One Change: Individualising blame does little for environment

We must counter oil firms’ PR and forge positive ideas towards a sustainable future

The One Change column is about taking individual responsibility for the toxic levels of carbon that all of us as a society are emitting. It's a noble intention, but it does have its limitations. Principally, it's that the very notion of focusing on individual responsibility was popularised by BP, the second largest non-state-owned oil company in the world. In 2004, it unveiled a "carbon footprint calculator", so that individuals could assess how much their daily activities were polluting the planet. The marketing campaign, led by Ogilvy & Mather, fostered the false idea that climate change was the fault of individuals rather than fossil fuel companies.

For decades, big oil firms have been aware of the harm their products would do to the environment. In July 1977, a senior scientist in Exxon's research and engineering division, James Black, told the company's management committee that there was "general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels". A year later, according to a report obtained by Inside Climate News, Black warned Exxon that "doubling CO2 gases in the atmosphere would increase average global temperatures by two or three degrees."

Think tank denial

Exxon's reply was to spend more than $30 million on think tanks that promote climate denial, according to itemised expenditure reports collated by Greenpeace. And it wasn't just Exxon, the Union of Concerned Scientists revealed a memo from a coalition of fossil-fuel companies "where they pledge basically to launch a big communications effort to sow doubt", according to union president Kenneth Kimmel. Kimmel goes on to say, "There's even a quote in it that says something like 'Victory will be achieved when the average person is uncertain about climate science.'"

Meanwhile, BP is still promoting its carbon calculator on its website. The aim appears to be to appropriate our collective social concern for the environment to help boost its brand image. We need to campaign to keep the oil and gas in the ground rather than just calculate our carbon emissions – like was done during the Corrib pipeline protests in 2005 and the current campaign against the Shannon LNG natural gas terminal.


A year after the Shell pipeline protests in north Mayo, the Government launched its Power of One advertising campaign to encourage consumers to use less natural gas and electricity, despite the fact that it had been demonstrated repeatedly that individual parsimoniousness will never bring the carbon reductions that we need. The Government spent €3 million on television and radio ads, billboards, ads on the internet, in film theatres and in the press and it also partnered with utilities companies to include leaflets in bills, but according to ESRI research, the campaign had no lasting impact on consumer behaviour.

Stoking despair

Its inefficacy is sobering, and calls into question the rationale for this column, which also promotes the power of the individual. Sinéad Mercier recently explored these issues in Green News and points out that individualising blame for pollution and climate action should be avoided, not only because it "obscures true responsibility" but also because "there is a fine line between presenting humans as a 'virus' on the earth, and presenting humans as a species in need of a 'cull'".

Certainly, these are valid concerns that highlight the need for this column to avoid stoking despair but instead present positive ideas that help us all move towards a more sustainable and flourishing future. It’s also somewhat disconcerting to read in Mercier’s article that we are following a path predicted by Shell two decades ago. In a leaked internal memo in 1998, the oil company forecast “that public outrage against fossil fuel companies would soon build to the point that young people would protest in the streets, that court cases would be taken across the globe and direct action campaigns would escalate”.

While direct action refers to something more proactive than reading a newspaper article, this column does somewhat fulfil the last of Shell’s predictions.