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Who’s to blame for a problem like climate change?

Who’s to blame for a problem like climate change?

Ten years ago, it was low energy light bulbs that we used to deflect our responsibility for climate change. Now it’s more often the rich and big business. But fault is hard to ascribe, and can stop us facing some hard truths.

David MacKay, in his seminal book Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air, punctured the light bulb mantra that “every little helps” and posited the more realistic mantra: “if everyone does a little, we’ll achieve only a little.” Changing your light bulbs and turning your TV off at the plug might reduce your emissions by 1%. If everybody does this, it doesn’t add up to a lot. We’d reduce our collective emissions by 1%. Meanwhile, these would-be eco warriors fly to Spain for a holiday.

These excuses are still prevalent today. In recent weeks, Guardian readers have worried about plastic use – bags, bottles and packaging. It’s an important issue, yet it pales into comparison with the impact of driving a car unnecessarily the whole time, or flying on lots of foreign holidays.

Of late I’ve noticed “the rich” and “big business” being used more and more and in a similar way – to deflect any personal responsibility, or to avoid tackling tough and important questions like population and economic growth.

It’s the fault of the rich
One way of looking at responsibility is to attribute it to individuals. You can divide the national carbon emissions by the population and posit an average individual carbon footprint. We each make decisions about our home energy use, mode of transport, consumer goods and holidays. They’re shaped and constrained by our income and wealth, and other dimensions of power, and the argument goes that the rich are most responsible and most able to change.

We can explore the scale of the rich’s responsibility by drawing on data from this well-known Oxfam report on inequality and carbon emissions.

The bottom 50% of the UK population has an average footprint of 5.5 tonnes per year; the richest 10% a footprint of 24 tonnes. If we assume the 50-90 percentile group averages 15 tonnes, and the top 1% average a whopping 200 tonnes (with a lavish lifestyle and 40 flights per year) we can test the arithmetic.

Here are the combined carbon footprints of those different groups. You can see that the top 1% are responsible for a disproportionate share of the impact, but far from a majority.

We need a sustainable footprint that is 1 tonne per person per year, on average.That’s actually incredibly hard to achieve – something like a 100% renewable powered home, barely driving an electric car, taking one holiday per year by train within the UK, completely turning your back on consumerism, and living in a country with completely transformed public services and infrastructure.

If we pull everyone down to that level, the bottom 50% need to reduce their emissions by 80%, the 50-90 group by 93%, the richest 10% by 96%, and the super rich 1% by an amazing 99.5%.

But the combined impact of those mind-boggling changes for the rich and super rich only delivers one third of the total reductions we need. The rich each make a big difference individually, but there just aren’t that many of them. The numerical weight of the bottom half of the population still delivers a fifth of the reductions, and the ‘middle class’ 50-90 group a further half. Anybody who has taken a single foreign holiday by plane this year is comfortably in that ‘middle class’ bracket in carbon terms.

In Oxfam’s report, they highlight a more extreme inequality globally: the top 10% are responsible for half the emissions. But consider this – if you’ve taken return flights for a foreign holiday, or a couple of long train-trip holidays, that puts you in the global top 10%. Also consider that we want most of the bottom 50% to increase their use of the earth’s resources to attain a decent standard of living, and it gets even harder.

It’s not just carbon, either. Ecological footprints measure our consumption of the earth’s resources, including land for agriculture, forestry, absording carbon emissions and much more. A sustainable allocation is 1.7 global hectares (gha) per person. One academic study found that the average ecological footprint of highlighy qualified executives is 6.61 gha per year, compared to a footprint for an unemployed lone parent of 4.09 gha per year. So there’s a big inequality – the rich have footprints 60% larger than the poor. But the poor still need to reduce their footprint by 58% to the rich’s reduction of 74%, and if only the rich acted, we’d be a very long way from a sustainable society.

The rich are disproportionately responsible, in lifestyle terms. But as MacKay might have it, “if the rich alone do a lot, we’ll achieve only a little.”

It’s the fault of the government
The problem with putting the responsibility on individuals is that they can’t always make the reductions I’ve assumed. The super rich can stop flying and buying today, but the poorest citizens can’t so easily buy insulation and suffer many other disadvantages of economic, social and political power.

We also share responsibility for the impact of government, and public and private services, from Whitehall offices to NHS hospitals, from our mobile phone company to the construction of a new railway line or council house. That’s partly why the difference in ecological footprints between the executive and the lone parent aren’t that big.

The Government has huge power to make low carbon lifestyles easier, and to reduce those shared impacts. They can cap and then bring down the number of flights, build cycle lanes instead of roads, curb industrialised farming that is devastating our countryside, and so on.

But while we may have our reservations about democracy in the UK, we cannot escape the plain fact that massive majorities continue to vote for political parties that won’t use their power in this way.

In the last election, 45% of voters supported the Tories, UKIP and DUP, who are all seriously undermining action on climate change and ecology. Another 50% voted for Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP, all of whom promise modestly positive action with one hand while supporting airport expansion, road building and industrialised agriculture with the other. Just 1.6% supported the Green Party, the only vote that supports the kind of action that would deal with those shared impacts and enable genuinely sustainable lifestyles for all citizens.

The threat of extinction hanging over 1 in 6 UK species, of record temperatures heralding the onset of dangerous climate change, of air pollution causing more premature deaths than obesity or alcohol. The opportunity to revive nature in our countryside, to make our homes warmer, to travel in a healthier way. These were only priorities for 1 or 2 in every 100 voters.

Our Labour mayor in London is unwilling to take bold action to curb car usage, despite some strong promises, because he fears the backlash from motorists. Cars are wrecking our cities, poisoning us, changing our climate, and yet when faced with a choice between candidates that will tackle this and those that will turn a blind eye, the vast majority of the electorate vote for the latter.

If it’s the fault of our government, we have to accept that it’s also in part the fault of citizens for voting them in.

It’s the fault of multinational companies
The problem with blaming individuals and governments is that both are influenced by big businesses, and big businesses are often in a position to make the biggest difference.

A report published by the Carbon Disclosure Project showed that just 100 fossil fuel businesses are responsible for 71% of the greenhouse gas emissions between 1988 and 2015.

If you read the report, though, it’s worth noting that 91% of those emissions come from state or public-investor owned businesses. We forget this in the UK because so much of our energy infrastructure is privatised. The private businesses also have shareholders, many of which are our pension funds and those of our public authorities. The growing power of the divestment campaigns attest to this. We can all look at switching our personal pensions, and pressure pension providers and public authorities to join the movement.

You also need to stop and think: what are those businesses selling? Oil for our cars, gas and coal to power our homes and businesses. The businesses are responsible in a sense, but so too are we for creating the consumer demand. If every car owner in Britain stopped making unnecessary trips by car, choosing to walk or cycle instead, the “responsibility” of oil businesses would drop significantly. If the Chinese government banned new coal power plants and set a target to close existing plants in 10 years, the “responsibility” of the state-owned power businesses would drop significantly.

Many businesses also have huge indirect impacts on our emissions.

They lobby vociferously against action on climate change (though the CBI has also lobbied strongly for positive action for many years). They yield indirect power through their ownership of mainstream media and their undue prominence in news and current affairs programming, pressing for airport expansion and road building and economic growth at any cost. Their advertising puts huge psychological and sociological pressures on people to consume at any cost. They put more effort into greenwashing their reputation than truly radical changes to their business practices, and often act to evade regulations and lie about it – like car manufacturers and emissions tests. Think of the Australian coal industry and it’s plain to see government being captured by sectional business interests.

Without a doubt, businesses are primarily responsible for their activities. But shouldn’t we share some responsibility for providing the demand for their products and services, and voting in governments that turn a blind eye?

So who is to blame?
One lesson to draw from all of this is that you cannot easily ascribe fault. Simplistic narratives of fault usually aim to obscure an important part of the debate.

Rich frequent flyers suggest “we’re all responsible” and blame population growth to deflect from their sociopathic lifestyles.

Lefty social media activists suggest “it’s the rich and big business” to avoid facing up to very real problems like population, dismissing any concern for it as a malign Malthusian distraction.

There is truth in these ascriptions of blame, but it is only partial. In different ways, we are all responsible – as citizens, consumers and voters. We are each responsible to differing degrees – the rich, influential multinational executive is far more responsible than the poor, powerless shop assistant, because he is in a stronger position to change things. But if only the rich multinational executive acts, we will only achieve part of what is needed.

Today, I read three headlines

9 million drivers will hit the roads this weekend to kick off their summer holidays.
A record 770,000 flights will go through UK airspace this summer.
New BP data shows fossil fuel energy rose in 2016 in spite of the renewables revolution.
So whose fault is that?