It’s Not Your Fault. Let’s Get Real in Assigning Blame for Climate Change

June 5, 2019

“The earth is not dying, it is being killed, and those who are killing it have names and addresses.” – U. Utah Phillips

If you, and me, and 100,000 of our closest friends all stop eating meat, driving, flying, using the internet, and go live on nuts and berries in the woods – would that save the climate?
Because there are a relatively small number of organizations who have an outsized impact on what is happening on the planet, and who have blocked meaningful action for the last 30 years.
Time is long past to hold them accountable.

Michael Mann in USAToday:

“People start pollution. People can stop it.” That was the tag line of the famous “Crying Indian” ad campaign that first aired on Earth Day in 1971. It was, as it turns out, a charade. Not only was “Iron Eyes Cody” actually an Italian-American actor, the campaign itself successfully shifted the burden of litter from corporations that produced packaging to consumers.

The problem, we were told, wasn’t pollution-generating corporate practices. It was you and me. And efforts to pass bottle bills, which would have shifted responsibility to producers for packaging waste, failed. Today, decades later, plastic pollution has so permeated our planet that it can now be found in the deepest part of the ocean, the Mariana Trench 36,000 feet below.

Here is another Crying Indian campaign going on today — with climate change. Personal actions, from going vegan to avoiding flying, are being touted as the primary solution to the crisis. Perhaps this is an act of desperation in an era of political division, but it could prove suicidal.

Though many of these actions are worth taking, and colleagues and friends of ours are focused on them in good faith, a fixation on voluntary action alone takes the pressure off of the push for governmental policies to hold corporate polluters accountable. In fact, one recent study suggests that the emphasis on smaller personal actions can actually undermine support for the substantive climate policies needed.

This new obsession with personal action, though promoted by many with the best of intentions, plays into the hands of polluting interests by distracting us from the systemic changes that are needed.

There is no way to avert the climate crisis without keeping most of our coal, oil and gas in the ground, plain and simple. Because much of the carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for centuries, our choices in the next few years are crucial, and they will determine the lives our grandchildren and their grandchildren. We need corporate action, not virtue signaling. “People start pollution. People can stop it.” That was the tag line of the famous “Crying Indian” ad campaign that first aired on Earth Day in 1971. It was, as it turns out, a charade. Not only was “Iron Eyes Cody” actually an Italian-American actor, the campaign itself successfully shifted the burden of litter from corporations that produced packaging to consumers.

Massive changes to our national energy grid, a moratorium on new fossil fuel infrastructure and a carbon fee and dividend (that steeply ramps up) are just some examples of visionary policies that could make a difference. And right now, the “Green New Deal,” support it or not, has encouraged a much needed, long overdue societal conversation about these and other options for averting climate catastrophe. 

But we need more than the left wing of the Democratic Party on board. We need a national plan of action that will include everyone.

Consider the benefits. With five years of concentrated effort, we could have a supply of clean, renewable energy that is virtually inexhaustible. We could have many fewer deaths from mercury, particulates and ozone produced by burning dirty fossil fuels. And, we could set a shining example for the rest of the world of how the climate crisis can be solved both equitably and productively.

Don’t change light bulbs, change energy system

Focusing on policies that incentivize corporate environmental stewardship will force us to work together and cross political, racial and religious lines. It will connect us to the rest of the world as we aim to solve a truly global problem. In contrast, a focus on personal action can divide us, with those living virtuously distancing themselves from those living “in sin.”

A national plan of action, in fact, is not a new idea. It was proposed by Republican President George H.W. Bush in 1992 when he promised “an action plan on climate change.” If we had taken up his challenge over a quarter century ago, when carbon dioxide levels were about 350 parts per million, this would all be much easier. Now they are surpassing 415 ppmand rising quickly, and we are locking in ever more dangerous climate change impacts.

What decades of industry obstinance bought us is a trip down a much steeper carbon emissions ramp, so now we must turn from changing light bulbs to changing our entire energy system. There is still time to avert the worst impacts of climate change, but not without immediate, collective action.

Mary Annaise Heglar  in Vox:

I’m at my friend’s birthday dinner when an all-too-familiar conversation unfolds. I introduce myself to the man to my left, tell him that I work in the environmental field, and his face freezes in terror. Our handshake goes limp. 

“You’re gonna hate me …” he mutters sheepishly, his voice barely audible over the clanging silverware. 

I knew what was coming. He regaled me with a laundry list of environmental mistakes from just that day: He’d ordered lunch and it came in plastic containers; he’d eaten meat and he was about to order it again; he’d even taken a cab to this very party.

I could hear the shame in his voice. I assured him that I didn’t hate him, but that I hated the industries that placed him — and all of us — in the same trick bag. Then his shoulders lifted from their slump and his eyes met mine. “Yeah, ’cause there’s really no point trying to save the planet anymore, right?” 

My stomach sank.

Sadly, I get this reaction a lot. One word about my five years at the Natural Resources Defense Council, or my work in the climate justice movement broadly, and I’m bombarded with pious admissions of environmental transgressions or nihilistic throwing up of hands. One extreme or the other.

And I understand why. Scientists have been warning us for decades that humans are causing severe and potentially irreversible changes to the climate, essentially baking our planet and ourselves with carbon dioxide. A 2018 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that we had roughly 12 (now 11) years to make massive changes that could stop the worst impacts of climate change.

Once upon a time, perhaps, we needed a strong grasp of science to understand climate change, but now all we have to do is look at the daily headlines — or out our windows. From the Camp Fire, a devastating California wildfire that was exacerbated by dry, hot weather, to Hurricane Michael, a storm that rapidly intensified due to increased sea temperatures, climate change is here. 

I don’t blame anyone for wanting absolution. I can even understand abdication, which is its own form of absolution. But underneath all that is a far more insidious force. It’s the narrative that has both driven and obstructed the climate change conversation for the past several decades. It tells us climate change could have been fixed if we had all just ordered less takeout, used fewer plastic bags, turned off some more lights, planted a few trees, or driven an electric car. It says that if those adjustments can’t do the trick, what’s the point?

The belief that this enormous, existential problem could have been fixed if all of us had just tweaked our consumptive habits is not only preposterous; it’s dangerous. It turns environmentalism into an individual choice defined as sin or virtue, convicting those who don’t or can’t uphold these ethics. When you consider that the same IPCC report outlined that the vast majority of global greenhouse gas emissions come from just a handful of corporations — aided and abetted by the world’s most powerful governments, including the US — it’s victim blaming, plain and simple.

When people come to me and confess their green sins, as if I were some sort of eco-nun, I want to tell them they are carrying the guilt of the oil and gas industry’s crimes. That the weight of our sickly planet is too much for any one person to shoulder. And that that blame paves the road to apathy, which can really seal our doom. 

But that doesn’t mean we do nothing. Climate change is a vast and complicated problem, and that means the answer is complicated too. We need to let go of the idea that it’s all of our individual faults, then take on the collective responsibility of holding the true culprits accountable. In other words, we need to become many Davids against one big, bad Goliath.

25 Responses to “It’s Not Your Fault. Let’s Get Real in Assigning Blame for Climate Change”

  1. rsmurf Says:

    Well I do most of the things that need to be done. So the rest of you need to get going.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      You do “most of the things that need to be done”? LMAO—-exactly what are you doing? What needs to be done is not little individual “green” acts, but a massive remake of the political and governmental mess that the country has sunken into.

      What environmental and political groups do you belong to and/or contribute to? What direct actions have you participated in?

    • grindupbaker Says:

      I do pocket composting same as David Suzuki

  2. dumboldguy Says:

    Mann and Heglar get it. It has NEVER been about the individual, but about the corporations and libertarian plutocrats and greedy rich that have bought our government and turned it to their own wants. Read Dark Money and Merchants of Doubt, and especially McKibben’s new book “Falter” if you are not nodding your head in agreement with that statement.

    Elizabeth Warren has a plan for dealing with all of that. Send her campaign some $$$$.

  3. rsmurf Says:

    A short list.
    I don’t fly.
    I produce ALL my power from My solar panels.
    My car’s are hybrid and plugin hybrid, have been since 2004.
    I grow much of my own food, including chickens.
    I don’t use or buy any toxic chemicals.
    My house is all electric and I produce all my own electricity.
    I don’t use central air or heat.
    I dry clothes on a line.
    I compost everything.
    I don’t have a lawn.
    I buy MADE IN USA unless there is no option. (electronics impossible to buy made in USA).
    I don’t buy water in bottles.
    I don’t use plastic bags.
    I recycle EVERYTHING thats recyclable.
    I boycott companies that don’t respect the planet.
    I don’t shop at amazon, walmart, costco, macdonalds, and any chains if possible.
    I don’t eat fast food.

    • Greg Wellman Says:

      That’s awesome. But the point of the article is that it needs to be easier for people to achieve what you have. Right now, everything from the way our cities are laid out, the choices offered to us at the grocery store, to the expectations of our employers (e.g. air travel) pushes ordinary people away from “good behaviors”. Government could change the incentive structures that affect all corporations and people to make good behaviors easier.

      • rsmurf Says:

        So who’s gonna fix it if WE DON’T? Ford who just stopped making cars to concentrate on SUV’s and TRUCKS? Walmart that buys all their crap from china with all the shipping? The republicans that are pushing natural gas, fracking and more oil and gas exploration? All the fast food that welcomes unsustainable factory farming? WHO????? It has to be us. And if we are too stupid to see whats going on then maybe we need to be replaced buy something that fits into this environment better. And I still don’t understand why “humans” dont live within the bounds of the planet, some of the native peoples do!! My conclusion is the humans that are destroying the planet are not from this planet!! But that’s a whole different discussion.

        • redskylite Says:

          You’re doing the right thing RSMURF , leading by example – we need hope too, we need to keep our spirits up and fight, that can only be done with hope. Hope that U.S will get a better president next year, hope that China, India, Russia, Poland, Taiwan and all the large fossil fuel burning stations worldwide close down. We can’t make it happen as individuals. But we can HOPE. So don’t let anyone kill your spirit. It’s all we have.

          This is real Native Americal action. It does exist- it is NOT all act.

          “Standing Rock Fights On: Tribal Activism Goes Solar
          Three years after the historic anti-pipeline protests in North Dakota, activists are bringing renewable energy to the oil-rich land”

          • rsmurf Says:

            What I see is we are in the boiling pot and everyone is too lazy to get out and turn the heat down! Nothing I have done is so HARD that EVERY AMERICAN couldn’t duplicate it and do more! But alas everyone is just sitting around and waiting for THEY to fix it. We may already be PAST the point of no return.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      Uh-Huh—-and if you also raised pigs, they’d be flying around your neighborhood.

      Did you not read my comment? I stated:
      “What needs to be done is not little individual “green” acts, but a massive remake of the political and governmental mess that the country has sunken into”.

      Then I asked:
      “What environmental and political groups do you belong to and/or contribute to? What direct actions have you participated in?”


  4. Greg Wellman Says:

    Part of the text is duplicated. Specifically, the first 3 paragraphs repeat, starting in the middle of the 7th.

  5. 1happywoman Says:

    I think a reprise of what dumboldguy termed “rational fatalism” is in order here, as described by jimbills:

    The only control the individual has is the small sphere of influence of friends, family, and acquaintances, and this is both quite finite in time and more often than not limited by humanity’s remarkable ability to reject uncomfortable or inconvenient influences.

    We ‘think’ we are greater than we are – our consciousness fools us into believing we are more capable, intelligent, and aware than other species – but it’s a facade. Some humans are quite intelligent about some things, and this helps promote the happy fallacy that we can do anything we wish. But when viewed on the macro level, at the mass of activity by people in sum, we are exactly like any other species. We compete, we thrive and expand given the right conditions, we fight when the conditions are bad, and we die when they are very bad.

    We face a certain fate both as a civilization and as a population – which is to collapse. It’s silly to put a time frame to this as there are too many variables in play and we can’t predict future surprises, but all civilizations collapse, and all biological populations that go into overshoot collapse. All – without exception.

    Our cleverness as a species (expressed especially in technological advance) might allow us a longer exponential phase, a more rounded stationary phase, and/or a longer stationary phase (although with our current economic system I doubt this), but the death phase is inevitable.

    We don’t want to accept this, I know. And like I said, we’re remarkably adept at denying what we don’t want to believe. But we have incredibly little to zero control over it no matter what we want to believe.

    But hey – here’s the good news. It’s unlikely humans will go extinct, because during the death phase fewer people will be able to be able to deplenish the environment, and it will regrow in some form (see Chernobyl). Plus, the thing that has brought us to this point, our cleverness, which has allowed us to reach and extend past overshoot, will also help to smooth the death phase a bit more than other species.

    So, don’t worry, be happy. And keep doing the best you can personally, because the very limited influence you do have ‘might’ still rub off on those around you. I’m not saying at all we should do nothing. If we have any personal morality at all, we should still care and try to be positive influencers, because in the end the extremely limited control we do have still exists, and there is the however slight chance it might extend into a positive influence for some handful of people in the future.

    But, the false belief that we have real control over our fate as a species and civilization leads only to madness, despair, and anger. It ain’t there. It never was.

    (I hope the fact I can’t scroll up to the beginning of this comment doesn’t mean that everything I copied and pasted won’t show up.)

  6. doldrom Says:

    The dynamics between individual and collective actions are often seized upon to confuse issues completely. When 6 million people lose their jobs, the media is sure to pick one or two cases, and show how they have used this turn of events as an opportunity to start a new creative business in a niche which is prospering fabulously. Without saying so explicitly, they intimate that if those other 6 million showed the same optimism, resourcefulness, and luck, there would be no problem. The same morally deficient individuals people who were regarded as bums and hobos in the thirties magically turned into productive middle class citizens 10 years on with a change in the macro economic climate.
    Some things just do not work purely in terms of indivuals actions. Traffic lights at intersections is a great example of how you cannot simply leave things to the individuals involved. And the same goes for climate change and all the boring saws about people using airplanes or whatever to get around. A carbon fee/dividend would unleash all the forces of the market and billions of little individual decisions (as well as larger decisions about research and infrastructure). Why should we try to reach paltry results with moral preening and preaching to influence billions of decisions when we can achieve more with a single coup de grace?
    It is hard to decide at what scale issues should be addressed and can be solved best. But any discussion is generally thwarted and distorted by purely ideological and propaganda interference about economic prosperity or free markets or moral responsibility or whatever which purposely try to mask and obscure the true dynamics — to conceal the racketeering.

  7. redskylite Says:

    Timely post, note the atmospheric carbon increase is accelerating upwards – not decreasing from all the valued personal actions:-

    Recent Monthly Average Mauna Loa CO2
    May 2019: 414.66 ppm
    May 2018: 411.24 ppm
    Last updated: June 5, 2019

    “The 2019 peak value was 3.5 ppm higher than the 411.2 ppm peak in May 2018 and marks the second-highest annual jump on record.”

    Recovery must be a joint effort by politicians, monarchs, countries, companies, groups and individuals, who value continued existence on our planet, above all else.

    • redskylite Says:

      Scientists have warned for more than a decade that concentrations of more than 450ppm risk triggering extreme weather events and temperature rises as high as 2C, beyond which the effects of global heating are likely to become catastrophic and irreversible.

    • rsmurf Says:

      So 450 by 2030! Our goose is cooked! And we are the goose!

      • Gingerbaker Says:

        “So 450 by 2030! Our goose is cooked! And we are the goose!”

        How can our goose be cooked when you are doing so many admirable things and admirably listing them for us to admire?

        • rsmurf Says:

          Thanks for being an ass in front of everyone.

        • rsmurf Says:

          And tell your children you were WAY TOOOOOO SELFISH TO DO ANYTHING!

          • Gingerbaker Says:

            Another chide!

            With all caps!!

            And I am being selfish for not listing my enviro cred like rsmurf !!!

            And I am not doing anything about AGW !!!!

            Please, rsmurf, please – help me be more like you. I don’t want to have to tell my children I am way too selfish to do anything!

            Maybe if you chided me more, I could somehow be as noble as you? Please say “Yes”! 🙂

          • rsmurf Says:


          • dumboldguy Says:

            Yes, and notice the “chide”, like most of smurfy’s natterings, is made up mostly of monosyllabic words and simple sentences—–I guess he wants to make sure the third graders among us get his meaning.

            The only “selfish ass” I see here is smurfy, who is SO freaking proud of his inane and virtually meaningless little “greenie” efforts that he is strutting around and not bothering to answer my point and followup question

            I stated:
            “What needs to be done is not little individual “green” acts, but a massive remake of the political and governmental mess that the country has sunken into”.

            Then I asked:
            “What environmental and political groups do you belong to and/or contribute to? What direct actions have you participated in?”

            I guess we can assume that smurfy is hiding on his little “green” patch (with NO lawn), feeling super smug about what he has DONE, and counting his pennies like Scrooge McDuck rather than send some of them to the people who will make the ONLY REAL difference,

  8. Keith McClary Says:

    OCTOBER 23, 2020

    “War on plastic is distracting from more urgent threats to environment, experts warn”

    They suggest that we should beware of trying to replace plastics with other throwaway products that may be just as polluting and climate changing.

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