My family cares about the climate problem. We buy local vegetables and try to keep lights off whenever they are not needed. Recently, I was speaking with someone about climate change and expressing my frustrations over inaction, and this was their first response. I was left a bit unsettled to learn that they believed by doing small actions like these, our environmental issues would be solved. If only more people recycled. If only more people had solar.
Climate change is not a climate problem. To be more accurate, one could say climate change is not “the problem”, but rather “a symptom” of a much larger issue that must be addressed if we are to change the ultimate course of the disease. There is no doubt — addressing the root cause will require changes in our ways of living, but at a level switching to solar or eating local will not achieve. While many of us probably believe that climate change and mitigation are more nuanced, my friend’s views are still widely held. For instance, more people favor individual, consumer-based environmental action over actions that require larger social change. This is no surprise — we have a considerable issue in the way we frame, or talk about, climate change and mitigation. When I search “climate change solutions” on my browser, the first result is the United Nations Act Now ten “impactful” actions. The top three include reducing energy consumption in the home, walking and biking, and eating more vegetables. The only one that remotely hinted to collective action was “Speak up”, which came last, right behind “Choose Eco-friendly Products”.
Climate change is essentially a systemic threat in which its scope and long-term impact become almost unthinkable. Therefore, we must place it in the context of something more easily digestible. We understand it in terms of the “problem” and “solutions”. The solutions that are most often presented, particularly in the context of American society, are individualistic and consumer-based — and they are often encouraged by major polluters. For instance, BP launched an extensive campaign with SIX the Agency challenging youth to know and reduce their carbon footprint. It is our responsibility, as consumers, to know our carbon footprint. Then we can do whatever meager actions plausible in a sprawling, travel-based society to reduce it. In the 2021 Greenhouse 100 Polluter’s Index, BP ranked #40, emitting in 2019 the equivalent of 15,377,834 metric tons of CO2.
It is not only companies branding the individual as the ultimate solution. Sometimes the preaching of fellow activists gets under my skin like a splinter. Every Little Action, by Every Person, makes a difference. Recycle! Buy local produce! Recently I bought some North Carolina strawberries, but the plastic packaging was made across the world in China. Of course, I am not arguing against the importance of buying local, lowering our carbon footprints (collectively), and individual action as a concept. However, these “solutions” hint to where blame and responsibility lie: climate change is an individual’s problem. Climate scholar Michael Maniates calls this the “individualization of responsibility“. This draws attention away from big polluters, governments, and companies who happily produce our eco-friendly products, and allows us the convenience of pondering our produce choices at the store or dwelling on our decision to drive to work rather than bike. Individualization, or privatization, of responsibility, keeps the ‘climate crisis’ easy to think about and the enormity of the issue effectively distant from our lives. But it ultimately stagnates our efforts. After all, alone, we can do only but so much, particularly within the confines of an oil-based, extraction-based society. This individualization narrows what Maniates calls the “environmental imagination” — our ability to respond to crisis with new tactics and image holistic ways of tackling environmental issues.
This brings us to another dominant framing of climate change: it is something we can extract and consume our way out of. It seems that there is a reality we often gloss over. Many of our climate “solutions” are built on the very same foundations that lead to our current predicament — the overconsumption of resources, exploitation of others, and environmental degradation. Take solar panels. Solar panels generate energy without coughing out CO2 and remain a promising foundation for what is considered green energy infrastructure. Yet solar panels, like wind turbines and other electronics, require rare earth metals, and these metals must either be mined or taken from recycled sources.
More often than not, due to economic practicalities and feasibility, companies choose to mine. Mining is notoriously damaging to ecosystems and threatens biodiversity, but also disproportionately harms people who may already face poverty or marginalization from governments. One study found that nickel mines in Madagascar, for a mineral often used in green electronics, prevent Indigenous people’s access to clean water and threaten the environment’s health and stability often displace people from lands they depend on for resources, while seldom offering equitable jobs to locals, if offered at all.
Yes, solar panels generate green energy. But how do we ethically reconcile this benefit with costs like threatening biodiversity and harming our neighbors? While there are other methods of generating energy — like microbial fuel cells or localized, community-based energy — and solar panels have the potential to be produced with safer materials obtained in less damaging ways, these alternatives do not gain the spotlight because it is more economically profitable (for the select few) to continue to extract and commodify.
From the evidence presented here, it would be logical to conclude that climate change should be framed as corporations, governments, and other big polluters’ problem; it is therefore their responsibility to remediate. I would like to argue that even this placing of blame is reductionist because it does not address key questions: why do we pollute? Why do the material goods and conditions that many of us in so-called industrialized nations enjoy, come at the price of someone else’s welfare — either someone alive and breathing today, or the lives of our children and grandchildren? Now we are deeper into the root problem. Climate change, along with other human-caused ecological issues, is symptom of the fundamental economic organization of our societies. Requiring that companies, for instance, use carbon capture or use non-greenhouse gas emitting energy sources simply allows them to offset their impact. It does little to actually address it. Similarly, if governments and states commit to ‘green’ energy and employ fleets of solar or wind power, we run into the issue of consumption and extraction — minerals, like oil and coal, are finite resources and their procurement can be equally environmentally and socially harmful.
Mitigating climate change requires a complete redoing of the basis of our economy — where we get our energy, how we extract our resources. And this makes us uncomfortable. As humans, it is normal for us to feel intimidated by such a level of uncertainty and change. But ignoring the knife in your side does not make it disappear. The longer you ignore it, the greater the danger becomes, until eventually it is threatening your life.
While these activities certainly have their place, climate change is not something we can fix by biking, recycling, or buying local. If we view climate change within the lens of a climate or environmental problem that we can consume our way out of, without looking more broadly at how institutions and the larger structure of our economic and political systems constrain what individuals can accomplish, we are simply going about business as usual. As activists and advocates for a more sustainable future, we need to be aware that the language we use to describe climate change and the solutions we push to the public influences how climate change is viewed, potentially narrowing creative thinking on how to begin mitigating climate change in ways that will last or tackling the systems that lead to climate change in the first place. Sometimes, we need to be uncomfortable, so we can collectively move out of this stagnating space. It is time we frame climate change as a symptom of a fundamental structural issue, and willingly expose our injustices for what they are. Perhaps then we can begin to heal, ourselves, our societies, and our environment.
RCC Fellow — Willow Gatewood — Catawba College
RCC Fellow Willow Gatewood is a junior at Catawba College studying Environment and Sustainability, with minors in Creative Writing and GIS. She is also an intern and work-study for the Catawba College Center for the Environment and involved in environmental and climate advocacy groups.
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