Opinion Graphic fall 2020

The necessity of combating climate change is one of the rare issues that a majority of Americans agree on, according to the Pew Research Center, but with such strong support comes inevitable disagreements about solutions. Among these topics, individual versus corporate accountability is one of the most fiercely debated.

In the world of climate change activism, individual accountability, also known as individual responsibility, is the idea that all people should work to mitigate their own negative impacts on the environment. It is the reason so many people use metal over plastic straws, drive electric vehicles or become vegetarian in an effort to reduce their carbon footprints.

The ubiquity of those strategies does not necessarily reflect their popularity among climate activists. While more Americans than ever are making changes to their lives to curb climate change, fewer than 27% believe that individual responsibility is the best way to combat climate change, according to a national poll from the Saint Leo University Polling Institute.

One major factor behind people’s reluctance to accept individual accountability as a primary solution is the history of its use as a corporate propaganda tool. It has been used to shift the blame for pollution and climate change away from large corporations — which are the biggest polluters on the planet — and onto their consumers, avoiding scrutiny in the process.

In 2017, 100 companies were responsible for 71% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the 2017 Carbon Majors Report from CDP Worldwide and the Climate Accountability Institute.

The counterargument to this, though, is simple. Corporations do not pollute because they want to, they are simply subject to the laws of supply and demand. As long as demand for wasteful products is high, what profit is there in making eco-friendly goods? But when consumers buy products that are climate-conscious, corporations will follow the money, the argument goes. It makes sense to think of individual responsibility as consumers leveraging their influence to encourage sustainability.

What frustrates many climate activists, then, is that the policy of the federal government is to highly incentivize the production of fossil fuels — the federal tax code includes breaks covering research and development, coal production and more, according to the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation. Even for those who believe individual responsibility is a bargaining tool against corporations, the government’s compliance with the fossil fuel industry’s exploitation of tax incentives and the environment illustrates the complete lack of control climate-conscious citizens have without comprehensive governmental change.

Individual responsibility can also be expensive. For many, it is inaccessible based on geography, income and other factors. For example, Arkansas ranks 43rd in the U.S. in the number of electric vehicle charging stations compared to the number of vehicles in use, according to Department of Energy and Department of Transportation data compiled by online driver education company Zutobi. This leaves Arkansans who want to switch to EVs with just 330 options to fuel their vehicles in public locations across the state.

But for all of the reasons not to, the truth remains that people should not be deterred from making every change possible to protect the planet, a responsibility that must include individual adjustments as well as broader societal and corporate changes achieved with the power of the vote. With so much at risk, doing nothing at all could be a deadly mistake.

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