Whose responsibility is it to ‘solve’ our environmental crisis?

Written by Melissa Watt |


Our current environmental crisis needs no introduction. It is a complex issue that is not easily resolvable. While the onus is on the individual consumer to change their lifestyle, should scientists, politicians, and businesses be doing more? I argue that we all have a stake in our future, but not everyone is pulling their weight.


Kids Want Climate Justice, March For Science, Minnesota, US. Photo by Lorie Shaull.



It is easy to blame scientists for our present situation: they arguably created the technology that is destroying our planet. Scientists, however, are convenient scapegoats, used to shift the spotlight from our own complicity.

While scientific research is essential for healing our planet, it is not in itself the solution. Science is a tool, not an imperative. In many ways, scientific information is inaccessible to the everyday consumer and so requires legitimisation and direction from the government. At the forefront of this collaboration should be the consideration of long-term strategy. To be truly sustainable, we need to act in a way that preserves the future of generations in hundreds of years to come.


Panel at the Climate Change summit. Photo by the Commonwealth Secretariat.


The government

Many experts are rightly terrified by Trump’s notorious stance on climate change: that it does not exist. This has highlighted the power that political authorities have to enforce and shape environmental change. Government intervention legitimises the urgency of our environmental crisis, prompting the pursuit of appropriate solutions; politicians are role models who can influence business and consumer habits.

Consider the introduction of the 5p charge on plastic bags in 2015, an arguably successful initiative. Through government legislation, single-use plastic bag consumption rapidly declined, while large businesses now have to address the realities of plastic waste. In 2009, McDonald’s was reported to be the largest contributor to fast food litter. Now they are making conscious efforts to rectify this. Litter patrols, visible recycling bins, and zero waste ambitions have, in part, been encouraged by the government’s recent focus on plastic.



Plastic is just a part of a much larger problem, however. The government should be placing greater emphasis on global warming and carbon emissions because that is where they can really influence business decisions. Taxes, subsidies, and legal prosecution are all effective measures to encourage greater sustainability. It is often not in the profitable company’s interest to take greener steps, but all businesses have ethical responsibilities. The government should, therefore, introduce tighter sanctions on those who are reluctant to act.

It is important to note that our environmental crisis has international ramifications and should be treated as such. The difficulty is adopting a global approach which caters for various environments, legal systems, and social problems. The 2015 Paris Agreement was one such attempt which saw 195 countries sign the first universal, legally binding global climate contract. At its core, it promised greater government accountability and to reduce our global emissions. Trump’s recent withdrawal may threaten the future of further global cooperation.


The multinational COP21 climate change conference in Paris, 2015. Photo by By U.S. Department of State from United States, via Wikimedia Commons


Business Corporations

Just as the government can influence businesses, corporations can impact government legislation. Wetherspoon was one of the first large retailers to ban plastic straws across all its chains. Since then, many restaurants have followed suit and the government are now considering implementing a similar policy. Environment secretary Michael Gove proposes to ban plastic straws and cotton buds by 2020 to protect our oceans and wildlife. He commends the initiative of retailers and argues that it is now time for the government to step up their efforts. Businesses can clearly be leaders of change.

Businesses may also have the investment for appropriate solutions that the government lacks. There is now a greater financial incentive because so many renewable energy supplies can save companies money. Businesses can also capitalise on our present crisis by manufacturing alternatives such as air pollution filters or electric cars. If businesses want to survive, they must adapt to new environmental standards.

Similarly, businesses shape consumer habits and thus have an ethical responsibility to promote sustainable purchases. Iceland is the first supermarket to campaign against palm oil and deforestation, hoping to ban it entirely from its shelves. This is an excellent example of companies raising environmental awareness. However, it is not enough to simply provide information. Businesses must explicitly offer affordable and accessible choices so that customers are encouraged to change their consumer habits.



Individual Consumers

The recent emphasis on the individual agency is uncomfortable but it is not entirely misplaced. Mass consumerism – the product of capitalism – fuels our consumption of disposable items. Individual consumers all play an active role in environmental affairs and changing individual habits forms part of a larger collective which results in far-reaching consequences.

In this sense, we can all make a difference. Experts recommend that we should use more public transport and eat more plant-based meals. These changes all seem realistic. I am cautious, however, of placing all the blame on the individual consumer. Government and businesses have the power and investment to direct long-term change.


The Media

The media is a complicated web of mistruths and understatements in need of a radical transformation. Much of the issue is that the media has historically justified our wasteful habits. The popular, albeit controversial, documentary What The Health exposed the ways in which the meat and dairy industries have distorted the realities of animal agriculture to the everyday consumer. Animal agriculture is a leading contributor to greenhouse gases but the demand to change our diets seems sudden. Misleading advertising is to blame here and needs to be more transparent.


Media Training on Environment and Climate Change. Photo by USAID Vietnam, via Wikimedia Commons


I have given a rather crude overview of what is a complex issue involving many factors. If this article has shown anything, it is that we all have a stake in our future. We all live on this earth, so we are all equally responsible. If everybody shared the mindset that individual actions do not matter, we’d lose any momentum to enact real change. We need to stop shifting the blame and do our part.

Perhaps a collaborative approach which proportionately utilises the resources and expertise of scientists, politicians, businesses, and consumers is our best move forward. The media provides the perfect forum to raise questions and ideas.

The pessimist in me, however, wonders if our efforts have come at too late a stage in our environmental emergency. Theresa May has vowed to eliminate the UK’s plastic waste by 2042 but the effects are already being felt. That it is not to say we should give up. I just fear that you only stop taking something for granted once it’s gone.