Solar Tribune

Governments vs. Corporations vs. Individuals: Who Should Be Leading the Fight Against Climate Change?

The question of where responsibility lies for enacting and pushing forward climate action is one of the many meta-debates that have frequently sprung up during the course of Solar Tribune’s interviews with thought leaders in this space. While many people desire to take control of their own impact on the climate and find that encouragement of such action can snowball to create even greater action, societal pressure, market-driving impact, and broader conversation, others pushback that any discussion that puts the onus on the individual to ‘solve’ for climate change is inherently letting the major influencers off the hook: governments and major corporations.

When it comes to assessing greenhouse gas emissions on a local, national, or global scale, the most major actors are indeed the corporations of the world. An oft-cited statistic finds that 71% of global emissions come at the hand of just 100 of the world’s largest companies. Getting even more granular, just 20 major fossil fuel companies are accountable for one-third of all global emissions. The impact that any individual or even group of individuals can make, in terms of direct emission reductions, certainly pales in comparison to what the emissions reductions can and would be if these global emitters made ambitious and aggressive commitments to reducing their corporate carbon footprints.

In fact, the origin of the phrase ‘carbon footprint’ traces back to a PR campaign that was outlined by BP and its major oil backers in the early 2000s as a clever way to reframe the conversation away from corporate accountability and placing the responsibility on individuals to control their personal emissions. The thinking went that if people were occupied by debating their own individual actions and personal responsibility for emissions and climate change, the spotlight wouldn’t burn as brightly on the fossil fuel companies who were actually behind such a large portion of the problem. The campaign was successful, and the term carbon footprint became common lexicon to sustainability-minded folks:

Source: Grist

In response, many climate advocates have begun to even push back behind the term carbon footprint and the general framing of the conversation in this way. According to Riley Dunlap, professor of sociology at Oklahoma State University:

“Corporate America in general has always tried to, with the help of all kinds of other actors, put   the onus of environmental protection in general and dealing with climate change on individuals…BP and others have convinced them that individuals are the key thing.”

That said, the focus on individual action is not completely for naught, according to other climate-focused advocates, even recognizing the scale of corporate impact compared with individual impact. For many in the field of trying to fight climate change, the individual actions may be more noise than anything in the broad scale of emissions reductions, but the collective impacts of those actions can create real change in a number of ways:

  • Of course, if one person makes a given emissions-reducing change, it has a minor impact, but if a million people make the same change, then the impact can be vast. Consider that one person driving an electric vehicle may have a minute carbon impact, but one million EVs on the road and replacing gasoline-consuming cars may start to move the needle.
  • Sustainable and emissions-reducing behaviors tend to have a social domino effect, particularly when those individuals talk about their decisions or there are public-facing signals of them. For example, study finds that a solar system being installed in one home will increase the number of additional installations within a half mile by 0.44 on average, as neighbors chat about the benefits of doing so with the person who installed it and visual reinforcement of the possibility drive consideration of such decisions. These social implications mean the benefit of one person adoption such an individual action aren’t limited to their direct carbon footprint, but can have wider implications.
  • Even outside of the social domino effect, others argue that individual sustainability decisions tend to beget further such changes in someone’s daily life. For example, what you eat and how you get around tend to be two of the biggest drivers of personal greenhouse gas emissions, and they also happen to be two of the most ever-present and in-your-face decisions you can make each day. If someone makes the decision to incorporate more plant-based and locally-sourced foods into their diet or ride more public transportation as a conscious environmental decision, success in those efforts will typically lead to them wondering where to next make decisions: perhaps they will now start to compost their food scraps or advocate for sustainable transportation development as a direct offset of those actions. So, once again, an individual action can then create more of a domino impact on the climate through a more thorough review of lifestyle and decision-making.
  • Lastly, the market-based impact of individual choices can also create more downstream impacts. For early adopters of EVs, their purchases and subsequent use of public EV chargers send feedback to automakers and utilities installing these chargers that those investments should continue. For people who check out the new plant-based restaurant offerings, those purchases inform the decisions made by these restaurants that such incorporations into their menu can be a profitable endeavor. Customers who opt into their utilities’ green energy programs are directly funding and supporting the buildout of new renewable energy generation sources. These market-based solutions all start with individuals who ‘vote’ with their wallets, so those individual decisions can allow others to continue to make those decisions more easily and affordably in the future.

All of this is to say that corporations making climate positive decisions and individuals supporting emission-reducing markets can be critical drivers of climate action, but of course the elephant in the room is the political decisions that can more aggressively, effectively, and quickly create the same type of change. Many would argue that corporations won’t inherently engage altruistically, but rather keep their decisions focused on the bottom line. The companies that have started to incorporate sustainability-focused decision-making, the argument goes, have only done so when it benefits their profits, when they can get good PR that makes it worthwhile, or when public policy has made doing so necessary.

Governmental bodies, whether on the state, local, or federal level have the ability to influence this type of change to coerce corporations to act in the necessary way. They can create economic incentives that make sustainable decisions the better business decision, they can support the research and development of certain technologies and programs to help them get to commercialization, they can use their procurement power to create market demand for sustainably-made products, and when all else fails they can outright mandate certain emission-reducing behaviors. Because of these powers that policies have, and which have been suitably leveraged in many markets, many argue that the key to real climate change doesn’t rest with the individual or the corporation but with the government acting in the public’s best interest to create the necessary change.

As with many of the difficult debates in the climate field, the truth about what to do comes down to a certain mix of ‘all of the above,’ with no easy solution or silver bullet available. But as noted, the Solar Tribune expert conversations have brought about passionate highlighting of these considerations, including the following quotes:


Advocating for Corporate Action

“Rapid progress is much easier than most people know. My instinct is that 80% of the problems in sustainability and climate can be solved with off-the-shelf technology that already exists and is in operation somewhere. Many people are so focused on operational delivery that they’ve had no direction or time to look for those practices. We urgently need to solve are plotting the boundaries of possible on carbon reduction, biodiversity etc and ensure that policy makers and strategists index their ambition against what possible and needed, rather than incremental improvements.

A foundation stone to building the art of the possible is laid when corporations and public sector organizations to rethink their approach to risk. Very few of them have thought about what the risk is of having executive boards and leaders without the skills to take their organizations towards a low-carbon future or rethinking their core business model. It’s the equivalent of jumping into a yacht for a trans-Atlantic voyage with a crew who have only sailed dinghies on the lake and never seen the open sea. My question to leaders is this: “how do we reframe planning on risk to include our readiness to respond to climate impacts on business by improving every employees’ ability to weave their response to those into the way they do business every day.” –   Andy Middleton, Chief Operating Officer at TYF 

“We are already seeing signs of what is to come. News outlets continue to report record temperatures in the Arctic and Antarctica; the Earth’s air conditioning system is overheating. Reports roll in from the Mauna Loa Observatory of our daily atmospheric CO2 levels reaching record highs, and climate scientists and youth leaders alike continue to demand a swift response to climate action.

If corporate leaders have learned one thing from COVID-19, it is that such signs must not be ignored and resiliency must be built into successful business models. Nobody is saying that this is easy, and most organizations have a long way to go. To support this process, we have outlined six key steps that corporate boards may take to prepare for climate risk: ” – Jaime Nack, President of Three Squares Inc., writing for The World Economic Forum

“For companies looking to embrace climate action, just putting solar panels on your roof isn’t necessarily enough. Making changes to reduce carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions can be really complicated. Having that energy knowledge, whether in house or outsourced to experts, is critical because it’s not something you can just figure out on your own without the expertise. So, when some businesses talk about net zero carbon goals, they may only be thinking of their energy bill but that’s just a small piece of the pie in the context of their entire supply chain and corporate energy footprint.”  – Lauren Glickman, Managing Partner at RenewComm


Discussing How to Make Individual Choices Matter

“The idea that climate change has individual level characteristics is absolutely true, it’s the cumulative effect of billions of individual choices. But those individual choices are constrained by our economic system, by our technological choices, and by how our cities are planned. So, for individual choices to matter, they need to be social and visible. In terms of the global impact to greenhouse gases, it’s relatively useless for me to simply not fly once. But if I don’t fly and then I tell people about not flying then it contributes to a conversation that might lead to more people not flying. It’s the same reason it’s important for the Prius to have a distinctive shape. The Prius driver’s carbon footprint is lower than a gas-powered car driver, but it’s more important to have a visible symbol of less greenhouse gas emissions on the road.” –Matthew Hoffmann, Environmental Governance Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy

“It’s not uncommon for individuals to follow a journey in their consciousness about climate change or any other broad social change that follows a similar trajectory. That mental journey will go from initial awareness to growing concern to taking individual action to perhaps observing that individual action alone is insufficient and larger systematic, policy, and industry changes that are necessary. And then people can start taking initial actions geared towards influencing structural change, but those changes are much harder and require more dedication, education, and collective action.” –James Whelan, The Change Agency

“Individual action vs. policy change is not an either / or choice; rather it is the new all of the above. People can walk and chew gum at the same time. People don’t have to make a choice of fighting for improved legislation vs. deciding whether they should switch their own electricity use to solar power, they can do both. Or, with electric vehicles, it’s not a binary choice of buying a brand new EV that’s going to get 300 miles per charge or more or nothing. You figure out how to do the best with your options. You can, for example, get a used EV as the second family car and for the long distance trips keep the gasoline one.” – Mark Burger

“For real climate action, we cannot focus on policy absent of grassroots organizing; it has to be led by frontline communities. Even for direct community action, we have to look at community-owned and community-controlled energy alternatives. It’s essential that the cooperative movement is front and center, which can create sustainable regional economies where communities have ownership and stakes in alternative energy production. There’s no end to corporate greed and shortcuts or shirking of safety measures, so we have to reduce the amount of power that transnational corporations have, and that starts by thinking at the regional and community scale.” – Nicole Fabricant

“Having conversations around climate change is often framed as “when it happens”, a problem for the future, instead of as observations of the changes that are already happening around us today. Making climate change, a huge global trend with complex data that might go over people’s heads, personal by tying it to a specific place makes it more impactful. That’s really the way that change can happen, more so than statistics, as personal stories can inspire creating movement to change.” – Danny Cooper, Project Manager of at University of Pennsylvania



Arguing to Take the Onus Off Individual Action

“I think overly focusing on individual actions, like CO2 emissions from personal flying, is really a red herring. Commercial flying produces, on average, 2-3% of global CO2 emissions per year. You can ground every single plane in the world and it’s not going to matter. And while everyone needs to lives their own values, I believe shaming people for choices they make in an imperfect system is counter productive, and meaningful action is most likely to come from systemic change that shifts energy from fossil fuels to zero carbon technologies including nuclear and renewables.”- Ben Cook, Adjunct Associate Research Scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (Columbia University, Earth Institute)

“The best first step for someone to make a greater change in their community is to target the systemic changes we need. People may think about eating a plant-based diet or switching to efficient lightbulbs, but we’re past that point in what we need to do to address the climate crisis. Delivering public comments to their city council members or state government officials drives a greater political will to clean energy. Start by giving public comments to your council in favor of green energy.” – Jose Trinidad Castaneda

“The most effective action for an individual is to get involved in the larger movement and push for collective action, political and legislative change. We need to steer people away from consumer-based action, as that’s largely a distraction from systemic change. We have to look at root causes.”- Deia Schlosberg, Pale Blue Dot Media 

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