Government Action, Not Consumer Action, Will Stop Climate Change

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Pointing the finger at individual consumers has been the default strategy of powerful corporations since the 1950s. Deflect blame for smog or litter or polluted waterways or carcinogens or gun violence away from manufacturers and onto John Q. Public. Make the issue about personal responsibility. “People start pollution, people can stop it,” said the famous crying Indian ad from the early 1970s, the brainchild of a can and bottle manufacturers trade group.

The strategy has worked like a dream because Americans prize personal responsibility. Ronald Reagan was speaking for many of us when he said: “It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.”

Which brings us to climate change. Once again, it is individual consumers and not the fossil fuel industry who are being blamed for the potential destruction of our planet. Only this time it isn’t just powerful corporations and their trade groups wagging the finger at individuals for not doing enough to halt global warming. It is also many climate change activists, who continue to press individuals to do more, to, for instance, purchase expensive solar panels for their homes.

This shaming of individual consumers seems to be working, too; despite high start-up costs, and the fact that some public utilities are slashing the amount of credit solar users get for selling power back to the grid, while tacking on all kinds of fees to retain their profit margins, sales of residential solar is growing.

But while there have been countless government subsidies to boost residential rooftop solar, there has been less of a push to get utility companies to switch from fossil fuels to solar or wind. We saw what happened when the Biden Administration proposed the Clean Energy Performance Program as part of the Build Back Better Act. CEPP would have paid electric utility companies that switch from fossil fuels to renewable or clean energy sources, while penalizing those that don’t. Unsurprisingly, rotating villain Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) blocked the program, saying he didn’t want to pay utility companies for doing something they are already doing. But while some utility companies are making modest investments in clean energy, it is not happening nearly fast enough to prevent catastrophic climate change.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has been very skeptical of this strategy of pinning our hopes on residential solar:

“Placing the responsibility for climate action on individuals, and encouraging an every-man-for-himself approach, may actually work against some energy solutions and do little to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions…[B]y focusing their considerable resources on individual empowerment rather than on systemic issues, they make global warming a matter of consumer choice rather than of political mobilization and community involvement. (Emphasis mine.)

This phenomenon, which goes by the name “consumer responsibilization,” is a close cousin to personal responsibility. The difference being personal responsibility, its current form, was created by conservatives as a way to undermine the Welfare State, while consumer responsibilization was invented by powerful corporations to allow them to continue to rake in profits while undermining people’s health and the health of the planet.

One problem with making individual consumers accept responsibility for climate change is that, because of conservative and corporate misinformation, a lot of Americans don’t believe climate change is an existential crisis. Only a little more than half of the country (57 percent) believe climate change is caused by human activity, while nearly 6 in 10 voters believe that maintaining energy independence is more important than reducing carbon emissions if the two are in conflict.

This is a recipe for disaster. As seen with guns or single-use plastics, without serious government regulation the problem only worsens.

Meanwhile, too many climate change activists continue to harp on the idea that YOU can make a difference if you just put down that cheeseburger and eat a salad instead, if YOU use a metal straw instead of a plastic one, if YOU ride your ten speed instead of driving alone to the office, all of which is a bunch of feel-good nonsense.

What is needed is a focus on systemic change, on dramatic government action, and political mobilization. I know, expecting government to do the right thing is problematic too. One of the main political parties treats climate change like a hoax. The other—thanks to a razor thin majority in Congress —cannot come together to take any decisive action.

This may be why residential solar continues to grow. Americans have given up on government doing what needs to be done.

But while it may give us the warm fuzzies to teach our children that they can save the planet if they put single-use plastics in recycling bins, or carry around a metal straw, the more important lesson we should be imparting is that we must hold powerful corporations accountable for the damage they inflict on humans, our natural resources, and our planet. And that we must learn to recognize consumer responsibilization and other corporate propaganda when we see it.