Emory prides itself as being one of the most sustainable college campuses in America. With nearly 70 percent of its waste diverted away from landfills last year, the University lives on the cutting edge of green higher education.
While these groundbreaking initiatives should be applauded, the unfortunate reality is that they won’t mean much without major structural change. I hate to break it to you, but Emory’s work to separate recycling, run shuttles on biofuel and source food locally amounts to basically nothing in the face of global climate change. To prevent irreversible damage to the planet, we must instead pressure lawmakers to enact far-reaching government policy changes that target the world’s largest polluters — fossil fuel corporations.
Humanity’s negative impact on the environment is disproportionately corporate. In fact, just 100 companies are responsible for over 70 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions since the late 1980s, according to the Carbon Disclosure Project’s Carbon Majors Database. As the Guardian reports, fossil fuel corporations are substantial contributors to that figure, with industry giants like ExxonMobil and Shell to blame for much of our climate crisis. To these corporations, short-term profit has come before the long-time survival of our species. If these entities are not sufficiently reined in with government regulation, we’ll be well on our way to environmental catastrophe. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, an uptick in average global temperatures could pave the way for widespread coastal flooding on account of rising sea levels. Additionally, they claim that many natural ecosystems could be disrupted, including a 50 percent reduction in coral growth by 2050, risking unprecedented extinction events and food shortages.
The assumption that your compost bin could slow global warming pushes the responsibility for solving our climate crisis onto individuals and away from corporations. For years, fossil fuel companies were content to simply deny the human impact on climate change altogether. However, with the scientific consensus on the issue becoming increasingly hard to reject, these corporations have shifted their focus to personal responsibility. If everyone would switch to reusable grocery bags or electric cars, the argument goes, it would be enough to avert disaster. While this line of reasoning can satiate people’s desire to feel good about their carbon footprint, it lets the corporations off the hook. Even if Emory, all other universities and every person on the planet reorient all aspects of their individual lives towards sustainability, it won’t amount to much compared to corporate emissions. Collective action is difficult enough when it is called for in good faith, but base it on a lie, and it’s nearly impossible.
Behind the “personal responsibility” take on climate change lies a classist elitism that shames the poor for their inability to go green. Americans are struggling to survive as it is, and most could not afford an unexpected expense of $500, according to CBS News. Given that troubling fact, it would be unfeasible for most people to drastically transition their personal lives towards sustainability. Locally-grown organic food is expensive and out of reach for most of the country. It is shameful and tone-deaf to suggest that the average American pay to make their life eco-friendly when the result would be negligible anyway.
Instead of individual actions, governments must address the root causes of climate change through bold, new actions. For example, a carbon tax could leverage the free market to reduce emissions, but some experts suggest that it would be insufficient to keep temperatures from rising to dangerous levels. We should instead look toward the more comprehensive proposals of lawmakers like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Their framework for environmental action, dubbed the Green New Deal, calls for a massive infrastructure program to swiftly transition America away from fossil fuels to reduce carbon emissions, among other goals. While the exact details of the proposal are nebulous, the bold, visionary thinking it invokes is essential for our country to respond appropriately to the climate crisis.
Our university is doing a lot to minimize its carbon footprint, but without systemic change, these efforts may not really matter in the long run. Change won’t happen through six different recycling bins alone, however reassuring that is to think. We can only ensure a future for humanity by standing up to the powerful financial interests holding us hostage by demanding that our government pursue a sweeping transition away from fossil fuels.
Zach Ball (21C) is from Griffin, Ga.