Collective and Individual Responsibility for Climate Change: Analytical Essay

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Humans have dominated the Earth for centuries; consuming excessively whatever they want whenever they want without any disregard for any other living thing on Earth. Biological hierarchy denotes the homosapien as the top predator, but does this give us any more of a right than any other living organism on our planet? This links to the idea of biocentrism which proposes that “nonhuman entities have the same intrinsic values, independent of their value to humans”1. For years, humans have taken food, shelter, habitats and even lives away from other organisms to aid our selfish development but we are now at the climax where it is us that is going to be affected by the damages of climate change; with that comes fear and a desire for change. Climate change, a myth to some, a fact of life to others, has only became apparent in the last few decades, with its effects only beginning to show. History plays a huge part in climate change due to the huge industrial revolution which saw tonnes of pollutants being pumped into the atmosphere with little knowledge, if any, of the effects this could have on our atmosphere. With no immediate effects and the drive for industrial power, the effects were disregarded, one could say through ignorance. Ignorance is bliss; but not in the case of climate change. The ignorance of previous generations is the reason we are where we are today. Now the mere cracks of climate change are beginning to show with rising global temperatures resulting in ice caps melting, severe weather patterns and massive amounts of smog which consumes much of the eastern world. The rising of global temperature causes more issues than first thought. Our predecessors created the problem and now it’s down to us to fix it. With any problem, there is always a solution but with a solution comes blame for the problem and the responsibility to solve it. But how can we define responsibility? Responsibility is defined as ‘the state or fact of having a duty to deal with something’ so does this mean that the responsibility lies with those who are to blame? As the current generation, instead of dwelling on the mistakes of the past, we now have the knowledge and recourses to learn from their mistakes and ensure they are not repeated. Placing blame and responsibility seems easy enough but when that blame, and responsibility has a monetary value, the situation becomes much more complex. This leaves the door open for exploration into the idea of future generations and duty. Duty and responsibility go hand-in-hand so do we as a generation have the duty to resolve climate change for the future generations? Their existence solely depends on us thus one could say that we are responsible for ensuring they don’t suffer due to climate change. This theory is explored in the work of Partridge13 who addresses the idea of how the actions of the present have a direct impact on future generations and so this gives them the rights to claim against present people. To further back up this point, Banks clearly surmises the argument of Taxler, simply stating that ‘we have duties to avoid harm when we can act, and they cannot’14. We have addressed the blameworthiness of previous generations, so do we want to be branded with the same label by our successors?

Does this propose the idea of who is actually to blame? The collective or the individual? This essay will consecrate the theory that it is the responsibility of the collective to drive climate change to resolve climate change, acknowledging the fact that this is not standardised across all nations and corporations and that it requires some individual input in order to be achieved. The various levels of action in regard to responsibility will be discussed thus drawing to the conclusion that the ‘distant’ issue of climate change should be of current relevance independent of future generations or graphical location2.

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The Role of the Collective

In order to discuss the collective responsibility we need to envisage a nation as one and all nations as one, and the idea of ‘collective responsibility’. But is it fair to assume that every member of a nation pollutes equally especially in authoritarian government where many have no political stance or viewpoint?3. This ties in with idea of to what extent are democracy and responsibility interrelated. David Miller draws to the conclusion that with democracy comes conformation of collective responsibility making the statement ‘the more open and democratic a political community is, the more justified we are in holding its members responsible for the decisions they make and the policies they follow’. Thus, it can be argued that the individual is equally as responsible as the government as they were the ones who ensured that the government obtained that position and so responsibility is shared equally among all members4. However, this can only be argued so far as for example the democratic nation of the United States does not believe in collective responsibility both nationally and internationally. This is exemplified in Trump’s dramatic withdrawal from the Paris Agreement in June 2017 which saw the US president actively refuse to acknowledge the existence of climate change and recognise the ‘fundamental principle of common but differentiated responsibility’5. This principle was prevalent prior to the signing of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development however this protocol clearly defined the principle and put it in writing. It incorporates the idea that nations have a common responsibility and duty to protect our climate change with the acceptance that more industrially-developed countries should shoulder a greater responsibility than those less developed. This is purely on the basis of historic responsibility as our ancestors were the ones who contributed vastly to climate change. This opens the door for countries to form a regime under this principle, with developed countries ‘leading’ the expedition to combat climate change with the underdeveloped countries following were necessary6. To counter this, although the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities creates a strong argument in the face of climate change, it could be said that by condemning underdeveloped countries with debts to climate change, we are taking away their right to develop to the same level that we have. Who are we as a developed nation to deprive other countries of the same luxury we endured almost two centuries ago? With the right to develop comes the opportunity to have a more enriched economy which can flourish, possibly eradicating the poverty-stricken lifestyle they couldn’t escape from otherwise. This is one possible argument but can be quickly collapsed by the state of corruption many of these countries are in. thus would it beneficial to allow them to reach the same stance as developed countries when the only people who would benefit would be the rich, corrupt bourgeoisie who only seek to add to their power trip.

Looking further into the departure of the US from the Paris Agreement, we can delve into the idea of one’s self interest over collective interest. The withdrawal of Trump from the Paris Agreement saw his own self-interest and the interest of his country triumph over the collective interest of the world. This can be seen as a Tragedy of the Commons situation. Gardiner uses this idea proposed by Hardin7 as an example of the problems nations face when tackling climate change. He talks about collective rational and individual rationale. In this case, Trump opted for individual rationale as reducing climate change would not be in the best interest of the nation and therefore his people even though it would benefit the greater good8. However as outlined in the principles of utilitarianism, the greatest good is not always the best for every member involved. While doing the greatest good in regard to climate change may benefit the world as a collective, many countries’ economies may suffer thus this may not be in the interest of the individual. This is where the Tragedy of the Commons and utilitarianism coincide, with the greatest good according to Bentham being to act collectively to reduce climate change even though in the process economies and financial status may suffer, a sacrifice the USA were not willing to make9.

In an ultimate statement, all of the nations acted collectively when signing the Paris Agreement, excepting the fact that they must reduce their individual emissions in order to reduce climate change, showing an acceptance of responsibility and a change to their actions. Nations hold the greatest power, some more (worryingly) so than others and thus its nations that can drive the biggest change in reducing climate change.

The Role of the Corporations

Corporations also have a responsibility to help reduce climate change especially in nations where capitalism thrives. This was acknowledged with the introduction of corporate social responsibility (CSR) by which companies had an unwritten agreement with society in that they would do their best to limit their contributions to climate change with no legal obligations. However, it was deemed that this would only work for companies if there was some sort of profitable gain from doing such an act10. Revisited by Allen in her recent work, it was termed that this CSR was no longer ‘a voluntary luxury but a necessity’11. This comes with the need to balance environmental matters with economic matters- a balance which most organizations struggle to achieve as economic matters are always put on a pedestal in comparison to its environmental counterpart. However, if organisations initiate policies within the workplace, they could draw positive attention towards them as a company which would be beneficial to the company name whilst also encouraging their competitors to do the same thing in the natural race to top the business ladder. This would be seen as an act of collective interest, inspiring other companies to follow their lead. However, if this change it not economically favorable for the company is it fair for them to suffer as a company, resulting in possible loss of money and redundancies all in the aid of limiting their contributions to climate change? This links nicely to the Tragedy of the Commons scenario addressed previously as companies tend to act in their own self-interest in order to be at the top with little disregard for the effect they have society and the environment. Acting as a collective would do the greatest good, as all companies would accept some responsibility for climate change and change their approach to emissions. However, the greatest good for the environment could lead to catastrophic economic effects, a risk many companies will not be willing to take.

Along with this CSR is not an obligatory term of agreement, it is a social agreement to ensure a stable relationship between companies and society. However, with no government enforcement, not all organisations adopt this approach and thus refuse to accept responsibility for the contributions to climate change. One way to combat this on an individual employee level. If one employee at the company acts in the favour of climate change, striving for change within the company to ensure it is a sustainable workplace with a lower carbon footprint, this could encourage the company to carry out environmentally friendly initiatives which change their outlook on the environment, not through enforcement but through the desire to change. Surprisingly, many corporations have accepted some responsibility for their contributions to climate change and so sustainable changes seem to be high on their agendas. This cannot not be said for all companies for example, the China National Petroleum firm deny the existence of sustainability in some of their final reports and thus refuse to acknowledge they have responsibility to change12. The same can be said for corporations in the US where, due to the withdrawal of Trump from the Paris Agreement, there is no governmental push for a sustainable future. Thus the matter of climate change is not as pressing in US as in other countries. This can be deemed as a quite a controversy as for example, USA are one of the main contributors to global warming, both past and present, yet they don’t see the full effect it has on the globe currently.

However, without collective responsibility of all companies accepting their individual role in contributing to global warming, it can be strongly said that no change will be visible in regards to climate change. It’s not the sole contribution of one company, but a net contribution of all and thus if a global policy was initiated and all companies adhered, the drive to reduce global warming would take drastic leaps. To achieve this all corporations must agree, and whilst this may seem easy to obtain on paper, in practice this common goal becomes somewhat unachievable.

The Role of the Individual

Individual responsibility has roots in both national and corporate responsibility as the individual is the common agent in both. Individual moral responsibility can be summarised as the individual doing an act that they have knowledge of the effects of prior to carrying out such act. Using this statement, we have a comprehensive knowledge of the effects of climate change so does this mean the individual can be held solely responsible for climate change? It would be outrageous to say that the individual is responsible as one sole person did not induce climate change, a net contribution of the collective is the cause of climate change, one could say. However, can it be said that the individual contribution of one person makes a significant contribution to global warming? For example, if you decide to drive your car to work, will those emissions cause a huge contribution to global warming on a national scale? If we look at this prospective it can be argued that the contribution is so insignificant that they cannot be held morally responsible for climate change. This theory was exemplified by Sinnot-Armstrong in 200515. To counter this, one could argue that if every single person’s individual emissions were ignored the consequence would be significant and so it would be futile to disregard individual contributions to climate change, as every little addition adds to the greater result that is climate change. This objection is expressed by Nolt (2011) who argues that every person’s actions have a direct effect on someone in the future, going as far as to say that through the continued emission of GHGs, each American can be held accountable for the death of one to two persons in the next millennium16. This statistical stand point could be used to drastically motivate the individual to reduce their emissions to global warming with the prospective of the possible death of two future beings due to their ignorance.

Although it has been said that the individual cannot be solely held responsible for climate change, their role in the collective can be considered and responsibility distributed from there. Banks17 discusses the three main roles within a collective that an individual can take on:

  1. Order Givers
  2. Orders Followers
  3. Supporters.

Depending on their role within the collective will determine their individual responsibility. For example, the leader of country would have the role of order giver thus decided the outcome of the nation’s regime towards climate change. With power comes responsibility, and so one should not address the individual contribution to climate change but should address the political policies they declare for the rest of the people to follow. And so, although one could argue this collective responsibility, without the installed policies by that powerful individual, others in the collective would not follow and so it can be argued that sole responsibility lies with them in their position of power.

If we look at those individuals in the role of the followers, for example the owner of a company will hold more responsibility than that of his/her employees as they have more power over the collective than those who work for them. However, this is a grey area as the owner is following order from a higher body e.g. the leader of the country, so is it morally right to burden the owner with the responsibility of the company when they are following orders from an agent in a much more powerful situation than them?

So where does this leave the supporter? If the supporter holds no position of power and is merely deemed irrelevant then is it fair to place blame and responsibility upon them? One could argue that supporters hold a lot of responsibility in that they have the knowledge and ability, in democratic nations at least, to have their say as to whether they follow a policy or support a leader and so they then hold the responsibility of having this belief. They form the majority of a collective and so it can be said that they do hold some power in that if all supporters contributed to climate change, the net contribution would be massive compared to that of one sole leader or company owner. It could be argued further to a more dramatic extent that by having this informed knowledge of the harm the collective is doing to the environment, then they are somewhat more responsible by supporting this notion in oppose to opting to change and going against the majority. Therefore, although first seen as merely powerless and irresponsible, upon analysis one could say that actually they hold more power and responsibility than those ‘order givers’ and ‘order followers’.


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