Are consumers key players in the climate crisis?

In September 2022, Governor Gavin Newsom signed multiple aggressive climate policies into California legislation. The $54 billion bill came just as North America was experiencing high temperatures and lengthy heat waves. The fight against climate change has long seemed to be a battle between consumers, corporations and the government. There has been significant debate over whether individual actions can impact the battle against climate change or whether the sole responsibility is on the shoulders of corporations and governments. Government and corporate action can include investing in energy-efficient manufacturing processes, prioritizing the use of renewable energy sources in production and eliminating single-use plastics in their products. 

According to The National Conservancy, someone’s carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gasses (mainly carbon dioxide and methane) produced by their everyday actions—including buying clothes, transportation and household energy use. Yet the term was coined by British Petroleum, a big oil company, in a marketing effort to push individuals to take primary responsibility for climate change. Aggressive campaigns for lowering individual carbon footprints have included calls for shortening shower times, taking public transportation, using metal straws and eating less meat.

“[British Petroleum] wanted to make it seem like individuals could have more of an impact instead of actually addressing their own contributions to the climate crisis,” said Amelia Hayward ‘23, a member of Green Team. She believes that corporations bear the greatest responsibility in implementing sustainable manufacturing practices. According to a study from the Carbon Disclosure Project in 2017, 100 companies were responsible for over 70% of greenhouse gas emissions, including ExxonMobile, Shell and BHP Billiton. However, Hayward also recognizes that individual consumers do have an impact. “We can’t ignore [how] individual consumers also have a role because we are consuming what these corporations are putting out.” 

“Often companies are meeting the needs and the desires of consumers,” said Samantha Littlejohn, Urban’s Physical Resources teacher. However, Littlejohn also notes that companies manufacture products on a much larger scale than individuals can consume. Therefore, similar to Hayward, Littlejohn believes that companies have the biggest environmental impact. “[But] if consumers are spending their money differently, or even voicing hopes for [environmental sustainability for] the products that they’re consuming…that can definitely shape the practices of corporations.” 

On the individual level, breaking consumption patterns is still key in fighting against the climate crisis. “I went through a big phase of ordering clothes online,” said Pippa Solmssen ‘23, a member of Green Team. “But I [realized] this was so unsustainable for a lot of reasons.” Solmssen notes that clothes should be worn until they cannot be worn anymore. Simply extending the lifespan of your clothes can reduce your impact on the environment. 

“[Another] one of the biggest ways individuals can make an impact is voting,” said Littlejohn. “When you’re old enough to vote, look into candidates’ positions about climate and support efforts that on a bigger scale can address the climate crisis.” 

Yosi Colin ‘23, another Green Team member, started eating less meat and limiting her use of plastic. “These aren’t costly behaviors, and they’re easy things that I can do in my life,” said Colin. 

A 2020 study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that more affluent communities have a carbon footprint that is ~25% higher than lower-income communities. “The way [more affluent communities are] impacting the climate is separate from the way they’re experiencing climate change,” said Littlejohn. To Littlejohn, because everyone lives on the same planet, she sees the climate crisis as a communal responsibility. 

On September 12, Chef David and his team brought back Meatless Mondays. “To me, [it’s] a perfect example of individuals in a community working together,” said Littlejohn. “Individually, we might not eat meat on Monday, but the scale of one of us versus the scale of all of Urban starts to build momentum.”