In New York City, 1977, business was booming for fossil fuel companies. Leading scientist James Black held a meeting with Exxon executives. His presentation was titled “The Greenhouse Effect,” warning the executives that carbon dioxide from fossil fuels are warming the planet to a point that will eventually endanger humanity. The presentation emphasized that there are just 5-10 years left until radical changes to the fossil fuel industry become critical. The Exxon executives took it seriously and began to invest millions of dollars into climate science in the coming years.
By 1982, the science was undeniable and the effects of climate change were evident. Environmental Affairs Manager M.B. Glaser wrote to Exxon personnel, “mitigating the greenhouse effect would require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion.” He continued, stating that if these reductions are not done, there could be catastrophic consequences, such as the melting of the Antarctic ice sheet and thus, the sea level rising by 16 feet. More and more scientists wrote to Exxon, delivering report after report.
By 1983, the Exxon executives felt too overwhelmed. The fossil fuel industry’s effects on climate were too bothersome and too threatening to their businesses. The executives began to cut funding for climate research from $900,000/year to $150,000/year (out of a total research budget of $600 million). Their new approach was to deny climate change through public messaging.
At the end of the 1980s, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was founded. Climate Scientist James Hansen testified before the US Congress based on his work at NASA. He stated that climate change is underway: “the greenhouse effect has been detected and it is changing our climate now.” In spite of this, the fossil fuel industry continued to organize and fund disinformation campaigns. The goal was to obscure scientific understanding of the impact fossil fuels have on the climate. Exxon released an internal document that states, “victory will be achieved when average citizens ‘understand’ uncertainties in climate science [and] recognition of uncertainties becomes part of the ‘conventional wisdom.’” At a public conference in 1993, CEO of Exxon Lee R. Raymond states, “many scientists agree there’s ample time to better understand climate systems and consider policy options. So, there is simply no reason to take drastic action now.”
At the turn of the millennium, British Petroleum had a new idea. The company rebranded to Beyond Petroleum and hired a marketing agency to popularize a notion that would swing the spotlight away from them and onto the individual: the carbon footprint. Defining the carbon footprint as how much carbon a person is individually producing over a year, responsibility for carbon output was pushed onto the consumers. The melting of the ice caps became the fault of the individual for choosing a plastic water bottle over a reusable one.
This mentality is still prevalent today. The weight of climate change is put onto individuals, rather than considered a symptom of a broken system that has consistently valued profit over people. Individuals have been manipulated to think that they alone are responsible for our future. The term “zero waste” is commonly used to describe a person who does not produce any trash, when this term was originally meant for large corporations to adopt closed-loop recycling systems. While plastic bags were originally designed to be the stronger, longer-lasting, reusable alternative to paper bags, producers have distorted the perception for the consumer and convinced them that they can just get a new one every time they shop. Today, an estimated 300 million plastic bags end up in the Atlantic Ocean alone every year.
The individual level can be a great place to start, though it is a terrible place to stop. Through civic engagement, activism and communication, the individuals can turn the focus back onto the fossil fuel industry. Our dollars are a vote for what we want to see more or less of, what business we do or don’t want to support. Our ballots and calls to action are campaigns towards improving recycling systems and reversing the narrative back to those who got us here in the first place. Today, just 20 firms are responsible for more than one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions. Top fossil fuel executives exploit the world’s oil, gas and coal reserves, causing irrevocable harm to the environment and communities worldwide. It is time for us to come together and fight for our home while we still can.