gas station in fog oil Tim Vrtiska CC BY-ND 2.0
Image Credit: Tim Vrtiska CC BY-ND 2.0 (Flickr)

It’s an unfortunate reality that we humans have some critical flaws. One such flaw is our difficulty in recognizing crises if they don’t feel immanent and specific. It is entirely possible that we can see a situation as a serious problem, know that we should do something, and then fail to find the motivation to do anything. Even problems that are gravely serious can feel intuitively as if they aren’t that bad: “we should really do something at some point.”

Climate change is a perfect example of this. It’s a threat that we intellectually know should be taken extremely seriously, but engaging with it is a struggle because it doesn’t always emotionally feel like a pressing threat. One potential reason is that it’s really hard to point the finger at any one person or group and fight against them.

Who’s to blame for climate change again? Everyone? No one? People who are long dead? People who haven’t even been born yet?

Contrast the threat of climate change to the threat of nuclear war. We know that hostile nations have nuclear weapons, we know how radically our world will shift if they are used, and we feel like it could happen soon. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, for instance, it was easy for Americans to identify the villains for a threat that felt exceedingly close in time and space. Galvanizing public support against those villains was easy.

But climate change lacks these critical markers that evolution had ingrained in us as a threat detector. Climate change operates on a geologic time scale where an entire human lifetime is only a blink of an eye to our ancient home. In part due to this and the inability to lay clear blame, we can understand the threat intellectually, but not feel it as pressing as nuclear warheads parked in Cuba. Even I, someone intimately familiar with the impacts that climate change will have, don’t feel the need to duck and cover when I see an oil tanker.

So who should we blame for our climate crisis? There are many different ways to answer that question. Who you blame depends largely on how you frame the question. For now, let’s focus on three groups: individual consumers, government bodies, and/or corporate industries.

For some people, the blame ultimately lies with individuals and their consumer choices. After all, if people didn’t consume fossil fuels and products made with them, we likely wouldn’t be having this discussion. If each individual would choose not to drive, not to be on a fossil fuel powered electrical grid, or consume products from companies who are, then there would be no crisis.

But the problem with this scenario is clear. We have built an entire society that revolves around consumption of some form or another. Unless you have the fortitude to revert back to a hunter gather society, this “solution” is comically lacking. So we try to find a middle ground and encourage ourselves to limit our impact “as much as possible.” The sort of coaxing that goes “if you buy a hybrid car and LED lights, you can save the planet.”

But even this middle ground has critical flaws. Besides advancing the troubling concept that we can consume our way out of a problem we consumed out way into, this type of small action thinking ultimately blames the individual for a systematic failing. What’s written between the lines here concentrates an overwhelming amount of blame on people and typically makes them disengage from potential solutions. You might as well say “If you had just bought this Tesla sooner, none of this would have happened.” While these “light green” actions do have a positive impact that can achieve great progress, consumers ultimately don’t have control over many of the inputs that feed their consumption.

And even if you do buy your electric car, there’s still the issue of morally justifying other bad habits from one positive change. “I can fly on international vacations twice a year. I drive an electric car after all.” Assuming that climate change will be solved entirely because people simply choose to consume product A over product B is foolish at best; catastrophic at worst.

While consumer choice can and does make a difference, the type of climate actions that drive rapid systematic change aren’t triggered by sales of electric cars. Governments, at all levels, have the power to induce rapid climate action through legislation. In places like Costa Rica, where the national grid is powered almost entirely by renewable source, this has been proven. The legislature of that nation is now turning its attention to the transportation sector in its quest to become the first carbon neutral country.

But not everyone has a government like Costa Rica’s. The arguable failure of governments across the globe to do enough, soon enough, drives some people to blame leaders at all levels of government for climate woes. Notoriously, governments continue to agree that climate change is a problem while also agreeing that the solutions we need are not quite here yet. In meeting after meeting, they always seem to be in agreement that in the future we must agree to do something.

Above all, governments are social constructions with the same crisis detection flaws as the humans that make them up. The leaders of our world are just as hamstrung in their ability to feel emotionally threatened by climate change as the rest of us. Add in special interests, the search for reelection funds, a desire to reach the widest base possible, the attention that must be given to other issues (that often have the benefit of feeling like crises), and you see the appetite for climate change action sucked away from the very bodies that are so well positioned to solve this issue.

Which could lead a person to blame those vampires of legislative will power for the lack of progress: companies that profit from supplying the very fossil fuels that are feeding into the problem. For some on the political spectrum, the faceless corporations that fuel the climate crisis make the perfect target for finger-pointing. Making Exxon or BP out to be the enemy grants climate change the salience of knowing which people exactly are to blame. If Exxon hadn’t fought to bury climate research; if BP would stop drilling operations; if companies would agree it’s in the best interest of humanity to leave the Canadian tar sands in the ground, we wouldn’t be in this mess. All the while, these companies continue to profit from a crisis they create.

But the derisiveness of placing the blame here often leads other sectors of the political realm to shift blame right back on the consumers. It is ultimately the individual who could take an electrified train cross county who instead flies. It is the individual who pumps the gas into their car, even if they feel guilty doing so. Blaming corporations entirely for climate change makes it easy for those who disagree to say “If you care so much about the climate, why did you drive in your gas-powered car to this silly protest?”

And around and around and around the blame game goes.

Humans are very good at solving issues when we can blame a clear enemy and pursue a straightforward solution. But climate change lacks both of these: it is fueled by a societal system that we have built up over thousands of years that we all drive forward. It also doesn’t help that it’s easy for humans to push climate change to the periphery of their field of worry for threats that feel more pressing. Like credit card bills. Or nuclear bombs.

Which leads to the question of how we solve a crisis that just doesn’t feel like one. Are we able to band together and solve a problem where there is no clear villain? True, consumers buy products that fuel climate change. But they are embedded in a social system that intentionally makes it difficult to understand the full consequences of their consumption. Governments could institute policies that address the situation, but their short office terms and clashing ideologies have shown policy change to be difficult. Corporations that profit from the crisis could take the blame, but it is ultimately the consumers who buy their products and keep them profitable.

So, who’s to blame for climate change again?

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