Who Do We Blame for Climate Change?

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


17 responses to “Who Do We Blame for Climate Change?

  1. Pingback: Who Do We Blame for Climate Change? | Hypergeometric·

  2. It always comes down to human overpopulation. We were far dirtier and more polluting in the 1800’s, but there were far fewer of us, so we didn’t tip the scales of nature’s balance. Now, there are so many of us that, no matter what we do, we damage the planet.

    • I think the realization itself that we have the capacity to affect the environment on global scales is a relatively recent one, and it remains to be seen how and whether we can adapt to that new understanding. Thanks for reading, David!

  3. Not sure of where the best place to reply is, here, or at my blog. I settled on and am scuttling my own nascent blog post on the matter.

    While I cannot confirm Mr Heede’s scholarship, it clearly represents a major effort, and his facts will serve other scholars well, irrespective of the final judgment of his conclusions.

    I would say, however, that there is a shift in sense going on, here, Alan, from your representation of our own and collective responsibility for our fate with respect to fossil fuel consumption, and something which is growing in industry, a notion of PRODUCER RESPONSIBIITY. (I apologize for the caps, but there doesn’t see to be a way to italicize here, shy of dropping into LaTeX.) This is the idea that when a company devises, produces, and markets a product, they ought to own the full life cycle responsibility for that product, including recovering it from the waste stream — or paying for its disposal — and, in some interpretations, the byproducts of the products use by consumers. This is not a theoretical idea. At least one company (Unilever Brothers, http://www.unileverusa.com/sustainable-living/uslp/) puts new products through such a test. For example, they assess an environmental impact to, say, a soap if their product or its advertising causes, as determined by market studies, to remain in the shower incrementally longer.

    There are a few of points here. First, successful retail companies do have deep knowledge of how their products are used, and even disposed. Ones which do not collect and exploit such information are, from a modern business perspective, not doing their job, at least on the retail side. Second, tracing this back to a product is a logical thing to do, since the product and its use would not exist if the company did not bring it out. Third, if such producer responsibility were in fact embraced widely, we would get the equivalent of a carbon tax in many industries, WITHOUT government intrusion in the markets and possibly better than a carbon tax since it would include factors which a carbon tax might underpenalize.

    The trouble with the Heeded suggestion is that this is being dropped on these companies midstream, so to speak, and the rules of the game are being thereby greatly changed. I agree with your discomfort on that point, Alan, and wish that the public would take greater responsibility for their actions.

    Nevertheless, I think the history of developed countries’ markets shows consumers need to be led and even WANT to be led. Government is actually a poor vehicle for doing that, but because the benefits of guiding them are not appropriable, government is the fallback. Companies have long created conditions for future consumption, whether Gallo in developing the California wine industry, or GM, Standard Oil, Firestone Tires, and National City Lines conspiring to purchase and dismantle electric trolley lines to push automobile transport and highways. (See UNITED STATES v. NATIONAL CITY LINES, 1951, 185 F.2d 562, 3 January 1951, and the movie “Taken for a Ride” by J. Klein and M. Olson. See also the Spielberg movie “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” which is based upon the same theme.)

    Another point: There is a growing restiveness among companies who are realizing and seeing impacts from climate change on their business, both in direct damage and in increasing insurance penalties, companies like Transamerica. Should effects of climate change become sufficiently severe and attributable — a capability which is being worked at present — it is not difficult to imagine these corporations seeking to collect damages to their business. If any other product were found to inflict such damage, irrespective of how it got to where it was (a car crashing into a store because of failed brakes, for instance), the party suffering the damage would generally pursue legal action. If these products are indeed harmful, and it can be proved the companies selling them should have known better or actively engaged in that harm not being publicized or regulated by fraud or other misinformation, these companies might well have a case.

    Harm to companies is not all …. Even if we get rid of greenhouse gase emissions down to the agricultural minimum, the timing is late and we may suffer consequences both because of the concentrations and the atmospheric lifetime of excess greenhouse gases. Thus, carbon capture and sequestration at a massive scale may be needed and, since the product won’t be being used at that time, recovering the cost of this would be difficult. The collective assets of corporations (excluding unextracted reserves) responsible for this might be one source.

    • Your point reminds me of the Carbon Disclosure Project, which has been gaining some momentum in the investing world. The organization essentially looks at the carbon footprint of companies, including their supply chains, and grants a ‘mark’ based on how performance changes from year to year. I definitely agree that the first step is awareness, and that is growing, however slowly. The link that was posted in a previous comment shows that companies are starting to account for the possibility of a carbon tax in their long-term projections, which is a positive reflection as well.

      Again, I agree that the question of how to fund large-scale CCS or an equivalent reduction effort is still the weakest link in the chain. But my opinion is that the limiting factor within that discussion is currently weak climate change policies at various levels of government. I think countries such as Norway have shown that with appropriate regulatory and economic incentives, it is very much possible to pursue large-scale CCS. However the current lack of political willpower continues to limit the available economic options at present.

      Thanks so much for your detailed analysis!

      • Thanks. I agree that government policies and especially government funding of R&D in order to “invent our way out of this huge mess” are essential. No company will do this, especially since their R&D has been flat since the early 1990s. Eventually, private sector needs to realize this, but governments need to play the role they have always played, reduce the risk and provide seed research monies.

  4. I love your article and please keep writing provoking and direct article, I may not agree with all of it, but it is always good to see things from another angle. It makes one wonder and think. Myself , I am not a believer of global warming as such. Climate change is from all times. Although I am concerned that we need to find alternative energy sources, hence R&D is so essential. The only question that we should pose is ” Will a high tech solution help ?”. I don’t think so. Poor countries will never be able to afford it , and it is exactly those countries that are having the heaviest pollution level. We all know it, old cars from the Western countries are shipped in masses to the second and third world , heavy industry moves to the same locations where environmental rules do not apply. Should we strive for an equal world in terms of consumption ? Because that is what is going on. I don’t think so. This globe can just not support it, there are to many of us.

    • Thank you Steve. The climate change discussion is one that could be endless, so rather I’ll speak to your second point. I agree with you that many of the most pressing environmental issues of today, including climate change, water scarcity, and atmospheric pollution are definitely geographically variable in their nature. Unfortunately, unless disparities are addressed, the brunt of the force inevitably falls on the poorest countries. I definitely think that this has to be a priority of adaptation and management efforts, although the mechanics are far outside of my area of expertise.

  5. An aspect much of this discussion leaves aside is that demand-side solutions for energy are vastly more effective per unit of effort or cost than supply-side ones. Kevin Anderson makes this point. (See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RInrvSjW90U.) The notion is that for every Kilowatt-Hour consumed at the end user side, there are significantly larger losses due to conversion inefficiencies and by-waste upstream of the consumption. Thus, reducing consumption by 20% corresponds to huge reductions upstream of the consumer. These aren’t usually accounted for in analyses. For example, to get a Kilowatt-Hour of energy from the ground from mining or drilling consumes many more Kilowatt-Hours of energy just to do it.

    Anderson also makes the point that 1%-5% of the world’s population is directly responsible for 40%-60% of carbon dioxide emissions. (Pareto’s Rule, iterated.) Thus, if the 1%-5% changed their lifestyles, while more would be required, we would be on our way to reduction, and quickly.

    • I’ve never looked at the problem quite that way – thanks for bringing that up! Do you have an idea of what kind of reductions can be made simply through conversion efficiency gains or changes to grid structures? As to the second point, I agree wholeheartedly. Once we’re talking about individuals, blame becomes a lot easier to place. But how do we go about targeting the 1-5% within the limitations of our legal/political frameworks?

      • Alan,
        I don’t know if “targeting” works well here, both because of legal and political reasons. I suppose we could imagine sumptuary laws and taxes as in ancient Greece and Rome. Beyond that, it could be recognized as the morally and ethically correct thing to do, embodied as such in religious teachings, for intergenerational justice if nothing else.

      • Jan – I agree with the necessity of building an ethical foundation around environmental impacts, but like you say, the accepted purpose would be justice in the long run rather than an actual short-term solution.

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