• Environmental Law and Regulation Society

Climate change and climate accountability: who is responsible and who is held accountable?

Kaylene Leong

August 28, 2022

5 min read


The effects of climate change have only become increasingly obvious over the course of the 21st Century which has seen global droughts, fires, extreme heat and flooding events. As a result, there is now a greater need for climate accountability. Climate accountability can be explained as using the law to hold governments and businesses accountable to help combat climate change and creating a framework to reach climate targets. This essay will discuss who is responsible for climate change, who suffers the impacts, who should be held accountable and how do we do it?


Who is responsible for climate change?

The harsh reality is that people do not contribute equally to climate change and people do not suffer the same consequences.More Economically Developed Countries (MEDCs) have contributed far more to climate change than Less Economically Developed countries (LEDCs). The statistics speak for themselves:

  • An article from the New York Times about COP26 discussed how rich countries only accounted for 12% of the global population but are responsible for 50% of all greenhouse gases; (1)

  • A report from 2017 that found that about 70% of greenhouse gas emissions at the time came from just 100 fossil fuels producers; (2)

  • In 2015, an investigation revealed that oil firm Exxon was aware about climate change and the impact of fossil fuels long before it was a public issue yet they continued with their practices; (3)

  • A study by Leeds University found that across 86 countries, the richest 10% of people consume around 20 times more energy than the bottom 10%. (4)

The above, coupled with issues such as unregulated use of private planes by the ultra-rich, the unsustainable fashion industry make it undeniable that MEDCs, fossil fuel companies and rich individuals are, in general, primarily responsible for climate change.



Who suffers the impact of climate change?

Although MEDCs are primarily responsible for climate change, the reality is that LEDC and people from lower socio-economic backgrounds suffer the greatest impacts of climate change. LEDCs often lack the proper infrastructure, such as climate resilient buildings or disaster management systems for natural disasters, and the resources to build and plan for climate change. They also often have more pressing and immediate issues to deal with such as poverty and civil unrest. This can be linked back to the history of colonialism and imperialism. Post colonialism LEDCs were left with a variety of issues such as economic instability, violations of human rights, disease and when they gained independence they did not have the resources and financial means to fix them. (5) Research has shown that colonialism has directly contributed to climate change. Some examples of contributions include the forced removal of Indigenous people which resulted in the loss of Indigenous knowledge(6) or the continued dumping of waste in LEDCs. (7)

In short, they suffer the worst consequences but have the least ability to cope. Where is the fairness and accountability? In the 21st Century, the ultra-rich take 17 minute plane rides and yet face no consequences apart from public shaming and the ordinary individual continues to to suffer. It is evident who is responsible for climate change and who suffers the most from climate change but then this begs the question: how do we hold them accountable?



Who should we hold accountable for climate change and how do we do it?

Individuals, businesses, and governments can all contribute to climate accountability in different ways. Individual climate accountability can include ethical consumer choice, such as buying from sustainable businesses, spreading awareness, or changing your diet. However, there is a very prominent culture of eco-shaming; eco shaming can be explained as shaming someone for their behaviour and choices towards the environment. Eco shaming has been rampant in recent years however this focuses on holding the wrong people accountable. This also discourages individuals from taking part in combating climate change(8). Whilst individuals should undoubtedly participate in climate accountability when possible, it is unfair to place so much of the climate accountability burden on individuals when their contribution and impact to climate change is incomparable to global companies. They also should not be held to the same standards as global companies and countries.

On the other hand, global companies, especially fossil fuel companies, have greatly contributed to climate change and should undoubtedly be held accountable for their actions. One way that many companies are holding themselves accountable is by making commitments to decrease their carbon emissions and waste. However, businesses are able to make promises to reduce their emissions and improve their sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) will help companies to achieve these goals. However, to truly ensure that businesses take accountability for their contributions to climate change, there must also be legal accountability.

Continuing, governments can contribute to climate accountability by creating and implementing legislation. This is not a new phenomenon; governments and countries have been drafting and passing legislation and holding conferences for the last 40 years. Some examples include COP26, Rio Summit, UK Climate Change Act, The Clean Air Act in 1963 and many others. Legislation helps the government to pledge to climate goals, such as at COP26, and to set aside funds to combat climate change. It also helps to ensure there are legal consequences for countries and companies which do not abide.



Conclusion

Climate accountability can take many forms: whether it be individuals shopping more sustainably, tracking celebrities’ private jets flights,or businesses aiming to decrease their emissions or governments creating legislation to mitigate the effects of climate change.

In recent years, there has been a lot more climate accountability happening but that is because the state of the Earth is continuously worsening. We are essentially playing a game of catch up as we are working to mitigate the effects of climate change and in order for the world to achieve the drastic change needed to combat climate change, countries and companies need to implement a proper climate accountability system and make real changes.




Biography

(1)https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/11/12/climate/cop26-emissions-compensation.html#:~:text=Rich%20countries%2C%20including%20the%20United,over%20the%20past%20170%20years.

(2)https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2017/jul/10/100-fossil-fuel-companies-investors-responsible-71-global-emissions-cdp-study-climate-change

(3)https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jul/08/exxon-climate-change-1981-climate-denier-funding

(4)https://www.leeds.ac.uk/news/article/4562/shining_a_light_on_international_energy_inequality

(5)https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/colonialism#:~:text=Colonialism's%20impacts%20include%20environmental%20degradation,outlast%20one%20group's%20colonial%20rule.

(6)https://theconversation.com/colonialism-why-leading-climate-scientists-have-finally-acknowledged-its-link-with-climate-change-181642#:~:text=Colonialism%2C%20the%20report%20asserts%2C%20has,on%20climate%20change%20since%201990.

(7)https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/10/09/britain-sends-plastic-waste-southeast-asia-despite-clashes-local/#:~:text=Britain%20sends%20more%20plastic%20waste%20to%20Southeast%20Asia%20despite%20clashes%20with%20local%20government,-Malaysia%20is%20the&text=The%20UK%20this%20year%20has,investigation%20by%20Greenpeace%20has%20discovered.

(8)https://www.enviral.co.uk/why-eco-shaming-will-never-create-impactful-change/#:~:text=Urban%20Dictionary%20defines%20eco%2Dshame,on%20nature%20and%20the%20environment.



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