I’m noticing that the conversation around climate change often comes back to questions of ownership and responsibility. Psychologists are discussing the value of taking individual action to handle feelings of anxiety over the future of the planet. Alan Jones is wheeling out a ‘scientific’ explanation of why Australia has no responsibility to take any action on climate change because according to him, it will make no difference. Family and friends are bringing up the question of why they should have to make adjustments to their lifestyle when so many others seem to not care at all. Some people have resigned themselves to the conclusion that the worst effects of climate change are unavoidable and it is up to future generations to learn from our mistakes to build a better world. Depending on your circumstances, you might be able to find that any one of these ideas is the logical conclusion to the problem we face.
As we’ve said on the website and podcast before, we are far from experts. We’re not going to tell you how to live and anything that either of us writes or says is simply our point of view. With that said, the following is an explanation of my point of view on questions about ownership and responsibility concerning climate change.
I think the fundamental question that we should start with when we begin to tackle these issues is this,
How much of the earth’s resources is each of us entitled to?
At the time of writing this, there were 7,718,566,358 people in the world. I feel that I have no right to take any more than my 1/7,718,566,358th of the earth’s resources. During the week of writing this, I drove a little more than I usually do and so I am using about 1.5x that share.
Should I be able to use more of the earth’s resources than others because I was born into a privileged position? Should I congratulate myself because I’m using a little less than most people? Should I not even care about how much I’m really using and instead focus on creating systemic change whatever the cost? Is that 1/7,718,566,358 my FAIR share? Should I take every possible action to use only that share, whatever the cost to my lifestyle or friends and family?
These are all questions that I had to tackle when I began thinking about my responsibility for climate change. Even just the concept of my responsibility was something that I had never really considered. It is hard to cope with the image of ourselves as a perpetrator of climate change. To this day, I still find it difficult to comprehend and accept.
I think most of us can agree that climate change is an issue that we should do something about. Those who still oppose this view are getting fewer in numbers and will not be remembered fondly.
Many people will disagree with the idea that we are personally responsible for climate change. It is easy to see that there is a problem. It is easy to think that we ought to do something about it. It is hard to acknowledge and accept that our consumption habits and lifestyles are part of the problem.
So how should we tackle the issues of ownership and responsibility concerning climate change?
Unfortunately, I don’t think I have an answer for you. I wish there was but there are many good arguments for different ideas. I believe that we all have a responsibility to reduce our impact because, at the end of the day, our lifestyles are the only thing that anyone of us has any real control over. However, while I don’t fully agree with it, I do understand the argument that governments should take responsibility and make the systemic change that individuals on their own aren’t capable of.
The other big question is one that I feel isn’t raised enough when we talk about responsibility. The question is,
Is it fair that the people who have done the least to cause climate change will be the ones to suffer the most from its consequences?
Asking myself this question was the thing that drove me to make real change in my life. I also continue to ask myself this question whenever things get tough or I can’t be bothered making more sustainable choices. This question brings us to the idea of climate justice and interestingly, back to Alan Jones.
Alan Jones says that because Australia is only responsible for 1.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, we shouldn’t feel any responsibility to reduce our emissions. The percentage is accurate, the part where it gets sticky is that Australia only makes up 0.03% of the global population. Australia, as a nation, contributes far more than our ‘fair share’.
Whether or not you agree with these ideas is up to you. Some people truly feel that they are entitled to a certain lifestyle because they were lucky enough to be born into privileged circumstances. However, if you agree that wealthy nations should take responsibility for their high emissions and take action, why should individuals be exempt from the same responsibility?
I understand that feelings of guilt and responsibility for climate change can be crippling. As I mentioned before, I still find it difficult to accept. If these feelings hit you at a low point or the end of a rough day, they can knock you for six. The feeling of personal responsibility is powerful. It is so powerful that if you find ways to use it effectively, it will make it much easier to make the changes necessary to live a more sustainable life.
Making these changes will never be easy all of the time. However, if we can accept our impact on climate change and remember who will suffer the most from the consequences of climate change, we can all work towards reducing its impact.