Combatting climate change can’t be done alone

Why collective action is our best shot at saving the planet

Kamh argues individualistic social trends dominate sustainable practices, failing to properly combat climate change.
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Increasingly, there’s been a shift towards individualistic approaches in combatting climate change, be it through reducing animal product consumption, thrift shopping or no longer using plastic straws.

However, this shift in social attitudes and consumption patterns isn’t enough to bring tangible change. 

Instead, collective action holds everyone in society equally accountable, initiating movements like policy and regulatory change among governments and corporations—the greatest contributors to climate change.

A 2010 United Nations report published states corporations generated approximately $2.2 trillion dollars in environmental damages, half of which were related to greenhouse gases.

Companies are among the top greenhouse gas emitting industries. Yet, without the backing of a social trend questioning their practices, the climate will continue to deteriorate.   

Governments are equally responsible for climate change because of the waste, environmental damages and greenhouse gas emissions produced by their respective energy, industrial and agricultural sectors. Trends like the United States seeking to weaken restrictions on carbon emissions or the Canadian federal government’s recent efforts  purchasing the Trans Mountain pipeline demonstrate this lack of accountability. 

Social trends encouraging individual action in advertising or social media make people hold themselves responsible rather than the government. People participate under these policies believing their personal change is enough, worsening the extent of enviromental damages.  

This form of activism is no coincidence. Rather, it’s a direct symptom of individualizing the problem of fighting climate change at the expense of collective movements.

Some may argue individual action is an effective method for consumers to change their consumption patterns. However, eco-consumerism is lacking given that companies integrate social or environmental trends in their marketing to encourage ‘green’ consumption. Eco-labelling doesn’t accurately reflect the ecological and social realities experienced in developing countries, and it doesn’t provide a viable solution for the structural barriers behind social and environmental issues. 

Furthermore, 100 multinational corporations including Shell and ExxonMobil are responsible for over 71 per cent of the world’s global greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, a popular form of individual action to combat climate change is to reduce gas emissions by driving less. 

The argument is if a person were to carpool or use public transportation, there’d be a decrease in their ecological footprint. But this individualistic approach in reducing greenhouse gas emissions does little to hold oil and gas corporations accountable for their extraction practices, nor does it put pressure on local governments to invest in public transportation and make it more accessible.  

Through collective action, however, these alarming trends can be challenged.

For example, during the Taiwanese waste crisis in the 1980s, collective action was successful in opposing the national incineration project which effectively halted the construction of burners. This also motivated the Taiwanese government to create policies and programs to support recycling efforts.

More recently, New York City looked to sue some top oil and gas corporations for their complicit role in causing climate change—showing a political willingness to hold corporations accountable. Other cities who have filed lawsuits against corporations include San Francisco and Oakland.

As a collective, it’s possible to leverage the exemplary efforts of these cities to encourage other governments to make corporations responsible for their environmental damages. It forces corporations to incur the costs of protecting cities from the existing and future effects of climate change. 

Individual action is an important facet in the fight against climate change and shouldn’t be completely discredited. Nonetheless, the percentage of people who actively try to improve their day-to-day actions are quite low in comparison to the percentage of people who express a pro-environmental viewpoint. 

Collective action could bridge that gap by advocating for changes in school curriculae to educate young people about the different ways to address climate change and other environmental issues.

While collective action might not produce immediate results, it remains an effective method to promote change. 

Updating societal attitudes is required, but it also needs to challenge the idea that individual action is the best solution to limit the effects of climate change. This is especially true considering corporations and governments disproportionately contribute to environmental damages. 

Through collective action, all composites and members of society can be held accountable. 

Climate change is everyone’s problem, not yours alone. 

Rana is a first-year masters student in Global Development. 

Corrections

January 14, 2019

This story's caption misspelt Kamh's name as "Kahm" and incorrectly said her master's program as Global Development Studies and Environmental Sustainability Studies. It is only the latter.

The Journal regrets the error.

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