The climate crisis is accelerating at unprecedented pace, according to a new United Nations state-of-the-science report. It is “a code red for humanity,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres — and given that the report concludes the entirety of the warming is due to human greenhouse gas emissions, avoiding the worst of its consequences is up to us.
While the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report concludes that humans are “unequivocally” the cause of the crisis, climate experts say the onus of solving it should not rest on individuals’ shoulders.
Though we all should do what we can to limit our own greenhouse gas emissions, no amount of individual action — changing lightbulbs, turning up the thermostat or reducing plastic consumption — will address the magnitude of the problem, according to scientists and advocates who spoke with CNN. We need bold, global policies, they said, and lawmakers need to hold industry accountable for its role in perpetuating the crisis.
Joeri Rogelj, a lead author for the UN report’s chapter on global carbon cycles, says the world requires rapid change on a big scale to avoid catastrophic impacts.
“As an individual, there are things we can do in our own lives, but they won’t be sufficient to rise up to the challenge of halting climate change,” Rogelj told CNN. “What is really important is structural change — and that can only be achieved through long-term thinking and long-term investments and regulations.”
Climate change is no longer a far off threat with nebulous outcomes. It’s fueling deadly wildfires that are scorching entire towns, severe flooding and unrelenting drought that pits communities against each other.
As climate anxiety runs high, Rogelj said there are meaningful ways individuals can put pressure on corporations and policymakers to make rapid, stringent cuts on planet-heating emissions.
“If you have savings, you can reach out to your community and put them in more environmentally friendly goals,” Rogelj said. “You can also talk to your decision-makers and let them know that this is an issue that you care about by writing them letters.”
Lisa DeVille, an Indigenous environmental activist from North Dakota, has long leveraged environmental policies to rally her community and participate in public comment hearings about polluting infrastructure. If the climate crisis feels overwhelming, engage in the political process, she said.
“It’s good to hear international scientists echoing what most of us can see with our own eyes,” DeVille said. “Climate change is real and that it’s hurting people in our planet right now today.”
Ultimately, big businesses and the fossil fuel industry need to be held accountable, according to Rogelj.
Corporate change took the form of ousted board members this summer when activist shareholders replaced three people on ExxonMobil’s board. For the first time in modern history, America’s largest oil company faced a credible challenge from an activist hedge fund, Engine No. 1, which was displeased with Exxon’s financial performance and what it saw as the company’s foot-dragging on climate.
The vote was a major milestone in the climate battle. The Engine No. 1 campaign was the first proxy campaign at a major US company in which the case for change was built around the shift away from fossil fuels.
The climate crisis poses an existential threat to Exxon, one climate activists argue the company hasn’t taken seriously enough. The big oil company has deployed Big Tobacco-like propaganda for decades in an effort to downplay the gravity of the climate crisis, shifting the blame to its consumers and protecting its own interests, according to a Harvard University study published earlier this year that used machine learning and algorithms to uncover trends in more than 200 public and internal Exxon documents between 1972 and 2019.
In response to the study, Exxon told CNN Business in May that “ExxonMobil supports the Paris climate agreement, and is working to reduce company emissions and helping customers reduce their emissions while working on new lower-emission technologies and advocating for effective policies.”
The Harvard study, Exxon added at the time, is “clearly part of a litigation strategy against ExxonMobil and other energy companies.”
Months before the IPCC report was released, the International Energy Agency warned the world it needs to immediately stop drilling for oil and gas to prevent a climate catastrophe. The IEA report nudged companies toward renewables and urged milestones that included immediately stopping new gas and oil projects, halting the sale of new fossil fuel boilers starting in 2025 and increasing electric vehicle sales to at least 60% by 2030.
The IEA also pointed to the economic benefits of focusing on climate change, emphasizing that the annual energy investment would surge to $5 trillion by 2030 from $2.3 trillion in recent years, adding 0.4 percentage points to global GDP growth.
As the focus turns to the world’s main greenhouse gas emitters — industrial sectors like agriculture or oil and gas — climate activists are pushing against the idea of individual actions like recycling or eating less meat.
“We need to stop blaming ourselves and start holding the fossil fuel industry accountable for decades of disinformation and political sabotage,” Jamie Henn, director of Fossil Free Media, a nonprofit media organization dedicated to the climate crisis.
The concept of an individual having a “carbon footprint” has been emphasized in marketing campaigns designed for BP, for example, to maintain BP’s image on climate change in China. In a 2007-2008 document, advertising company Ogilvy summarized the campaign: “BP aims to be seen as an environmentally responsible company and supports efforts to reduce China’s climate change impact. Encouraging environmental education among Chinese people is also a priority for BP.”
Ogilvy also noted that, at the time, there had “been over 500,000 visits to the website with 400,000 people clicking to calculate their carbon footprint.”
“One thing individuals can do is look at what industries are in your backyard that you can really fight against,” Maria Lopez-Nuñez, deputy director of the Ironbound Community Corporation, a New Jersey-based nonprofit that focuses on climate and environmental justice, told CNN.
Lopez-Nuñez’s organization has engaged with policymakers on pollution issues stemming from a local trash incinerator. The Covanta Essex incinerator in Newark burns nearly 985,000 tons of trash each year, according to the company. Incinerators, which were created due to limited space in landfills, emit greenhouse gas and can aerosolize other hazardous pollutants such as mercury and lead.
Lopez-Nuñez says if you want to take meaningful action on the climate crisis, do some homework on the groups active in your area.
“Find frontline organizations that are in neighborhood, not just the big organizations,” said Lopez-Nuñez. “When you don’t know what’s going on, go find the people that know the issues of your neighborhood, of your cities, of your state.”
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