Consumers, Carbon Majors, and the Start of a New Conversation about Climate Change

December 17, 2013 | 3:03 pm
Angela Anderson
Former Contributor

Yesterday I read in the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business blog that it is silly for UCS to suggest that consumers are “being tricked, bullied or seduced into burning fossil fuels…” Economist Severin Borenstein responded to an article in the recent edition of the UCS e-newsletter regarding groundbreaking new research that documents that 90 private companies or state-sponsored enterprises produced two-thirds of the carbon that has been released since the Industrial Revolution. Borenstein’s critique is one of many different reactions to this research so far. He raises some new points and he echoes others raised by Andy Revkin and some commenters on our website. So perhaps it’s time we address these interpretations of the work.

Climate accountability: A major problem

UCS is encouraging conversation about Heede’s peer-reviewed research in the journal Climatic Change because this new work pinpoints the central role played by a relatively small number of major carbon producers. This research, we hope, can start a much needed conversation about the extent to which industrial carbon producers should be held accountable for climate change.

That conversation moves a welcome step beyond more recent discussions about whether climate change is real and caused by humans. It leads us to a conversation about how to stop doing things that cause the problem, how to correct the damage done, and, yes, who should pay for mitigation and adaptation.

Severin and other commentators acknowledge that several of these energy companies have been guilty of spreading misinformation that denies the link between fossil fuels and climate change. But they seem to think that their “atrocious records at fighting regulation and disseminating misinformation” don’t bear on the discussion of responsibility or accountability.

The discussion of climate accountability is really in its infancy, and I think it may well parallel the tobacco liability wars. There were, no doubt, commentators who believed it was a fool’s errand to blame Big Tobacco for the public health problems that stemmed from their cheap cigarettes and that it was a distraction from efforts to enact needed regulation.

Block and tackle: The disinformation strategy

Like the tobacco companies, many of these energy companies have done more than simply obscure the facts. They have executed an entire playbook designed to thwart any efforts to enact laws that would have finally priced their dangerous products at a level that reflect the harm they do to our health and environment.

The strategy has been to simultaneously create doubt about their responsibility for the problems their products cause while ratcheting up concerns about the economic impact if the true cost of their products were taken into account.

Consumers have a responsibility — but the carbon majors have a bigger one

Nowhere has UCS suggested that consumers have been hoodwinked into buying fossil fuels by these energy producers, nor do we suggest that consumers have no responsibility for making choices that help to reduce heat-trapping emissions. Quite the contrary. UCS literally ‘wrote the book’ on how you can make “Cooler Smarter” energy choices. Our book documents the contributions to global warming made by all sectors of our consumer-driven economy and helps readers understand how to make purchasing decisions that will substantially reduce their carbon footprints.

There are many lenses though which to view the climate change debate — and many potential solutions to the problem. The bottom line is that we are going to need action at all levels of government, in the courts, and in the marketplace to transform our economy into one that is not systematically disrupting the climate.

Our science-based focus on the industrial carbon polluters provides a new lens that puts some of the facts of climate change in clearer relief than they had been before and ensures that all of us — including major carbon producers — do their part to address the consequences of climate change.