Arrington: Corporate Climate Change

It's up to the government, not individuals, to save the environment.

by Katherine Arrington | 4/23/21 2:04am

The health of the environment is one of the most pressing issues of this century. If we do not make drastic changes soon, we will be left with a planet that is difficult to recognize —  one plagued by rising sea levels, melting ice caps, bleached coral, loss of animal habitats, floods and heatwaves. Given the existential crisis we are facing, it is understandable that books, articles, documentaries and social media posts urging people to take individual action against climate change have become commonplace in recent years, pushing them to shift to a plant-based diet and reduce their carbon footprint, to recycle and reduce their waste and to limit their use of gas, water and electricity to reduce energy consumption. Yet while all of the above are commendable, environmentally-conscious habits, they leave out an important piece of the puzzle  — the responsibility corporations bear for getting us into this mess in the first place.

Since 1998, just 100 corporations have been responsible for 71% of global emissions. This includes both for-profit corporations like Chevron and ExxonMobil as well as state-owned entities like Saudi Aramco and government-operated industries like China Coal. Given this fact, it’s unreasonable to pin the blame for climate change — and thus the responsibility for reversing it — on the individual. Indisputably, emissions by individuals pale in comparison to the damage that corporations and governments inflict on our planet. It is incredibly unlikely that every individual will shift their behavior to be more environmentally conscious, and even if they did, because most products on the market are not perfectly sustainable, limiting consumption to only sustainable products is not even an option to begin with. For instance, there is no alternative to gas for non-electric cars. Even if every individual were to shift their behavior and live in the most sustainable way possible, meaningful progress would still require corporations making significant changes to their environmentally unconscious ways.

In the face of these realities, many media outlets and environmental activists continue to push responsibility primarily on individuals, blatantly ignoring the reality that not everyone has the means to cut meat out of their diet, invest in solar panels or buy from more sustainable — and expensive — sources. It makes no sense, then, to focus on attempting to alter the behavior of only individuals. By shifting the blame away from corporations and onto individuals, these articles and activists allow corporations to remain free from any form of mainstream accountability.

Additionally, if we want to save our environment, we must stop asking individuals to choose between “environmentally good” products and “environmentally bad” products, and instead place the responsibility on corporations to stop making environmentally bad products in the first place. Replacing plastic water bottles with reusable ones and thrifting instead of shopping new will not have a huge effect as long as corporations continue producing unsustainable goods.

Governments should also commit themselves to making significant investments in renewable energy and increasing affordability for companies and consumers. Currently, environmentally-conscious alternatives to traditional, pollutive sources of energy are much more expensive. Government subsidies could help change that, allowing corporations to make profits while still acting in an environmentally conscious way. This would also help offset any rise in prices that may come out of more government regulations on corporations.

To this end, we need additional environmental regulations on corporations. Governments are the only entities with the power to stop corporations from continuing to pollute our environment. For example, without the consequences of violating federal and state laws in the United States, American corporations will continue to damage the environment because doing so is cheaper and earns them more profits. The Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act were necessary to bring domestic companies into line, but they alone are not enough: We need more stringent regulations on carbon emissions. The proposed Climate Risk Disclosure Act, which requires corporations to disclose climate-related risks, is just one piece of legislation that Congress should consider. Regulation is the only way to keep corporations from making these choices that benefit themselves in the short run, but hurt the environment and thus all of us in the long run.

At the federal level, regulations created and enforced by the American government are a good start. But, considering that climate change is a global issue, its solution cannot be found without global cooperation. The Paris Climate Accords are a start, with recent modeling showing that since the treaty was signed in 2015, the amount of likely warming by 2100 has fallen from 3.6 degrees Celsius to 2.9 degrees in part due to updated pledges by signatories. Building on it, governments should work together to standardize environmental regulations for corporations, which would help disincentivize corporations from crossing borders to avoid acting sustainably. Standards placed on American companies, in other words, must also be applied to those based abroad, including the state-owned actors that are more common in other countries.

If we want to solve this existential crisis humanity is facing, we cannot keep advocating only for actions at the individual scale, which have a minute environmental impact compared to the actions of the world’s biggest corporations and governments. Just as failing to eat plants and recycle paper did not get our planet into its current predicament, doing those things will not be enough to reverse course towards a more sustainable future. Corporations and bad policy got us into this mess, and we must recognize this fact if we want to successfully combat climate change. If we want a real chance at stopping our planet from a 3℃ increase in temperature from pre-industrial levels by the end of the century, then we must recognize corporations’ and governments’ environmentally harmful actions and institute common-sense regulations — before it is too late.