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?


  1. Robert said:

    Yes, yes we’re all to blame but that doesn’t get us anywhere. We need Government to create the carrots and sticks to drive businesses and people in a sustainable direction. That’s the reason for the Green Party.

    21st July 2017
    • tomchance said:

      I agree with the latter part. But where “we’re all to blame” gets us is an avoidance of deflecting important issues.

      21st July 2017
  2. This is a very good blog. I am going to save it for reference.

    I suspect that as individuals we might be well advised to prepare for a post climate change world as best we can.

    The point you make about where the electorate is at, is the real one where we have to stop and think. The truth is that we just haven’t faced up to the reality of what is needed to resolve this problem.

    We are the only people we know in this town who don’t own a car, and if anything I would say not having a car in Dorking is much easier than london. Nothing is more than 10mins by bike here, and we have a house, rather than a flat so we are not dragging the bikes up steps. It also much quieter, so I feel much safer when Isaac (2yrs) is on the back of the bike.

    I can explain all that, and people agree, but not having a car means they have to re-imagine their whole lives. You can spot the moment when people try and see how they would get by without a car and you can just see their brain can’t handle it. Its like their brains crash.

    To make people give up the car the incentives would have to be massive. At the end of the day most of us were driven around as children. I can’t ask normal people to work out how to live in a completely different way. You may aswell so go live in the masai mara as herdsman.

    The only way I see it working is to go town by town and create massive local incentives in small area. Almost so it becomes a local identity. That way the lagards can move out and be last to have to change.

    spreading the effort over the whole countries wont work and if it did price would spike in an unhelpful way.

    I would fun two small town to get down to the precapita co2 emissions you have listed above and give a prize to the town that wins.

    That is the only way we will see what the social cost (or benifits) of doing the ‘right’ thing are.

    22nd July 2017
  3. davidflint said:

    This is a very good critique of various simplistic ideas that are common – even in the GP. But what’s the alternative view?

    Some blame population growth and surely we can’t solve climate change or the other ecological crises without getting it down – not if we want everyone to have decent lives. But some growth is already ‘baked in’. More fundamentally population growth is as much a result of clean water, better healthcare, the green revolution, etc., as a cause.

    In fact, as with crime and lifestyle diseases, asking ‘who’s to blame’ is the wrong question. We should ask ‘How?’ not Who?. How did we get to here? And the answer is obvious – its the industrial revolution that gave us the power to transform our planet but not the wisdom to foresee the consequences and restrain our actions. Though even that’s unfair – birthrates have fallen drastically in the last 200 years.

    Its not new to say that the industrial revolution is the Sorcerer’s Apprentice but I’ll say it differently. The industrial revolution gave rise to the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. The apprentice is a system – our dominant socio-economic system. Some call it capitalism. I don’t care what you call it but its distinctive and essential characteristics are:
    a) Its commitment to growth.
    b) The positive feedbacks.

    The commitment to growth underlies almost all political discussion and routinely trumps all other issues – as with airport expansion. And growth does give us the resources to address some of the problems we care about.

    But the feedbacks get less attention. What I mean by positive feedback in society is, eg, the way that business creates wealth which buys newspapers and advertising and thus requires the media to promote consumption and praise business leaders and pro-growth politicians – which help business profits to grow. Other feedbacks take in academia, political parties, the civil service, etc.

    And of course, the system gains hugely from globalisation which gives it new worlds to conquer and new places to hide from occasional tough-minded governments.

    22nd July 2017
  4. davidflint said:

    So I see the villain as being the system not the people. Truly some people do bad things. But people who fail to play their assigned roles are typically removed or marginalised. In some places they may be killed.

    The challenge is threefold:
    1) To recognise the nature of the system.
    2) To accept that the system is out of control and condemn it in the spirit of ‘hate the sin not the sinner’..
    3) To identify the most critical points in the system – the places where political leverage can have most effect – and throw suitably constructed spanners in at those points.

    22nd July 2017
  5. 1echida said:

    To me key words are ‘leadership’ ‘cooperation’ ‘sacrifice’ and ‘incentive’. I will leave it at that other than to say that if I was an average voter (if there is such a thing) with typical money problems I might be sceptical about large changes to my lifestyle and less concerned about the ecosystem even if it severely affected some people, particularly in far away places.

    22nd July 2017
    • davidflint said:

      Half right lechida. Climate change here will produce increased storms and floods. Climate change in far-away places WILL affect all voters here through food shortages and flows of climate refugees. Refugee flows are already a toxic issue in many countries, not least here, and climate change played a part in the rise of DAESH.

      22nd July 2017
      • 1echida said:

        Forecasting can be a dodgy matter and voters can be savvy about it. For example, based on proven reserves, some have forecast that oil production will peak within a decade for over fifty years (probably would have been a good thing if it had though).

        22nd July 2017
  6. Jon Fuller said:

    Only dynamic government action can solve the problem. The role of the individual is to demand that action. The problem is however that we are on the cusp of the runaway greenhouse effect with a series of “positive feedbacks” emerging at a mere 1.2C of warming. The threat is now so grave that we need the type of action that it is impossible for individuals to deliver on their own. We need to:
    1. Decarbonise electricity, heating & road transport by 2025.
    2. Decarbonise the hard stuff like agriculture and some industrial processes by 2030.
    3. Introduce mandatory carbon off-setting via a verifiable method of sequestration for aviation & give the industry 2 years to get it started.
    4. Ban the sale of new fossil fuelled motorbikes within 18 months.
    5. Ban the sale of new fossil fuelled cars in 24 months.
    6. Get all fossil fuelled cars off the roads by 2030.
    7. Start trials of geo-engineering now with all options for climate restoration going on the table (principally to get ice cover back in the Arctic.
    8. Massive programme of tree planting and sequestration of carbon in soil.
    9. Begin BECCS now (bio-energy with carbon capture).
    10. Lifestyle changes – less meat, less driving, less flying, buying less stuff & more walking & cycling.

    23rd July 2017
    • 1echida said:

      The words ‘necessary’ and ‘sufficient’ come to mind with regard to your action list. The ordinary man will be questioning the word ‘necessary’, especially in the light of the dire economic consequences of actions proposed. Those looking at the science will be wondering, in view of many imponderables, about the ‘sufficiency’. Hard for present day political leadership, but it is in the nature of things that they will bear the blame for any lack of appropriate action.

      24th July 2017
  7. 1echida said:

    I find economists and the financial world’s general comment that the money can’t be found tiresome. In the case of public services there may be some truth in the argument that anything which affects growth is bad in the long run, but, regulation and expenditure on fighting climate change is different. An economic depression actually reduces emissions and realignment of many activities is necessary to reduce emission profligacy.

    30th July 2017

Comments are closed.