Dear Humans: Industry is Causing Global Warming, Not Your Activities

, former science communication officer | April 7, 2015, 10:22 am EDT
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Scientists and climate policy wonks usually say global warming is caused by “human activities.” This shorthand obscures an important point: while we humans are certainly responsible for climate change on some level, just a few of us – particularly in industry and government – are a lot more responsible than the rest of us.

After all, I like humans. I like activities, too. And it’s industry practices and government policies that largely determine how much heat-trapping emissions our human activities produce.

Wet-willie!

The author (middle) and two other humans engaging in activities, including attending a wedding, having some beer, and goofing around. Not pictured: climate change. Source: David Everly.

Industrial-scale carbon burning is causing climate change; humans are just doing activities

From a scientific perspective, recent climate change is caused by an excess of heat-trapping emissions in the atmosphere. The gases happen to be coming from extracting and then burning massive amounts of coal and oil, as well as destroying tropical forests.

Because scientists have invested so much effort in successfully differentiating between natural and “human-caused” warming – and because a loud minority of fossil fuel companies, ideological groups, and politicians have insisted for decades that scientists are wrong – the terms of the broader debate about climate change are often stuck on this point, at least in the United States.

When we focus on the “human activities” that are causing climate change, we sound like we’re laying climate blame on things like using a washer and dryer, driving, flipping a light switch and other day-to-day things many humans in the developed world take for granted and that many humans in the developing world would very much like to do, too.

Natural vs. human factors affecting planetary temperature.  Source: National Climate Assessment

Natural vs. human factors affecting planetary temperature. Source: National Climate Assessment

In an ideal world, these human activities would continue. They simply wouldn’t produce the heat-trapping gases that are rapidly altering the climate on which we depend.

As it stands, our best individual attempts at limiting the carbon footprint of our human activities can only go so far – and many steps are much harder than they should be, even in the developed world:

  • I can buy the most fuel-efficient car, but if the gas I’m using to fill it up was extracted from tar sands, that means my carbon footprint will be larger than it would be otherwise.
  • If my utility company buys a lot of coal because government policies subsidize it, LED lightbulbs, an electric car, and turning the light switch off when I leave a room can only get me so far.
  • I can put solar panels on my roof – if my state and local government don’t throw up unnecessary barriers at the behest of energy companies.
  • I can studiously make deforestation-free purchases, but only if companies tell me how they make their products.

Given these constraints, we need to be clearer about what is really causing climate change. “Human activities” are great. Climate change is caused by industrial activities. And those activities are incentivized by government policy, which industry goes out of its way to influence.

A few of us are way more responsible for climate change than all of us

I got to thinking about this because of Rick Heede. He’s a geographer who has done the careful work of figuring out how much of the carbon in our atmosphere can be traced back to the coal and oil that companies have extracted from the earth.

The numbers are head-turning: two-thirds of all industrial carbon emissions come from just 90 institutions. Several of those institutions, including Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, and Conoco Phillips, have extracted more carbon from the earth than most countries.

As Heede put it, the heads of these institutions could fit comfortably in a Greyhound bus. And if you’ve been paying attention to the climate debate, you know that many of these same companies have spent decades deceiving the public and policymakers about science – practices that disturbingly continue to this day, despite the scientific risks of climate change becoming ever starker.

So while we all share in the “blame” for climate change, only a few of the 7 billion humans on this planet truly have the power to determine how much more coal and oil comes out of the earth and how much stays in the ground. The Onion explained this better than I ever could. After Heede’s research was published the satirical news site went with this headline: “New Report Finds Climate Change Caused by 7 Billion Key Individuals.” Seems silly, right? But that’s effectively what we’re saying when we reduce the cause of climate change to “human activities.”

Corporate and government policies constrain our ability to make free choices

As the climate debate evolves, it may start to look like more like debates we’ve had – and are still having – on public health issues. Too often, those debates have involved conservatives and liberals talking past one another, with conservatives standing up for individual rights and liberals looking to hold corporations that cause public health problems accountable.

I’m a pragmatist, so those broken debates frustrate me to no end. We can’t ignore individual choice and responsibility; at the same time, we also have to recognize that our individual choices are constrained by corporate practices and government laws and regulations. It’s wrong for individuals to neglect their personal responsibility; it’s also wrong for corporations to stand in the way of government policies that would reduce the harm we face from their products.

Take obesity, for instance. It can be thought of as an individual problem – overeating and a lack of exercise. But it is also arguably a societal problem caused, in large part, by misguided public policies such as agricultural subsidies that make 100 calories of Doritos substantially cheaper than 100 calories of bell peppers, and a junk food lobby that is fighting to keep kids hooked on their unhealthy products.

3DoritoKid

Who’s responsible for obesity? This kid with a cheap bag of Doritos (and his parents), or the policymakers who continue to subsidize refined grains at the expense of whole foods at the behest of agricultural companies? (Sources: Virallands.com, Rep. Chellie Pingree Twitter feed.)

Who’s responsible for obesity? This kid with a cheap bag of Doritos (and his parents), or policymakers who continue to subsidize refined grains at the expense of whole foods, usually at the behest of agricultural companies? (Sources: Virallands.com, Rep. Chellie Pingree Twitter feed.)

Or take smoking. Individuals bear some responsibility for choosing to smoke; tobacco companies also bear responsibility for spending billions marketing an addictive substance and trying to cover up the science linking their products to lung disease.

5Smokers

Where do we assign responsibility for the harm caused by smoking? To these teenagers, or to the companies that operate machines capable of churning out millions of cheap, inhalable nicotine delivery devices? (Sources: Myloreyes on DeviantArt. Youtube: Robert Proctor: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition.)

Where do we assign responsibility for the harm caused by smoking? To these teenagers, or to the companies that operate machines capable of churning out millions of cheap, inhalable nicotine delivery devices? (Sources: Myloreyes on DeviantArt. Youtube: Robert Proctor: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition.)

So, who is responsible for climate change?

This energy-conscious kid?

7Superhero

A company digging coal out of the ground in Wyoming?

8CoalMining

Exxon CEO Rick Tillerson?

9RexTillerson

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee?

(Sources: CleanEnergy.org. Wikipedia entry for coal mining, Wikipedia entry for Rex Tillerson, SmartGrowthAmerica.org)

(Sources: CleanEnergy.org. Wikipedia entry for coal mining, Wikipedia entry for Rex Tillerson, SmartGrowthAmerica.org)

The answer is “yes.” It should be obvious, though, that the company extracting coal, the CEO planning for a future of more and more oil extraction and the senators we’ve elected to serve the public interest bear far more responsibility than our young superhero at the light switch.

The future is about better choices, not feeling guilty about the past

We were all born into a world that was heavily reliant on coal and oil. Our grandparents didn’t know that that these products were causing climate change, any more than they knew that smoking was causing lung cancer or that a corn-chip-based diet was unhealthy.

Now we know. That’s a gift science has given us.

11Grandparents1

The author and his grandparents, who were born into a world where corn chips were a treat, smoking calmed your nerves and climate change was what happened when you moved to California.

The author and his grandparents, who were born into a world where corn chips were a treat, smoking calmed your nerves and climate change was what happened when you moved to California.

Solving a problem as big as climate change isn’t an activity individual humans can decide to do on their own. We need government to create better ground rules for energy production that account for the climate risks we face. That means we need companies to stop misrepresenting the science. They also need to stop trying to tilt the rules in favor of business models that neglect scientific realities.

We’re making progress. And we need to do more. Our grandchildren can be born into a world where “human activities” don’t cause climate change because we’ve figured out how to make clean energy as ubiquitous as fossil fuels are today.

What a gift that could be.

Posted in: Global Warming, Science and Democracy, Science Communication, Vehicles Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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  • Michael Bravo

    Neil deGrasse Tyson once explained that in order for congress to fully understand the explicit effects of Global Warming, we need more politicians working in Congress that have a keen insight on what Global Warming can truly mean for our society. Some current politicians fail to understand that “global warming” is an apparent factor in today’s age. Co2 is increasing at an alarming rate thus causing more floods and storms to occur. I believe Governor Andrew Cuomo stated that “We have 100-year floods every two years now”. Of course as the gerneral populace we can act in accordance to prevent Global Warming. Sure we’re limited because of the small amount of influence we think we may have on companies, but we’ve gone through a lot as a society such as advocating for civil rights. We can work as a unit when it comes to reforming our society and advocating for something that is apparent and should be dealt with. Conserving our environment shouldn’t be a political platform; it should be something that everyone should work to uphold. #UCIGCB2015

  • Ana Resendiz

    “Dear Humans: Industry is causing global warming, not your
    actions.” This is actually very true because bigger effects on the earth’s
    atmosphere causing global warming are being done by oil companies and
    government investing in them versus the small actions of an everyday person
    using his/her car or hair dryer, laptop, etc. Due to the fact that northern
    ecosystems are warming the fastest, scientists can predict that if we continue
    with these types of actions such as the bigger ones done by oil companies the
    earth’s ecosystem will be at its highest global warmth possible by 2021. This
    is very important because not only will this affect the animals in these
    ecosystems but ultimately us humans as well and ultimately cause an increase in
    Co2 on the atmosphere cause by fossil fuel burning and forest fires, etc.. Little
    actions such as saving light and changing to hybrid cars or using the washers
    at night versus the day won’t do much change and it hasn’t as we’ve seen.
    Investing in methods to stop the oil companies’ actions will do a bigger faster
    change, which is what we need, because the industries and the governments
    decisions on them are what’s causing the major global warming on earth.
    #UCIGCB2015

  • Abdi D.

    “It should be obvious, though, that the company extracting coal, the CEO planning for a future of more and more oil extraction and the senators we’ve elected to serve the public interest bear far more responsibility than our young superhero at the light switch.” I agree that oil industries and the senators are the ones with greater responsibility because they have a great impact on climate change. Even if we, as individuals were to change our bad habits that contribute to climate change it wouldn’t be sufficient to stop the high levels of CO2. I say this because the extra sources of CO2 come from fossil fuel burning, deforestation and forest fires. It is important that oil companies, industries, and the government decide quickly on the best resolution to- at the very least decrease the amount of fossil fuel burning or use other sources of energy that will not harm our ecosystems. If they decide their industries are more important than the health of the plant we live on, then we can expect the northern to: have their ice caps melt rapidly leaving the polar bears without a habitat and herbivores being affected by the plants loss of protein in high levels of CO2 environment. #UCIGCB2015

  • MikeNov

    Nowhere do I see a breakdown of human emissions vs industrial emissions.

    • The Heede research I linked to examines emissions through the lens of industrial carbon extraction. We can also look at through the lens of population, nations, industrial sector, etc. None of these lenses cancels out the other ones, but my suggestion is that fossil fuel companies (and their lobbying arms, in particular, rather than the vast majority of employees) bear more responsibility than humanity as a whole and that it is more productive to focus on the industries that have the biggest effect on emissions than to assign blame to our entire species.

      • MikeNov

        Why? The companies can only sell what people are demanding. It is people that are consuming electricity, and the utilities are providing at demand, ramping up production as demand increases. Why should the CEO be blamed for this?

        I very much prefer to buy from Exxon or Shell than ‘Beyond Petroleum’.

      • That’s not the whole story. As I wrote above in making a more general point: our individual choices are constrained by corporate practices and government laws and regulations. It’s wrong for individuals to neglect their personal responsibility; it’s also wrong for corporations to stand in the way of government policies that would reduce the harm we face from their products.

      • MikeNov

        Trying to figure out what separates your statement from advocacy of fascism, which encompasses Big Business acting in the interests of the State.
        You want the corporations to assist in the government’s constraining of the individual. And you blame the corporation for failing to do that, and put on it the headline of they are responsible for the emissions.

      • Ha. Wow. Everything, including living in a democratic society. Have a good one.

  • Cynthia

    “Industrial-scale carbon burning is causing
    climate change; humans are just doing activities.” I agree with the author,
    because only a part of humans can decide how much the green house gases will be
    emitted, especially the owners of the factories like car production plants.
    When people make productions like manufacturing the cars and the furniture,
    people will inevitably burn the fossil fuel. In my Bio sic9K class, I learned
    that fossil fuel burning will cause 5.3*10^15 grams carbon annually. Also,
    deforestation and forest fires will lead to 0.6-2.6*10^15 grams carbon
    annually. The government should create better policy to alleviate the green
    house gases emission, since in the long term, as the temperature increases, the
    solar ice caps will thaw. The polar bear will lose their habitat. Furthermore,
    the drought in the California may be more severe. “#UCIGCB2015”

  • Ben

    An interesting piece, but on balance I don’t agree with it. Corporations respond to market pressures; they do whatever they can do within the law to turn a profit. Our whole society is set up on that basis. If they do things that we don’t want them to be doing, that is a failure of regulation, not of the corporations themselves. I don’t mean that what the corporations are doing is not immoral and should not be condemned; I just mean that as long as doing those things turns a healthy profit, the corporations will continue doing those things no matter how society scolds them (unless and until the scolding actually affects their bottom line). You say that all of the truly guilty individuals could fit on a Greyhound bus; the rather uncomfortable implication seems to be that if only the world was rid of those 90 or so humans, the rest of us could tra-la-la into a carbon-free future. That completely misses the problem. It all comes down to incentives. If we want corporations to change their behavior, we need to put a different incentive structure in place, and that means two things: regulations and taxes. Those things come out of the political process, which means it is, in fact, our responsibility as citizens to make them happen.

    And then there is the rather breezy dismissal of all individual choices as being basically irrelevant in the face of corporate action; but that is simply not true. Corporations don’t force people to eat meat, which accounts for a huge portion of agricultural CO2-equivalent emissions. Corporations don’t force people to drive cars instead of bicycling, walking, or taking public transit, which amounts for a huge portion of transportation sector emissions. Corporations don’t force people to buy McMansions instead of living in high-density housing, which accounts for a huge amount of housing-related emissions. And on it goes. Yes, your point is valid that secret lobbying by corporations undermines regulations and public awareness; but nevertheless, people do bear responsibility for their own choices, and claiming that people make bad choices because corporations have brainwashed them is patronizing and largely untrue. Anyone who wants to know the facts about climate change can find them out in ten minutes on the internet. If people choose not to do so, I see no reason to absolve them of responsibility for that choice.

    • Thanks, Ben. You’re right that I could have given more credit to consumer decisions; that’s particularly true when it comes to fuel efficient vehicles and the electric car market, too. That said, I’m definitely not calling for us to rid ourselves of anyone, so I’m sorry if my piece implied that to you. Instead, I’m calling for companies to stop actively lobbying against climate legislation. If we have legislation, that changes the ground rules for everyone and right now the ground rules are tilted toward more fossil fuel production, with limited support for alternatives. And while I agree that corporations don’t force anyone to do anything, I think people generally underestimate the power that policies and corporations do have to circumscribe the range of choices we have as consumers. I’d add that car and fossil-fuel companies have also contributed to development decisions — including at the local level — that have emphasized car travel over public transport, for instance. Again, we’re not making individual choices in a vacuum.

  • Yiling

    Some of our daily human activities, such as driving or using machines, are hard to change in our real life. “In an ideal world, these human activities would continue. They simply wouldn’t produce the heat-trapping gases that are rapidly altering the
    climate on which we depend.” Although we are now conscious about the global warming and eager to revise the page of our climate, we should all know the truth that even if we all stop using green house energy by today the earth is still going to warm up. Scientists recommend keep global warming below 2ºC of pre-industrial levels. What does the 2ºC means to us? It means that a lot of species that are near
    extinction, like polar bears and seals would still live on this earth. And more
    importantly, we would still have glaciers and ice to keep our planet regulating
    normally- they have high albedo, which can reflect sunlight back to space. We
    would still be able to have our northern ecosystem. On the other hand, we would lose all of these features if our temperature higher than 5ºC of the pre-industrial level. It is not an easy job for us to keep our planet beautiful and healthy, and the only way is to reduce our green house emission. Thus, I believe that we, people, should all take responsibility for climate change no matter what roles we play in this society, and we need new technology and natural energy to maintain our daily activities. Both industries and individual should think that reducing green energy and slowing global warming are their own job. #UCIGCB2015

  • Aaron

    “We’re making progress. And we need to do more. Our
    grandchildren can be born into a world where “human activities” don’t cause
    climate change because we’ve figured out how to make clean energy as ubiquitous
    as fossil fuels are today.” This is exactly what we should be aiming for as an
    entire race at the risk of severe climate change. We need better ways to
    conduct cleaner energy use, and this needs to be done on a worldwide scale in
    order to preserve the future of our species and many others. Over fifty percent
    of Americans believe that climate change is already happening, and we are
    burning more fossil fuel than we have ever been in the past. Now is the time to
    prepare and progress even further into a cleaner and better future. #UCIGCB2015

  • KATRINA SARMIENTO

    “Solving a problem as big as climate change isn’t an activity
    individual humans can decide to do on their own. We need government to create
    better ground rules for energy production that account for the climate risks we
    face.” I agree that climate change is caused by human activity, but
    individuals cannot make a change without better government regulations on
    carbon emissions. Approximately 85% of American climate scientists in the 2007
    Harris Interactive survey agree that greenhouse warming is occurring due to
    human activity, this includes individual and company activity. Obtaining
    government support on the amount of carbon companies are allowed to emit is
    important because without government support, the effort that individuals make
    on leaving less of a carbon footprint on the earth will not be enough if
    companies are emitting large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. #UCIGCB2015

  • Joseph May

    Who has decided that an economy can only be healthy if it is growing? How has this idea become accepted unquestionably as the truth? The unparallelled growth in the population to over 7 billion and counting should give us pause to accepting the notion growth is the only path. The growing numbers of death caused by cancer which is in itself the rapid and uncontrolled growth of cells in the body should indicate that growth is not always healthy. The rampant rise in obesity and all of its attendant health problems should somehow alert us to the idea that maybe at some point growth might not always be the answer.
    Big Oil, Big government, banks too big to fail, CEO’s too big to jail.
    When we were kids my brother used to tell me all we have to do is get one dollar from on million people and we’ll be millionaires. We are instilled with this idea of producing more, selling more, getting more from the day we are born. Now we are not satisfied with just getting more, we need more of the best!

  • Jimmy

    Love how you shoulder this on evil industry and just want the government to magically fix things. Another pie in the sky scientist. Please be a real scientist and offer some serious solutions other than just regulation…that is not science. It’s all on the consumer. At the end of the day, industry wouldn’t be there otherwise. Do something useful and help industry figure out how to offer consumers what they want in an environmentally responsible matter instead of shouting for more regulation from your pulpit. To be honest, I used to share your viewpoint, but after 20 years as an environmental consultant, I see things through a different lens.

    • Not my intention at all and I work with scientists here, but am not a scientist by training. There’s nothing “magic” about energy policy, anyway. And the links in the above point back to a lot of our solutions-based work.

      I could have done a better job in the above differentiating between the people creating the products and the lobbying arms at companies. I’m arguing that government already sets a lot of the ground rules for energy production. Industry is good and beneficial in a lot of ways; and the lobbying arms of major oil and coal companies should lead, follow or get out of the way when it comes to climate policy. Right now, they’re actively blocking it.

      So what’s that look like as a consultant and how does that inform your views?

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  • Ken Collier

    We humans and our activities lead to purchases of those corporate products. The clothes Huertas and the others wear in the picture, the furniture, the building, the transport to get the participants to the activities venue all contribute to climate change. Even the relatively efficient Greyhound bus contributes something to polluting the atmosphere. I wouldn’t want readers to draw the conclusion that we, the “7 billion key individuals”, can just get on with our lives and activities and not do much about climate change, any more than I would broadcast the idea that we must all return to cooking our wild-hunted food over fires at the mouth of a cave. We key individuals DO have to do quite a lot to pull back from the precipice.

    • Agreed and I was perhaps being a bit too glib with this piece. The key thing I wanted to get across is that it’s not ALL on us as individuals, especially in a society where companies and policies constrain our ability to make choices. For instance, I’m lucky to live in an area where it’s very simple for me to procure my home electricity from 100% renewable sources, but utilities and policies make that hard and even impossible in many other areas.

  • PaulaWilliams

    Aaron, this is a really good article, and I agree with your points, but are you really suggesting that humans can continue to consume on the level that we Americans do? “Our grandchildren can be born into a world where ‘human activities’
    don’t cause climate change because we’ve figured out how to make clean
    energy as ubiquitous as fossil fuels are today.”

    Meeting or exceeding the consumption rate of Americans seems to be the goal of developing countries. Even if we successfully convert to 100% renewable sources of energy, there are issues with limited resources to make all the “stuff” we use, the houses we live in, cars we drive . . . when there are 7 billion people on the planet. Government and industry promote a constant message of growth, which we embrace, but you cannot continuously grow in a closed system (which the Earth is). To me it seems obvious that we will have to transition to a lower through-put lifestyle (lower consumption) whether we have renewable energy or not.

    • Thanks, Paula; a friend pointed that out to me, too, and I wish I’d taken more time to explore that point in the original piece. The key struggle, in a lot of ways, is divorcing economic growth and energy use from carbon emissions. Or to look at the California example of harvesting efficiency gains.

      Realistically, I don’t think policy constraints on individuals’ ability to consume will work, at least not in democratic societies, which we value for good reason. That said, things like carbon pricing can bake the costs of consumption-related carbon into the system. For instance, I recall someone telling me about British Columbia’s carbon price and how easily it was integrated into the thinking of a contractor he hired to build an addition on his house.

      There’s another interesting point here, too — if we export carbon-intense manufacturing to another country for stuff we buy in the United States, whose emissions are those? Looking at this from the perspective of fuel extraction helps simplify things in some ways (but perhaps not others!).

      Anyway, I’d appreciate hearing more of your thoughts.

  • Rick Heede reminded me that that should be TWO Greyhound Buses, which have a capacity of about 50 people each.