By Zafirah Kesington, GLOBUS Correspondent
Climate Change is a huge threat dominating a multitude of current discussions, affecting people’s daily lives and it is being debated worldwide; from the causes, to now, more predominantly, what we as a society can do to halt and reverse its impact. A 2018 Pew Research Center survey found that global climate change was viewed as a top threat in 13 out of 26 surveyed countries, more than any other issue the survey asked about (Fagan and Huang, 2019). Reasonably, people are concerned and worried about the dire prospects that climate change brings: extreme weather events – including but not limited to flooding, droughts and forest fires – displacement, disease and loss of life to name a few. Due to this, they seek to find out what measures they can implement to limit these disastrous effects.
Increasingly, we are seeing studies published which encourage the role of the individual to lead action against climate change i.e. promoting vegan and vegetarian lifestyles, knocking fast fashion, endorsing recycling and encouraging low emission modes of transport. But is the best solution targeting society individually?
Some argue that climate change is a structural issue and should be dealt with accordingly, blaming neoliberalism for conditioning us to solve the issue with individual responses rather than targeting corporate power, (Lukacs, 2017) and calling on the end of capitalism as a way to deal with the climate challenges we face (McDuff, 2019). When climate change is labelled in this way, as a structural problem, it becomes pertinent to suggest that the best course of action would be to dismantle the structures that enable these harmful emissions practices and work towards sanctioning those that engage in the most harmful behaviours. For example, the US military emits so much greenhouse gas each year that it would rank as the 55th worst polluter in the world if it were a country (Yoder, 2019) and the meat industry as a whole accounts for 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions (Chatham House, 2015). Solving climate issues from a structural perspective would mean reform of such industries through tax, legislation or regulation to prevent them from releasing the amount of carbon emissions that they currently do, thus reducing the impact on the environment.
In focusing on the individual effort, we take the risk of absolving structural bodies such as governments and corporations from their part to play in environmental issues, and place the blame and major responsibility on those who are simply participating in the free market mechanisms.
However, completely eliminating the personal aspect of climate responsibility leaves consumers irreproachable, when in reality the personal and structural aspects must work together. The individual has power; we are what makes up the collective. A concept under capitalism termed “Consumer Sovereignty” states that “the underlying dynamics of the economy are driven by the preferences and behaviours of consumers” – ultimately consumers control what is being produced (Wright and Rogers, 2015). This is because consumers will only buy what satisfies their needs and wants. If a good does not satisfy a need or want, the consumer will not purchase it and the business will not generate any profit. Therefore, businesses will produce what will satisfy consumer preferences in order to generate profit. As a result, if we as consumers can coordinate our interests, we can make a difference in consumption.
For example, vegan and vegetarian lifestyles are largely hailed as being part of the solution to our climate crisis being that, if “every American went vegan, we’d reduce our annual agricultural carbon emissions from 623 million to 446 million tons” (Chodosh, 2017). But, if the whole population was to convert their diet, do we have the appropriate technologies and market systems put in place to support such a demand? The effect of changing diets to be more plant-based has already been realised in some marginalised communities. In the Andes, quinoa reportedly became too expensive for local people to buy as prices have trebled since 2006, and in Mexico, despite supplying 45% of the world’s avocados, they are considering importing avocados due to rising prices. (Henderson, 2018). Jobs lost in the meat industry must also be accounted for. A world where everyone is vegan may seem utopian when considered conceptually (based on reduced carbon emissions and therefore reduced contribution to climate change). However, when placed in actual practice this ideal becomes somewhat less attainable. To support this wave of individuals changing diets, we need to have systems put in place to cushion and support the demand of the individuals that consume them. This could be realized with legislation that protects indigenous and local consumers such as price caps on local goods so that they are still able to afford them. Stricter regulations could also be considered by both inter- and intra- governmental bodies to ensure that companies are engaging in ethical and environmentally conscious production which in turn leads to ethical consumption. Without structural changes in the way we produce, such ideals cannot become a reality.
We can also look at the market for electric cars as an example of how the consumer and structures that they exist within must work together. Whilst greenhouse gas emissions from electric cars over their entire vehicular life are about “17-30% lower than the emissions of petrol and diesel cars” (EEA, 2018) consumer attitudes do not reflect this environmental advantage. An AA survey of 10,293 drivers suggested the UK population viewed electric car ownership as too difficult (Harrabin, 2018). Among those surveyed, 67% of people believed “there isn’t enough choice of models” and they “take too long to charge”. In addition to this, 85% of those surveyed said that there aren’t “enough public points’’ to charge the vehicles. However, public perception differs greatly to the reality. Already, there are “16 000 charging points at 5 800 locations and 340 points added monthly” (Harrabin, 2018) and chargers are being developed which can charge vehicles to “around 80% range in about 30 minutes”. If the government were to invest more in these technologies to make them cheaper for purchase and provide more information to the public, electric cars could seem more accessible which may lead to increased usage.
Climate change is a structural and systemic problem, but all too often individual solutions are implemented to solve it. Whilst personal changes are necessary , we should not rely on these alone. We must also look to structural bodies to make large-scale changes for maximum effect. Recognizing that both entities have a role to play when discussing climate change is crucial to combat its effects and to build a more desirable future. Although structural changes take time to implement , we should by no means be discouraged by lack of immediate results. In the meantime, we should all be carrying out our individual responsibility by altering our everyday behaviours and schedules and doing our part for the Earth. In time, individual preferences and choices will work to influence structural patterns, and these changes will materialize at a benefit to the environment.
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