Climate change photo of an iceberg melting.

Do Consumers or Corporations Impact Climate Change More?

The phrase, “no ethical consumption under capitalism” is often repeated, but how much responsibility really falls on the average person?
January 13, 2023
6 mins read

When it comes to climate change, people constantly suggest actions that would lessen their personal impact. Be sure to recycle. Turn off the lights. Switch to a plant-based diet. Take fewer trips via airplane. Carpool whenever possible. The list of suggestions for everyday citizens goes on and on, and while between 66-80% of Americans support climate change policies, the question still remains about whether large corporations are willing to take accountability for their tremendous impact. A report found that over 630 million metric tons of greenhouse gases were emitted by some of the top 15 U.S. food and beverage companies each year. So, what are the biggest contributing factors, and who is the most responsible?

Individuals Think Companies Are Responsible

A Politico poll from February asked people across the globe whether they believed individuals or companies should be held responsible for the trillions of dollars needed to address the growing climate crisis. 41% of Americans said that corporations should foot the bill, and while this number includes 56% of Democrats and 40% of independents polled, it also includes 30% of Republicans. Respondents in several other countries agreed that wealthy companies should take financial responsibility.

Fossil Fuel Companies Are the Worst

90 companies were named in the 2020 Carbon Majors report as they were responsible for producing around two-thirds of carbon emissions. Unsurprisingly, the majority were fossil fuel companies. Ironically, at international climate change conferences, fossil fuel lobbyists make an appearance to stress the importance of personal responsibility when it comes to the climate crisis. By refusing to take responsibility and urging ordinary citizens to cut down on their emissions, the biggest polluters take the pressure off of those who have the ability to create the most change — themselves.

Product Life Cycles Aren’t Public Information

These days, companies often make promises to reduce their level of carbon output and waste by a certain year. However, not every company addresses the full life cycles of the products they produce. While corporations may be able to reduce the emissions from the production of those products, they have less control over the emissions that will result from their use and disposal; after the goods are in the hands of consumers, companies have no control over what happens.

The Wealthy Cause More Environmental Harm

Studies from the World Inequality Lab found that a person’s wealth was a better predictor of their carbon emissions than the wealth of the nation in which they lived. In fact, one study found that the richest 1% are among the fastest-growing categories of people when it comes to emission records. Alarmingly, the top 1% of the wealthiest individuals emit “70 times as much carbon as the bottom 50%.”

Why is it that richer citizens have more of a negative effect on the environment? Factors such as private jet use, “super-yachts,” consuming more meat and frivolous rides to space are all prime examples. Emissions inequality even shows up in the form of carbon taxes that disproportionately affect poorer people. Unfortunately, people who cannot afford to travel via air or own gas-guzzling SUVs end up paying the price for excess carbon that they don’t even generate.

Americans Rarely Make Change

A poll from August of this year indicates that around two-thirds of Americans believe that the fossil fuel industry and other corporations should do their part to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. However, not as many people think that individual citizens have much of an impact. Therefore, while plenty of Americans believe climate change is a serious threat, few agree that changing their own actions would do much to help our global situation. And while 6 in 10 Americans have changed their habits, the majority said that they primarily did so to save money — not save the climate.

Another problem is the Americans who care about climate change yet believe that their peers don’t. A study found that around 66-80% of American adults believe in policies to help slow climate change, but only 43% feel that their peers also care. Whether it’s by making small, personal changes or ensuring that their voices are heard at the government level, citizens must take collective action if they wish to remedy the climate crisis. Issues of psychological disconnect such as “local norms” and “false uniqueness” could drastically inhibit our ability to come together and influence change.

We Must Work Together

There are numerous sayings about “strength in numbers” and coming together for a “common cause.” And when it comes to saving the planet, we are united by the simple fact that we all live here. Individuals should make changes where they can afford to, and the wealthiest must take accountability. While individual changes will not be enough to halt the global climate crisis, everyone does have the ability to raise awareness about local recycling programs, affordable public transportation, grassroots movements, etc. Corporations do emit tons of greenhouse gases, but consumers still must acknowledge their impact one step at a time. At the end of the day, it takes a village to combat climate change.

Kane Howard, York College

Writer Profile

Kane Howard

York College

Kane Howard is an English major at York College. He has experience with writing both fiction and non-fiction works.

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