Paper straws won’t save us. We need politics
100companies are responsible for 71% of greenhouse gas emissions¹. They are all energy and mining companies. If we don’t stop these 100 companies, our children’s future will go up in smoke. This is unfortunately much harder than it looks.
These companies are giant corporations running giant machinery stripping the earth of resources. I’ve looked through most of their websites and they’re pretty scary looking. But this isn’t a case of bad guys burning fossil fuels for lols. They fulfill a real demand. They fulfill our demand.
These companies produce the energy that props up governments, societies and economies all over the world. If these companies ceased operations overnight it would prevent climate change but it would also lead to the collapse of the global economy and every major state. Which would be bad. It’s like being shot now or stabbed later.
This is why nothing substantive seems to be happening on climate change. Because it would involve real sacrifice. Not giving up plastic straws or beef or ‘extra’ flights. All good things to do, but not nearly enough. In the best case, only 8.5% of carbon reductions would come from personal behavior changes. If we depend on personal responsibility, we would have to basically go on strike — shutting down our economies and thus reducing energy demand. Which no one is doing.
Do what you can, but understand that personal change is not enough. We need collective change, which means possibly impossible political work. And yes, people are going to have to give some things up, or have some things taken away. There will be sacrifices bigger than a straw.
In order to stop these 100 companies we have to make big political changes. We have to change our energy supply to almost completely renewable, and also begin reforesting land. Companies will have to sacrifice the property and fossil fuels they’ve been getting essentially for free. Shareholders will have to give up profits and politicians will have to give up donations and kickbacks. Which they won’t do. It will take serious people power to accomplish this, but it is theoretically possible.
If you look closer at the 100 offending companies, they’re not typical private corporations. They are almost all state owned, or deeply connected to the state. Hence they are almost entirely political beasts. That is, if citizens can influence their countries, they can change our fate. This is of course problematic, especially when you look at the countries involved.
The 40 Countries Responsible For Climate Crisis
Here you can see the same emissions data, except organized by country².
China, America and Russia account for 50% of emissions. So you can see the problem.
China has to grow or die, America is in denial, and Russia is an oligarchy that could care less. Next on the list is the UK, another deeply dysfunctional democracy, then a literal petro-dictatorship Saudi Arabia and then Europe, which may want to help. It’s not promising.
It’s not even clear that these nations are truly motivated, because they’re not going to pay the price. The fact is that climate change has distinct winners and losers, or at least places that lose much less.
A hotter world is a more unequal world, with the north benefitting and tropical economies declining. A cooler world leads to more equitable global growth, offering regions like Africa the chance to “catch up”. — Burke, Hsiang, & Miguel (Nature, 2015)
You can see the story in two maps here:
The fact is that Russia, Canada, Northern Europe and America will continue to grow with climate change, while the global south is suffocated. So it’s actually not an existential problem to them like it is for the people in the relatively innocent people in south.
When I started writing this I was hopeful because 100 companies seems like a tackleable problem. You can write letters, boycotts, publicly shame them. But these aren’t really 100 companies, it’s more like 40 governments, and billions of citizens. And the problem isn’t excess consumption, it’s the nature of our economic activity in general.
The headline is that 100 companies are responsible, and the argument is that personal responsibility isn’t enough, but that all ultimately comes back to you and me. We have to get a clear sense of the problem and apply pressure where it is due, even if it honestly seems hopeless.
We have to change our energy supply. We have to change the global economy. We have to continue to discover growth at the same time. You could call it a Green New Deal if you’re in America, but it has to be political and it has to be from within. These companies are immune to tweetstorms but we are not immune to them.
Despite dictatorships and idiotic democracies and all the money and power tied up in the status quo, we still have to take a shot. These companies aren’t just mining and burning past lifeforms (fossil fuels), they’re burning the future of life as well. This economic model leads off a cliff and to a much darker future for our children, especially my children in the south.
The fact is that either the climate changes or we do. I hope it’s us.
¹ From the Carbon Majors Report. ‘This excludes ‘non-industrial’ sources of anthropogenic GHG emissions such as carbon dioxide from land-use change and agricultural methane.’ (CDP)
² Note that I’m treating Europe as a region, including Norway (0.74% of emissions) but excluding the UK.
- The Carbon Majors Report — CDP, 2017
- Global Non-linear Effect of Temperature on Economic Production — Marshall Burke, Sol Hsiang, Ted Miguel
- CO₂ and Greenhouse Gas Emissions — Our World In Data