Confronting climate change deniers: Fallacy 1 – “It is up to the individual”

I have been reading Mark Diesendorf’s (MD) new book Climate Action (UNSW Press) and have been impressed with the amount of information big Mark covers. I think one of the best part of the book is Chapter 2, when he discusses the many myths and fallacies that have been distributed to dispel the evidence of climate change and the necessary steps required to overcome our reliance on a high carbon economy.

I thought it is worth putting some of these on my blog for reference:

Fallacy 1: All we need to do is change individual’s behaviour

The fallacy revolves around the fact that both governments and corporations are made of individuals and all the climate change movement needs to do is convince the individual members of these organisations and the problem will be solved.

Response: MD is one cool guy… have loved his work for a while… so how does he respond?

MD correctly points out that, organisations – both government and private – have structures and goals that generally make them act differently from the individuals that work within them. The most obvious examples are that corporations are required by law to maximise their shareholder’s financial interests (not the public) and also government departments are responsible to the minister (which is assumed to be representative of the public, but as we have seen, this is not always the case). Consequently, even if the majority of people within these structures support a strong response to climate change, the structures of these institutions preclude any such action. This does not mean that it is impossible, it is just that such structures make action difficult and unlikely.Another problem with this position is that it ignores the different power relationships that exist: it is difficult for individuals to change laws, infrastructure and economic systems.

Thirdly, with respect to climate change, the actions of governments and corporations swamp those of individuals. This is even true on a smaller scale as MD reminds us – if we live in a rented house, we have little power to demand it be made climate friendly. We have to fork out the costs ourselves while the majority of benefits go to the landlord. MD argues that, in the face of these barriers, we have three principal responsibilities for reducing greenhouse gas emissions:

  • The first is as citizens: to collectively demand that our governments act on climate change through appropriate laws, regulations and so on. We can use our collective strength to change governments if they do not comply;
  • The second is as consumers to apply collective pressure to corporations to be ecologically sustainable or we will go elsewhere. (Importantly, we should not do this silently, but let the corporations know why they have our custom or why they are losing it); and
  • As individuals we should reduce our own carbon footprint. MD urges that the above should not discourage individual action – which is important – but that the biggest impacts we can have on changing structures is collectively.
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