I usually try to stay away from writing opinion articles on controversial topics. In my eyes, facts can easily become weapons, entangled within the agendas and biases of individuals. As a scientist, I find this incredibly frustrating. One day, I might read a New York Times headline about accelerating climate change and looming disaster. The next, I might see a Fox broadcast proclaiming climate change an elaborate hoax. Only the hard numbers themselves have the capacity to prove or disprove these claims, yet even they are often prone to opportunistic interpretations. A graph of global temperatures in the past 100 years, for example, will look much different than the same graph over a timescale of 10 million years, but both are often presented to argue different sides of the same issue.
That said, I feel rather strongly about a recent article in the journal Climatic Change, and I present my opinion for you to take as you will. In his article, Richard Heede of the Climate Accountability Institute in Colorado makes the claim that 90 ‘entities’ (both investor- and state-owned) contributed 63% of global industrial carbon dioxide and methane emissions between 1751 and 2010. This equates to 914 billion tons of CO2 equivalents (where the global warming potential of methane is translated into its equivalent value in CO2), half of this amount released since 1986. The list includes entities within the oil, natural gas, coal, and cement industries and is topped by Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Saudi Aramco, each accounting for more than 3% of the cumulative total global emissions since 1751.
The motivation for the study is simple. There has long been a heated debate in the international community about how to judge accountability for CO2 emissions. Many developing nations claim that nations should be held responsible for their total emissions to date. They argue that developed nations reached their current degree of prosperity largely due to the energy resources they consumed in the past; thus it is unfair to judge the current emissions of developed and developing nations according to the same standard. On the other hand, many developed nations argue that it was only in 1990, with the first report by the International Panel on Climate Change, that the link between CO2 emissions and climate change was definitively established. Thus, it would be unfair to consider emissions prior to that date.
Heede’s article attempts to frame the problem in a different light, holding not only nations but also companies responsible for past emissions. In his words, these companies have an “ethical obligation to help address climate destabilization,” in particular since “many of these entities possess the financial resources and technical capabilities to develop and contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation.”
However, Heede’s analysis is based on the fundamentally flawed assertion that the choices of companies and the choices of people are entirely independent of each other. By blaming companies not only for their own emissions, but also for the emissions that occur down the line because of their actions, Heede is neglecting the value of the choices we make as individuals and the ethical obligations that fall on each of us. The fact is, carbon dioxide is emitted not by faceless entities but by the decisions made every day by average people. We choose to drive our cars, heat our houses, buy the latest gadgets – processes that require energy and materials provided by fossil fuel industries. Heede has done the equivalent of taking the crimes committed by people each day and blaming them on the government and the legal system. In reality, companies are made up of people and driven by demands of consumers. Successful companies grow over time, naturally accumulating a larger footprint. Energy companies release carbon dioxide. Consumer goods manufacturers produce solid waste. Food industries use water for irrigation.
But perhaps Heede has found a way to solve climate change once and for all. For it is true, as he says, that the 90 companies he has identified have the financial resources to make quite a dent in global CO2 emissions. Could we not just sacrifice them to solve the world’s problem? But even without these companies, the underlying fact remains that emissions are just a symptom of the unsustainable choices made every day by individuals. Climate change is but one of a host of problems – a list that includes water scarcity, food shortages, and pollution – which stem from the lack of accountability of individuals for their impacts on the environment. And while this philosophy remains unchanged, it is only a matter of time before another environmental issue becomes a global threat. Thus, while Heede’s article is indeed an interesting exercise in emissions accounting, it presents a rather inaccurate image of where the fundamental problem lies, and thus proposes a solution to cure a symptom without considering the illness itself.
Be warned: you may have just sustained a lethal dose of mostly harmless science.
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Cover photo courtesy of sgym@662, Flickr Creative Commons