Why the ‘We’re All Responsible’ Line is a Climate Change Cop-Out

To no one’s surprise, there’s been an awfully wide range of responses to what caused the catastrophic Fort McMurray wildfires.

Some blame climate change. Others peg it on the El Niño and forest management techniques. Still more suggest that now’s simply not the time to be having such a conversation.

But the one thing that appears to unite all sides is “our” alleged complicity in it as North American consumers.

For instance, the National Post’s Jen Gerson argued in a May 5 piece: “We are all responsible for climate change. Fort McMurray simply produces some of the products we all consume.”

On the same day, Elizabeth Kolbert — author of The Sixth Extinction and Field Notes from a Catastrophe — wrote in the New Yorker: "We are all consumers of oil, not to mention coal and natural gas, which means that we’ve all contributed to the latest inferno. We need to own up to our responsibility and then we need to do something about it."

Such rhetoric is technically correct. There’s no question that if everyone on earth lived an average North American lifestyle, we’d need four planets to sustain the population.

But that’s only if we’re looking at “average” consumption rates.

As anyone who’s worked with stats before knows, averages can be very deceiving. In this case, language such as “we” or “our” can disguise a wide range of income and consumption habits that misplace levels of responsibility for climate change.

In the process, it assigns moral culpability for climate change to regular individuals rather than governments, corporations and wealthy North Americans.

“Think about the global justice movement: if you wore Nikes or blue jeans you weren’t allowed to protest neoliberalism,” says Patrick McCurdy, associate professor at University of Ottawa currently researching the evolution of oilsands advertising. “Then you look at the Occupy movement: if you owned an iPhone then you couldn’t be part of Occupy.”

Tweet: The binary of who’s empowered to speak about #climatechange: ‘they used oil so they can’t talk’ http://bit.ly/29uI8KD #cdnpoli“Now, it’s ‘she used oil so she can’t speak,’” he said. “It reinforces this binary of ‘who is empowered to speak?’”

Fossil Fuel Advertising Taken A Personal Turn In Recent Years

Recently, oil and gas companies and industry associations have harnessed such assumptions to attempt to make an airtight case for their continued unchecked growth.

McCurdy says the linking of the industry to lifestyle choices started in the 1960s with an Imperial Oil campaign suggesting “you have oil to thank for everything around you.”

Such rhetoric has spiked in frequency in the last few years.

McCurdy points to 2010 — the same year as the ruling on Syncrude’s responsibility for the death of 1,600 birds in its tailings pond — as the real beginning, with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers launching the Energy Citizens campaign and Canada Action gearing up for its I Love Oilsands media blitz.

McCurdy says both effectively dismiss critics by suggesting that if oil is at all implicated in one’s life and employment then one should support the industry (or at least not speak critically of it).

In 2014 Enbridge launched its Life Takes Energy campaign on TV, YouTube and most infamously in the The Walrus. Each ad sported a similar premise: everything “we” enjoy in life — baking, warm baths, Thanksgiving dinners — is linked to the oil and gas industry.

Focus On ‘Average’ Individual Behaviour Ignores Roles of Government and Business

McCurdy describes such advertising as “high-consumption, aspirational, Pinterest sort of images.”

That’s a key problem.

For, in addition to ignoring technological alternatives (public transit, geothermal heating, passive solar homes) and other ways of living life (Indigenous land-based communities or inner-city attempts at minimalism like No Impact Man), such visual rhetoric implies that oil and gas companies simply provide the goods that people demand to maintain their “average” lifestyles.

But it wasn’t “average” North Americans who knowingly spread climate misinformation, funded climate denying organizations, leased record amounts of land to oil and gas companies, invested in highways over public transit, created and maintained subsidies to fossil fuel companies and promoted the construction of pipelines and export facilities that will neutralize any emissions reductions made in other sectors.

“We live in a society in which responsibility for everything is being offloaded onto the individual,” says William Rees, professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia and originator of the “ecological footprint analysis.” “It’s this ‘there’s no such thing as society.’ That’s just not true. The real things, the real game-changers here, would be regulations imposed by government.”

Fossil Fuel Companies Have Met With Liberal Government Hundreds of Times

But the “we” rhetoric  conveniently ignores the incredible access that oil and gas companies have to government via ongoing lobbying efforts.

For instance, since the Liberals were elected in October, Suncor has met with federal officials 54 times, including three times with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Imperial Oil and Shell Canada have contributed an additional 37 and 38 meetings, respectively.

Industry organizations have also done their fair share of lobbying, including the Petroleum Services Association of Canada (52 meetings), Canadian Gas Association (45 times), the Canadian Energy Pipelines Association (44 meetings) and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (36 meetings).

‘Huge Difference’ In Emissions Levels Between Rich and Poor

Most Canadians simply don’t have that kind of pricey access to pressure governments to shape policies. Nor can many throw large amounts of money at political parties during campaigns or pay thousands for exclusive access to premiers at fundraisers.

In 2011, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives reported the ecological footprint of the top 10 per cent of income earners in Canada is close to two-and-a-half times greater than the lowest 10 per cent.

To meet the 2020 target of 25 per cent carbon emissions below 1990 levels, the richest quintile of Canadians would need to cut 51 per cent of emissions, while the lowest only 12 per cent.

In other words, while we’re all indeed consumers of fossil fuels, “owning up to our responsibility” will look very different depending on where we fall on the income spectrum.

“Even within rich countries there’s a huge difference,” Rees says.

“If you have an extra car or extra house or extra computer equipment you’re going to be far and away more consumptive than an ordinary joe.”

Rees notes that he has a friend who lives in Texas who drives an electric car and sports a complete solar array that provides all his electricity. But that friend takes one flight to Europe and “his share of that wipes out all of his savings.”

Of course, there’s a baseline consumption rate in North America, including emissions associated with military, agriculture and buildings.

This results in levels among the poorest North Americans that exceed those created by even the richest members of “emerging economies” like China and India.

But there are particular lifestyle choices available to the richest Canadians — flying around the world for vacation, owning multiple cars, living in a large suburban home and using energy-intensive electronics — that dramatically increase emissions rates.

Courtesy of the universalizing “we,” such consumers are partially let off the hook.

So while it may be simpler to write statements like “we are all responsible for climate change” than to call out a handful of powerful people and corporations who have access to policymakers via direct lobbying and campaign donations, it ignores the powerful role that governments can and probably should play in implementing regulations and price mechanisms.

If we really want to build a more equitable and sustainable society, cutting through the blithe “we’re all responsible” lingo is a must.

Image: Eric/Flickr

James Wilt is a freelance journalist based in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He holds a journalism degree from Mount Royal University in…

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