Don't let big oil blame you for climate change

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Are you meant to recycle pizza boxes? Milk cartons? Compostable forks? There’s a lot of pressure on you to know what to recycle. And how to do it. And to own an electric car. And not use plastic bags. And to bike everywhere.

It might seem overwhelming — it definitely does to me — but this is all intentional. Companies that destroy the planet, like oil and plastic companies, are really, really good at marketing, and part of the marketing is convincing you climate change is your fault.

In 1977, a scientist at Exxon reported that burning fossil fuels may have an impact on the climate. This means that for almost 50 years, companies have been aware of the damage they are causing and have chosen not to change. Instead, they've actually worked very hard to cause more damage to the planet in the name of technological advancements and profit.

In 1998 the American Petroleum Institute, an oil lobbying group, sent out an internal memo stating that “victory will be achieved when average citizens… recognize uncertainties in climate science.” Since then, petroleum companies have worked hard to stoke climate denial, calling climate change predictions “speculative” and “bad science.” Exxon even went to trial for misleading investors, although they were proven not guilty. Their effort to spread misinformation and create climate deniers definitely worked and has only gotten more extreme as climate change has become politicized.

The most commonly known example of companies shifting blame is the idea of a carbon footprint, which was created by a design firm for British Petroleum (BP). It's truly an amazing feat of marketing! There are dozens of carbon footprint quizzes that tell you the total amount of greenhouse gasses you produce based on your clothes, food, and travel. Knowing exactly how you’re contributing to climate change can make you feel anxious or guilty, and while you might want to make slight lifestyle changes, IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT. Another example is the Make America Beautiful recycling campaign, which is a “nonprofit devoted to educating and inspiring people to clean, green, & beautify their communities.” However, it is sponsored by companies like ​​Nestle, Anheuser-Busch, and Unilever, which all create tons and tons of waste through single-use products. Once again, it’s a marketing campaign to encourage individuals to do the job of big companies.

I’ve taken a lot of environmental studies classes at Carnegie Mellon, and I joke with my friends that they make me want to litter. Let the record stand, I sort all my trash, but my joke is rooted in the frustration and powerlessness I feel as an individual. The more I learn about the environment the more I start to understand that the lack of action around climate change isn’t from a lack of knowledge, but from greed.

While I am not advocating that we all stop recycling and driving diesel trucks, I want to point out individual action neither caused nor will stop climate change. But as individuals, we do have some power. We have the power to elect policymakers who will limit companies' actions and put laws in place to lessen the contribution to climate change. And, as smart, hardworking students we have the power to enter the workforce and cause the change the world has needed since the '70s.