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Can consumer choices ward off the worst effects of climate change? An expert explains.

Climate change isn’t all your fault. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do about it.

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The United Nations report on climate change released this week contains some dire news for humanity: It says we have less than two decades and plenty of hard work ahead to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and avoid catastrophic consequences to the planet. In response to the report, some outlets have made lists of what individuals can do to personally combat climate change, from limiting their meat consumption to carpooling or taking public transportation. Others, however, have argued that individual consumption changes are futile since 70 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions can be traced back to 100 companies, according to a 2017 “Carbon Majors” report by the Climate Accountability Institute.

Both arguments make sense. Individual consumers can’t be blamed for our rising global temperatures — but people want to feel like they’re doing something, no matter how small, to prevent the worst-case climate catastrophe scenario from unfolding. I spoke to Richard Heede, the co-founder and co-director of the Climate Accountability Institute, which produced the Carbon Majors report, about the companies that played the biggest part in creating our current situation and what role, if any, individuals have in determining our future. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Gaby Del Valle

In light of the most recent UN report, there have been articles about how individual consumers can help stave off the effects of climate change. What is the overall impact of something like that?

Richard Heede

You can measure a person’s impact, but there would be a lot of digits behind the zero in terms of percent of global emissions attributable to or savable by an individual. We’re talking about 7 billion people on the planet.

But then again, we can reduce our household footprint from 24,000 pounds [of CO2] per year, on average, if you take the average household in the United States. We can easily cut that in half if we invest in energy efficiency. A lot of things are free to do: We don’t have to brush our teeth or shave with hot water running, or take very long showers. Turning off unneeded light, air-drying clothes in the summer — those kinds of things are free, and they save several hundred pounds [in CO2 emissions] per year.

And then you get into some things we can do to renovate and retrofit our houses to be more energy efficient. Replacing showerheads, insulating hot water heaters, buying more efficient lights, having automatic controls for thermostats. ... We can certainly travel by air less often. We can seek to work at home, if possible. We can combine trips.

Gaby Del Valle

I’ve seen people saying that these individual actions are futile because it’s ultimately 100 companies producing almost all greenhouse gas emissions.

Richard Heede

They’re producing the fossil fuels we all use. We have traced them back to the oil and gas companies that extract and market the coal, so we think they have some responsibility for mitigating and transforming the carbon economy, because they’re in the driver’s seat about which resources are extracted and marketed.

But to be clear, it’s the consumers that actually burn and demand the fossil fuels that these companies provide. The companies may have some responsibility for their product — for lobbying in favor of the carbon economy, and for getting subsidies and arguing for subsidies — but some responsibility ought to fall on individuals, households, and corporations. What the companies do is produce the fuels, extract and market the fuels, so that we can use them. It’s the consumers that produce the carbon dioxide: They may be corporations, airlines, shipping lines, households, utilities. It’s all distributed.

What my work has underscored is that the emissions directly produced by oil, gas, and coal companies amount to about 10 percent of fossil fuel emissions. Ninety percent are from their products.

I argue that these companies have some responsibility in making sure their products do not harm human beings and the planet. They have not taken up their responsibility in that regard. They are now trying to do so and trying to navigate how to address climate change. No company has, to date, committed to align itself with reducing its own emissions and its production and sale of products in line with science-based targets of 1.5°C, which is what the new UN report examines.

What do we need to maintain — or ensure — that temperatures don’t rise above 1.5°C? It’s going to take corporations, corporate leaders, local politicians who might grapple with how to reduce community-wide emissions in their cities and towns. Architects need to do their piece to maximize energy efficiency in new buildings, commercial and industrial as well as residential. Every part of society has to participate.

I know that not every part of society will participate, so policies are needed to help. A tax on carbon, which even Exxon Mobil has argued for, is an important step in making sure we pay the cost of climate change through our use of fossil fuels.

Gaby Del Valle

Some of these companies have known about the dangers of climate change for decades — so is it a short-term focus on profits that has made them avoid the problem until very recently?

Richard Heede

Well, they’re obliged by conventional capitalist theory to maximize short-term profits for their shareholders, and not to have ancillary concerns that go far beyond that particular focus.

In the 1980s, Exxon Mobil’s own researchers informed management that there was a problem with their products — that climate change [was] going to be a real concern and that the whole fossil fuel industry needed to change. Management ignored it and invested in climate denial and obfuscation. So, yes, they bear some responsibility for that, which is why there are a number of communities across the country that have mounted litigation against several dozen oil, gas, and coal companies.

They should have done more starting in the early ’80s, or at least in the ’90s when it became abundantly clear both scientifically and morally that they have contributed to delaying action on climate change. They should have started investing not only in renewables but been transparent publicly about the threat of climate change and argued about the threat of climate change and argued for a political solution with national governments. Instead, they focused on profits and invested several million dollars in climate denial.

Even Exxon Mobil’s $1 million gift to the advocacy group arguing for a carbon tax — the Baker Shultz plan — indemnifies them, holds them harmless for climate damages. It’s a $1 million investment, which is their profit in, what, a couple hours?

Gaby Del Valle

There was a part in the Carbon Majors report about how investors have the potential to make a huge difference. What can they do, both in the immediate and in the long term?

Richard Heede

Investors can choose not to invest in fossil fuel companies in the first place. More and more investors are suggesting or voting in favor of shareholder resolutions that hold corporations accountable, to some degree. Most of these proposals are still too weak, but shareholders ought to demand that corporate management address climate change. They ought to have a transparent plan delivered to their shareholders.

Shareholders ought to be asking how their corporation views climate change, the oil and gas industry’s overall impact, and what their specific plan is to reduce production and investment in additional fossil fuels over the next three decades.

Gaby Del Valle

But these people are a very small percentage of the population.

Richard Heede

These are also the most wealthy, well-positioned people in our nation and in our world. And they have the largest burden in addressing the problem they have helped to create, through their wealth and the decisions they have made to support the carbon economy over the course of their lives. Some of them are fossil fuel executives, who ought to be doing all they can to address their lax behavior over the past couple of decades. But most CEOs and leaders are not CEOs of fossil fuel companies — they, too, are realizing they have a responsibility to the world.

Over the next couple of years, we hope to know which oil and gas dealers are the most climatically responsible. Those companies ought to be boycotted for not having taken action earlier to reduce their supply-chain carbon footprint.

Gaby Del Valle

I assume these oil and gas companies are also going to be the ones investing in green technologies in the future, right?

Richard Heede

Shell is a pretty good example of committing to investing $1 [billion] to $2 billion a year in renewables. Some other companies are doing the same — BP, for example, or [Equinor, formerly known as] Statoil in Norway. But that pales in comparison to how much Norway is investing in fossil fuels every year, which is about $25 billion. [These companies] ought to be investing more in renewables.

Gaby Del Valle

Why are their renewable investments lagging behind?

Richard Heede

Because they see themselves [as] primarily fossil fuel companies over the short to medium term and want to extend the carbon era as long they can get away with. For the most part, oil, gas, and coal companies hide behind the smokescreen that nations need to lead and the companies will follow. But there is much they can do to promulgate a clear vision of what is required by fossil fuel producers under 1.5°C and “well below 2°C” scenarios. These companies should lead the transition to low-carbon economies. Laggards will fail.

Gaby Del Valle

All of this makes me feel both a desire to do something but also completely impotent. How I — and others — get over that feeling of powerlessness?

Richard Heede

There is some personal satisfaction in doing right by ourselves as well as our grandchildren. We can’t solve the problem by ourselves, but it would be a morally better choice to attempt to do something and derive satisfaction by it, rather than saying, “My carbon savings don’t matter.” Because they do matter! They matter symbolically. They matter financially. They matter morally. They matter to your neighbors.

If you’re choosing a new dishwasher, it may make sense to get one that is more energy-efficient; it might cost $80 more now, but you get that back in lower utility bills. As we’re buying things, we might consider where they were produced. The transportation carbon footprint of everything we consume is pretty intense — it might be more intense than manufacturing those products in the first place.

Gaby Del Valle

Given that people can just opt out of making these choices, what are structural ways to implement these changes?

Richard Heede

Well, [we can] elect better leaders to Congress that are conscious of the climate crisis emerging. Americans in particular are the primary responsible party for increased CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. Over our history, we have emitted 26 percent of all global emissions of carbon dioxide. The burden to implement changes politically and individually lies with Americans and with our leaders.

Vote! Register to vote! And tell your electric utility company, “I don’t want to be burning fossil fuel electricity anymore; I want to participate in a renewable energy program.” Send a letter saying, “What is my carbon footprint per kilowatt-hour? How can I reduce it, and what can you do to invest in renewables?”

Gaby Del Valle

In terms of global effects, you or I will be better off than someone on a low-lying island. We’re consuming the most, and we’re also the best off.

Richard Heede

And those low-lying nations are going to increasingly think about litigation against the guilty parties that have done the least to date to address climate change. Now, Vanuatu can’t sue the United States, but Vanuatu can sue oil and gas companies. That’s a possibility down the road.

There are other climate lawsuits around the world — [in] Germany, for example, against a German coal company, filed on behalf of a Peruvian farmer who lives in a valley that is being affected by a glacier melting faster than normal under non-human climate change conditions, endangering his livelihood and his farm. He’s asking that coal company to help pay their small share of contributions to atmospheric carbon dioxide, which is 0.47 percent, and they want that company to contribute to 0.47 percent of mitigating and improving a dam that would help preserve the sustainability of the town down below.

Since nations aren’t doing enough, plaintiffs will tend to sue for action by the oil, gas, and coal companies. They have a particular responsibility to help address this.

Gaby Del Valle

What is the role of divestment in all of this? I know there are student-led university groups encouraging their schools to divest from fossil fuel companies.

Richard Heede

Divestment is an important symbol, but it’s symbolic. The oil and gas companies seem to be doing pretty well regardless of $6 trillion having been divested by various college funds and other endowments over the last several years. It’s important for the oil, gas, and coal companies to know that investors are getting concerned, but I would like colleges and universities to also take on energy efficiency and carbon retrofits on their campuses. Many do, but there’s a lot more to be done in terms of walking the talk.

Gaby Del Valle

Regarding the latest UN report, I feel like the debate has divided into two camps: “Everybody has to do everything they can; limiting consumption will fix this,” and, “Individual choices are meaningless.”

Richard Heede

Neither is sufficient. Most of us need to contribute, and policy solutions are extremely important. Congress needs to get its act together. The American leadership needs to understand that climate change threatens our security and our livelihoods, as well as the safety and happiness of future generations.

But we all need to participate. We can’t just screw in an energy-efficient lightbulb and say, “That’s all I’m doing.” We need to make the right voting choices. The household sector and personal consumption are big components, globally, but it won’t solve the problem to the degree that we need. We need leadership that puts a price on carbon. We need leadership that supports sane energy policies.

I think it’s better to be hopeful and optimistic about our future than pessimistic and gloomy about it. We have the most innovative, intelligent, compassionate humans on this planet that we all share. If we exercise intelligence and compassion, we will collectively help solve this problem — or at least avoid the worst of what climate change has to offer.

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