We have all seen clips of polar bears standing on melting sea ice, with desperate looks in their eyes. These clips have never failed to evoke emotions within me, such as guilt and rage. I recall being enraged with myself and the rest of humanity for ignoring and mistreating the environment while putting our own comfort and convenience first. I felt guilty for neglecting my environmental responsibilities and enabling the consequences of climate change to become irreversible. They reminded me of all the times I had forgotten to turn off the lights before leaving, or the time I had been too lazy to walk across the room to the recycling bin and tossed my plastic waste in the ordinary trash. I was aware that the population as a whole, not just myself, was responsible for environmental exploitation that led to climate change. Yet, I continued to feel incredibly guilty and anxious for a while even though it never made total sense to me how negligences that seemed minor to me, even if millions of people engaged in them, could be the only source of the irreparable effects of climate change. One day it dawned on me: large businesses that continuously promote a greener future were really shifting the focus to the public by giving the impression that people's irresponsibility regarding the environment was the key contributor to the severity of climate change.
According to the Climate Accountability Institute, 20 fossil fuel companies, which include BP, ExxonMobil, and PetroChina, are to blame for 35% of all energy-related carbon dioxide and methane emissions globally for the previous 50 years. American oil and gas company ExxonMobil has recently come under fire for its efforts to shift the discussion on climate solutions on the customer, thus individualizing accountability of the issue. The company's PR strategy from the 1970s to the 1990s was primarily focused on getting the public to be skeptical of claims made by experts, stating that burning fossil fuels results in the generation of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas; before the PR team chose to adopt a more "enlightened" strategy in the 2000s, which involved deflecting attention away from the corporation by advocating for the environment. Making people essentially dependent on its products because they believe they are an environmentally friendly option “It is important we reduce greenhouse gas emissions, too. Improving the efficiency of the vehicles people drive is one way to do so,” the company claimed in an advertisement for the car industry in 2008. Another example of this is when other industries with dangerous products, such as tobacco and firearms, attempt to blame the individual consumer rather than the manufacturer. At this point, it is pretty evident that this strategy has been overused.
Getting people to minimize their “carbon-footprint” can seem like a fairly innocuous thing to do. “The disconnect between the severity of the climate crisis versus so much focus on these little actions, like recycling or picking up litter, that not only distract from corporate responsibility, but also don't seem to make a difference – it's trying to encourage a feeling of empowerment, but I think it sometimes can actually be disempowering,” says Finis Dunaway, professor of American environmental history at Trent University.
Another strategy that essentially serves the same cause as individualization of environmental accountability is “greenwashing”. It is the destructive and deceptive practice of claiming that a company is more environmentally friendly than it actually is. Through press releases and advertisements praising their clean energy or emission reduction initiatives, businesses have resorted to greenwashing in order to call themselves "eco-friendly companies." Big corporations who have participated in greenwashing include, Starbucks, Coca-Cola, IKEA, and H&M. “The world is in a race against time. We cannot afford slow movers, fake movers or any form of greenwashing” António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, stated in a video message, highlighting the effect greenwashing has on climate change.
There is not much time left to act. Corporations capitalizing off of people’s concerns and anxiety surrounding a global issue is not a new concept. While global warming cannot be stopped overnight, we can slow its progression and limit its effects by increasing public awareness of the ways that the corporations that are largely responsible for it mislead the public. Therefore, the next time a large company runs an advertisement claiming to be an eco-friendly company, make sure to do your research before you believe it.
Park, William. “How Companies Blame You for Climate Change.” How Companies Blame You for Climate Change - BBC Future , 5 May 2022, www.bbc.com/future/article/20220504-why-the-wrong-people-are-blamed-for-climate-change.
Taylor, Matthew, and Jonathan Watts. “Revealed: The 20 Firms behind a Third of All Carbon Emissions | Climate Crisis | The Guardian.” The Guardian , 9 Oct. 2019, www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/09/revealed-20-firms-third-carbon-emissions.
Leber, Rebecca. “Exxon Oil Company Blames Individuals for Climate Change, Harvard Study Finds - Vox.” Vox , 13 May 2021, www.vox.com/22429551/climate-change-crisis-exxonmobil-harvard-study.