In the midst of a global pandemic, some find it difficult to think about anything else. We're already living a once-in-a-lifetime event, right, so why should any other issue take political precedence? Unfortunately, the problems that existed before coronavirus haven't gone away. Climate change is one key example.
Before Donald Trump, the United States wasn't exactly the pinnacle of environmentalism. But under the former president, the U.S. took major steps back. Notably, Trump did away with numerous environmental policies and withdrew from the Paris climate accords. So when President Biden took office in January 2021, he inherited not only the ongoing pandemic, but a worsening climate crisis, too.
Although environmental issues haven't necessarily defined Biden's political career, his record on the subject isn't too bad. With Biden and Democrats now controlling the House and Senate, the party has no excuse not to take up climate change in earnest. But when people talk about climate change, the responsibility is often transferred to individuals. As a result, solutions tend to focus on things like: Don't go on airplanes, bike instead of drive, and etc.
So, what can the government actually do? While taking individual action isn't bad, focusing on that alone allows big players to shirk responsibility. They keep on with business as usual, while we're all too busy policing each other for using disposable straws. Really, the responsibility for climate change extends far beyond you and me. Let's break down some of the five major causes of climate change to see what I mean.
1. Fossil fuel extraction
This one probably doesn't come as much of a surprise. When most people hear "climate change," they have some sort of association with fossil fuels.
However, you might not be aware of just how bad fossil fuel extraction is. In 2017, the environmental non-profit CDP published The Carbon Majors report in collaboration with the Climate Accountability Institute. The report found that since 1988, just 100 companies have been responsible for over 70% of the world's total greenhouse gas emissions. Of those companies, fossil fuel producers are among the worst.
The report stated the fossil fuel industry "doubled its contribution to global warming by emitting as much greenhouse gas in 28 years as in the 237 years between 1988 and the birth of the industrial revolution," specifically calling out ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, and Chevron as major players. It also said that if the fossil fuel industry keeps extracting at the same rate over the next 28 years, temperatures globally could rise by 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century — a catastrophic increase.
Now, why does the world need so much fossil fuel? Sure, things like the 276 million registered vehicles in the U.S. alone play a factor in demand. However, there are other entities that are guzzling up more fossil fuels than you and I ever could in our lifetimes.
2. The U.S. military
Yep: By "others," I mean, the U.S. military. The U.S. has one of the largest militaries in the world, and it's an absolute demon for the climate. In 2019, the Costs of War, a project from the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, reported that the Department of Defense remains the world's single largest consumer of oil — even after reducing its fossil fuel consumption steadily since the early 2000s. In fact, since the global war on terror began, the U.S. military has produced 1.2 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions.
As if that isn't enough, The Conversation reported that in 2017, the U.S. military bought about 269,230 barrels of oil every single day. Burning all that fuel emitted over 25,000 kilotonnes of carbon dioxide. Overall, the outlet stated that if the U.S. military was a country by itself, its fuel usage alone would make it the world's 47th largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
3. Mass agriculture
In 2019, the the World Resources Institute found that agriculture generates about 25% of annual greenhouse gas emissions. That's looking at food production and land-use changes, like plowing, although the majority of it comes from raising livestock. That same year, the United Nations warned that humans need to change their food production strategy dramatically in order to effectively combat climate change.
Now, there are some people see this and think: All right, eating animals is the problem, and anyone who keeps doing so sucks. I'm not one of those people. Plenty of Indigenous communities worldwide have historically eaten meat, and continue to do so, without it being a problem. The issue illustrated by these reports isn't that eating meat alone is bad; instead, the issue is with how the U.S. and similar nations approach agriculture and food production as a whole. If you took meat out of the equation, but kept food production and mass agriculture as is, you'd still see problems.
In addition to agriculture, deforestation is a major contributor to climate change. As the Rainforest Alliance broke down, deforestation is an issue because when we get rid of trees, we're removing an object that captures greenhouses gases like carbon dioxide. But in addition, the process of deforestation itself creates emissions. If you knock down a tree, all that carbon that it has been storing has to go somewhere, right? So say goodbye to the atmosphere.
Deforestation's link to climate change is perhaps best illustrated by the situation in Brazil. Last year, a study found that the Amazon rainforest could switch from being a carbon sink to a carbon source by 2035, because of climate change. And the Amazon isn't the only area suffering: Brazil's Cerrado region, which accounts for more than 21% of all land in the country and serves as a carbon sink, too, is also being destroyed by deforestation.
5. Honestly, capitalism
I've listed out some major players in climate change, but let's be real. Capitalism is the driving force behind each and every thing that I mentioned.
Capitalism is the reason that countries prioritize big business over people's lives. It's the reason that countries in the global south, who are the least responsible for climate change, continue to bear the brunt of its effects while a select few in the global north profit. As science journalist Matt Simon wrote in Wired, "Capitalism has steamrolled this planet and its organisms, gouging out mountains, overexploiting fish stocks, and burning fossil fuels to power the maniacal pursuit of growth and enrich a fraction of humanity."
Sure, we all have individual things we can do to lessen our carbon footprint. And certainly, we need to re-examine how we live our daily lives. We need to think about our relationship to the land, other people, and the non-human animal species who are also being devastated by this crisis. However, if we remain focused on individual actions, then we will be consumed by a monster much bigger than us.
Instead, we must be a collective, big enough to take on anything, while understanding that confronting climate change means that the U.S. and other Western countries must reimagine their economic structures overall. To put it simply: Ending climate change necessitates an end of capitalism.