is not a new concept. News channels, school curricula and everyday conversations all acknowledge ‘global warming’; a product of the rapid spike in greenhouse gases caused by human activity. Resulting in rising sea levels, agricultural issues, increased extreme weather events, displacement of people, and the threat of extinction to various species alongside many other negative consequences. As John Urry states, if no action is taken and we exceed beyond the ‘tipping point’, all anthropogenic emissions will make further warming of the planet ‘inevitable and probably catastrophic’ 1. The effects of climate change are not specific to a certain region, species or type of people. They will be felt across the globe.
Climate change is largely a product of 20th-century high carbon output from the intensification of economic production as a by-product of the industrial revolutions of the 18th century. Such large-scale production alongside technological advances resulted in high carbon societies characterised by exploitation and consumption. Such capitalist systems have resulted in dramatic environmental issues, as Leahy acknowledges, ‘capitalism as a growth is impossible to reconcile with a finite environment’. Some argue that 20th-century capitalism resulted in ‘ excess capitalism’ which has resulted in high carbon consumption and therefore high greenhouse gas emissions over the past several decades 1 . Therefore it is arguable that the capitalist societies that we live in are significant contributors to the climate crisis, as their new technologies directly affected consumption patterns and created a global industry and society dependent on oil and electricity. However, now that we are in a more unstable period, drastic action needs to be taken. But who should be responsible for driving such action in an attempt to slow down the rate of climate change?
It is important to acknowledge that different regions, countries, institutions and corporations have had different contributions to the dramatic rise in greenhouse gas emissions. For example, countries that were the first to undergo rapid industrialization such as the US and Britain have a significantly larger carbon footprint than other countries that are yet to undergo such industrialization or have undergone it but in a slower more sustainable fashion. For example, Puerto Rico’s CO2 emissions output per capita has been 0.08 metric tons since the 2010s, whereas the UK’s is 2.2 metric tonnes per capita and the US’s is 16.1 2. The US is responsible for 25% of all global emissions since 1751 3. Such drastic differences between the output and outlooks of nations on the carbon crisis led to an international climate treaty being established in 1992 to address the issue. It highlighted that richer more polluting countries should make more significant efforts to reduce their emission output, than those countries that pollute less and have fewer means and technology to invest in renewable and sustainable practices 3.
Another stance looks at the large corporations who are directly producing or investing in the production and extraction of fossil fuels. According to a report conducted by CDP in 2017, 100 fossil fuel producers are linked to 71% of global industrial greenhouse gas emissions since 1988 4, and another report published in the Guardian found that ‘more than 1/3 of all greenhouse gas emissions in the modern era’ can be attributed to just 20 fossil fuel companies 5. These concerning statistics indicate the scale of exploitation committed by these companies, while researchers have also uncovered that such companies knowingly maintained and expanded production of the world’s fossil fuel reserves, despite knowing the devastating impact doing so will have and has had on the natural world and the stability of the planet. For example, an investigation into the oil firm Exxon discovered that despite knowing about the effects of fossil fuels on climate change for several decades, they attempted to suppress efforts aiming to reduce emissions.
In summary, the climate situation we are in can significantly be attributed to the effects of capitalism on society. Such effects have manifested through huge consumption levels, consumption of unsustainable materials, and lack of political responsibility and regulation alongside capitalist corporations more concerned with their own profits than limiting their effects on the environment and their indirect effects on the global population. Although everyone on the earth has some contribution to a carbon footprint, some individuals are arguably more responsible than others, with an emphasis on the fossil fuel producers alongside the rich countries enabling the continued extraction and burning of fossil fuels.
- 1. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1467-954X.2010.01887.x
- 2. https://www.insidermonkey.com/blog/15-countries-that-are-the-biggest-contributors-to-global-warming-and-climate-change-597409/16/
- 3. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200618-climate-change-who-is-to-blame-and-why-does-it-matter
- 4. https://www.cdp.net/en/articles/media/new-report-shows-just-100-companies-are-source-of-over-70-of-emissions
- 5. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/09/revealed-20-firms-third-carbon-emissions