A recent finding based on a survey of nearly 90,000 climate-related studies shows that scientists have closed the case. There is practically no doubt among experts that burning fossil fuels, loosely termed as “human activity”, is heating the planet, and causing more extreme weather. While this consensus is welcome news, the framing is not. “Humans caused climate change” is lazy at best, blunt and misdirected at worst.
Last week, scientists around the world were finally able to conclude that “humans caused climate change”. Up until then, the consensus was only 97%. You’d think it doesn’t make much of a difference. But that 3% is space for climate deniers and those with moneyed interests to weasel their way in and delay climate action. As climate change as a topic becomes more mainstream, the framing that got us to this point may now be hindering effective action. Worse, it may even be leading us astray, setting our eyes on the wrong people…
99.9% of scientists agree that the climate emergency is “caused by humans”
Finally, scientists have come to a definitive stance on climate change. That is, the consensus that humans are altering the climate, according to a survey of nearly 90,000 climate-related studies, is now at 99.9%. “This means,” The Guardian reports, “there is practically no doubt among experts that burning fossil fuels, such as oil, gas, coal, peat and trees, is heating the planet and causing more extreme weather.” (As you might realise, they are conflating “human activity” here with “burning fossil fuels”. This framing is exactly the issue, but we will save that to interrogate later.)
Previously, a similar 2013 survey showed that the consensus was only at 97%. With this updated percentage, the lead author of the new survey says: “It really is case closed. There is nobody of significance in the scientific community who doubts human-caused climate change.” The recent IPCC report, thankfully, echoed this. It wrote: “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land.”
This updated percentage is important. When the consensus was at 97%, this was enough to sow doubt about the reality of climate change, and thus the need to do something about it. This is why up until a few years ago, we were spending so much time convincing folks of exactly that. It bears repeating that the reason why people are doubtful was that industries and institutions were paying good money to cover it up.
Big Oil and governments have been, and are, furthering the climate misinformation campaign
With the consensus at 97%, fossil fuel companies could use that to claim that the science was wrong. And if the science was wrong, there would be no need to kick fossil fuels out of the picture. Consequently, they could continue to exploit communities and lands, for profit. And they did just that. We see this most clearly in the US, which is infamous for having climate deniers, even within the government.
According to the Center for American Progress, 30 US senators and 109 representatives “refuse to acknowledge the scientific evidence of human-caused climate change”. As The Guardian reports: “Several big media organisations and social networks also promote climate-sceptical views that have little or no basis in science.” There is a clear climate misinformation campaign going on. One that has tangible effects on public opinion, and hence on climate action and policy.
Big Oil, of course, is behind this. With tactics “straight out of the ‘Big Tobacco playbook'”, the fossil fuel industry as a whole has invested money, time, and effort into this. Exposés and investigative reporting, in recent years, have shown that these tactics include: counterfeit science, harassing scientists and killing activists, manufacturing doubt, and even lobbying government officials.
In fact, Exxon and Shell in particular knew, quite definitively, about the environmental impacts of their polluting activities since the 1980s. They conducted internal assessments and knew about the catastrophe that they would cause. They could even predict ecosystems disappearing, habitat destruction, crop failure, infrastructure damage, etc. Yet, they chose to hide this all from the public.
FEATURED IMAGE: Octavian Catană, via Unsplash | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A photograph of smoke columns, which appear as silhouettes. Smoke is coming out of the smoke columns, and because of the sunset, the smoke looks pink. The scenery looks surreal, and the sky is a dusty, light pink and yellow.
Concluding that humans caused climate change is important, but what is the collateral damage?
To be clear, linking fossil-fuel based activity to climate change is important. If we weren’t clear about this link, we wouldn’t be able to hold fossil fuel companies accountable. But the unintended consequences of this framing are grave. We’re falling right into the trap of Big Oil and the governments, which are hell-bent on polluting. Here’s the thing. When we say that “humans caused climate change”, we create room for ambiguity about who these “humans” are. Even though we actually know—and the research is clear about—exactly who are the culprits.
Unfortunately, media headlines too often increase ambiguity. (And we know that hardly anybody reads much other than the headlines these days.) Think about the recent IPCC report. It pointed fingers at all of humanity, rather than fossil fuel companies. The 42-page summary document, and the press release, didn’t even mention the term “fossil fuels”. And the media coverage too used phrases like “human activity”, “human influence”, humanity “unequivocally” causing the climate crisis.
But who is to blame? Is it all humans? As climate journalist Emily Atkin says: “You’ll learn the world is ending, and you will not know who to blame.” Most people would look at the media coverage, and think that energy consumption from all human activities is killing the planet. That individuals and what they do on a daily basis are what’s killing the planet.
Blaming individuals is right up fossil fuel companies’ alleys
Such a narrative framing ends up benefiting fossil fuel companies. In fact, they’ve always been invested in turning it on consumers. A classic example is BP’s popularisation of the term “carbon footprint”. The term that appears to be harmful actually has an insidious history: British Petroleum hired PR professionals to “promote the slant that climate change is not the fault of an oil giant, but that of individuals”.
In 2004, it promoted the use of a carbon footprint calculator, so that individuals could assess how their daily lives were affecting climate change. Today, “carbon footprint” is everywhere. And it’s used to do exactly that: shift the blame for fossil fuel infrastructure, that individuals inevitably have to be a part of, onto them. BP, and other fossil fuel companies, even infamously perpetuate this narrative framing on Twitter, frequently tweeting things like: “What are you willing to change to help reduce emissions?” “Find out your #carbonfootprint with our new calculator & share your pledge today!”
Not only will fossil fuel companies do this online, but they’ll do this offline too. Recently, at the TED Countdown Summit, a climate conference that invited and platformed climate tech, clean energy, and Big Oil executives, Shell’s CEO blamed consumers, on stage, for using so much oil. He refused to take responsibility, and still had the audacity to claim that Shell was doing its part for the climate crisis. Needless to say, he’s not an aberration. Shell has been saying, for decades now, that the “main burden” of addressing the climate crisis falls on governments and consumers.
Saying that “humans” caused climate change is a cover-up that serves the most powerful polluters
It’s worth pointing out that at best, “humans caused climate change” is misleading and inaccurate. Certainly, fossil fuel companies themselves have known this for decades. For the general public, this has been public knowledge at least since 2017. That year, the “Carbon Majors Report” found that just 100 companies were the source of over 70% of the world’s emissions since 1988: showing that “a relatively small set of fossil fuel producers [read: some humans] may hold the key to systemic change on carbon emissions”. We can trace over half of those emissions to just 25 corporate and state-owned entities.
In recent years, the drastic wealth inequality has also become acknowledged as a source of rising emissions. Earlier this year, Oxfam released a report highlighting that the “richest of the rich are polluting the world”. Specifically, the richest 1% of the global population has used twice as much carbon as the poorest 50% in the last 25 years. Mostly this consumption comes down to unnecessary expenditures such as frequent flying, large vehicles, and more luxury-related products.
But this fixation on “humans” is really a cover-up for the fact that what needs to go is the system that these specific polluters are a part of. Beyond rich people, wealth inequality, the fossil fuel industry, the deeper issue is capitalism. The global capitalist system that extracts and plunders wealth from the most vulnerable, and grows it for the richest.
Saying climate change is caused by humans is not good enough. It protects the real culprit—capitalism. It allows the 1% to blame individual responsibility and to pitch eco-capitalism & space colonization as viable solutions. Climate change is caused by corporations, period.
— 🅱️ᴀɴɪꜱʜᴇᴅ 🚫 🅱️ᴇʀɴɪᴇ 🚫 (@BanishedBernie) August 8, 2021
Capitalism is the problem: “humans caused climate change” doesn’t allow us to talk about that
The discursive limits set by this framing are violent. Once we set up the problem to be that of humans, we can’t see the fact that the system, that the humans are part of, is the issue. This explains why earlier this year, a group of scientists from Extinction Rebellion Spain and Scientist Rebellion leaked a version of an upcoming IPCC report. The leaked version pointed to how capitalism, as we know it, is unsustainable.
One of the scientists said that key to managing the climate crisis is embracing degrowth. Because whichever way you cut it, “sustainable growth”, “green growth”, or “techno-optimistic growth”, the math just doesn’t add up. The growth model embedded within capitalism is inherently unsustainable on a planet with limits. And if we focus purely on consumption, energy, and framing the issue as a “human activity” problem, we set discursive limits on discussing solutions to the climate crisis.
And if we fail to discuss solutions that are truly imaginative? Solutions that look at uprooting and dismantling the system? We’ll only end up with solutions that perpetuate the same underlying conditions that got us here to begin with. Which means that we’ll see more and more eco-modernist, green capitalist solutions. (Which, in fact, we’re already beginning to see…)
At worst: “humans caused climate change” can easily slide into eco-fascism
Perhaps the most convincing reason that we should ditch this phrasing altogether is that it causes real harm. When we read that “humans caused climate change”, some will conclude we should simply have fewer humans on this planet. This is a hypothesis that people subscribe to in part because many famous, rational, well-respected environmentalists have pushed this narrative too. David Attenborough and Jane Goodall, for example, have said before that population growth is a major issue that we should address.
The issue, of course, with this is that this “logic” is rooted in histories of racism and white supremacy within conservation and environmental spaces. White conservationists, for a long time and still today, point to the fact that there are too many babies coming from “developing” nations, or countries of the “Global South”. And thus, that to reduce carbon emissions, we should reduce population growth in these places. Which, essentially, is eco-fascism.
As explained earlier, this logic is entirely false. Because the size of a country’s population isn’t what determines its emissions. It’s the prosperity and wealth, income and consumption levels that do. And false logic is one thing. The bigger issue is the tangible harm it causes. When colonialism was in full force, as writer George Monbiot wrote, colonial powers justified imperialism, violence, conquering and plundering with such racism. They fomented “moral panic” about how poorer black and brown communities were “outbreeding” the “superior races”.
Today, when we say “humans caused climate change”, it allows for these racist, eco-fascist narratives to revive. It creates space for, and increases the legitimacy of, environmentalists supporting population control. Which is a euphemism for blatant, disgusting racism, that should not take up space in the climate movement.
It’s time we put the framing to rest
As Kamea Chayne, host of Green Dreamer podcast, writes: “These narratives are familiar, as they are actually rampant across the climate movement. Just consider how common these phrases are: “human-induced climate change”, “human-caused biodiversity loss”, “anthropogenic climate crisis”, etc. They have become widely used, widely normalized. But just like the IPCC statement, all of these broad attributions to “humans” need to be deconstructed, challenged, and nuanced.”
Making broad, sweeping statements is irresponsible. Especially when at this point, we’re aware of the injustice of the climate crisis. Scapegoating already vulnerable communities who aren’t responsible for the climate crisis? And lending weight to narratives that serve fossil fuel companies, who have caused this crisis? This framing is not only lazy, but also damaging. In the end, when it comes to trying to solve or alleviate the climate crisis, it’s also just ineffective.
It’s time we put the simplistic phrase “humans caused climate change” to rest. If we can’t, it’s at least time to stop using it as headlines for news articles and social media posts. Only then can we get to work on the real, deeper reasons behind the climate crisis.
FEATURED IMAGE: via Environmental Defense Fund | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: An illustrated image. There is a white man in a suit with black hair is in the foreground. His back is facing the camera, and he is looking up at the sky. He is standing on a road, and the cars are heading towards what looks like an industrial area. There are many grey cylindrical structures with pipes around them, and grey smoke entering the skies. The skies are a dull blue, and the grey smoke is prominent.
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