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The Fossil Fuel Industry Guilt-Shamed you on the Carbon Footprint. Here's Why.

The term “carbon footprint” is generally used to represent a person’s carbon emissions throughout their day-to-day actions and consumption of goods. When the carbon footprint was created, its purpose seemed to be to bring awareness to individuals of their contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and hold them accountable for their negative impact on the environment. Though this concept seems extremely useful to climate activists, as it draws consumers’ attention to their unintended impacts on the environment, further research on the origins of the carbon footprint has proved that the creators of this concept might have a hidden motive, unknown to the average person. 

According to Lara McDowell, a junior at the Nueva School, she learned about the carbon footprint through an online video in elementary school. “We watched a YouTube video when I was in fourth grade of these people taking a quiz [called] ‘What is my Carbon Footprint?’” she said. McDowell said she was taught that people who don’t carpool or eat a lot of meat have a larger carbon footprint. 

James Park, a junior at Lick-Wilmerding High School, recounted when he first learned about the carbon footprint, in middle school. “I first heard about the carbon footprint when I was reading a news article . . .it was titled ‘How To Reduce Your Carbon Footprint’ with tips for reducing individual waste and organizing carpools. When Park first read about this, as a middle schooler, he felt ashamed for his negative impact on the climate. According to Park, he thought, “I’m being driven to places all the time, and that must be creating a large carbon footprint. It’s a problem that I’m not helping the environment.” However, since Park was a child and couldn’t change his travel situation, he continued to feel guilty. 

This is a similar story to other teenagers: learning about the carbon footprint and feeling guilty for their potential contributions to the climate crisis. Though some may not have the power to change their lifestyle, others place significant effort into lowering their carbon emissions. In a Guardian article entitled “The rise of vegan teenagers: 'More people are into it because of Instagram’”, teenagers Isabella Hood, Abigail Wheeler, and Megan Malthouse all participated in a complete change in diet to veganism because of their drive to help the environment. They mentioned they hoped to not associate with the massive carbon emissions that are made from meat production.

Yet– there is a huge problem with this narrative. People need to ask themselves, why is the blame for carbon emissions focused on the individual? Instead of buying into this narrative, experts studied the actual statistics behind global carbon emissions. The facts are startling. Yet again, the fossil fuel industry shifted the blame to continue killing the planet. Just 100 companies have been responsible for 71% of global GHG emissions since 1988, as noted by a 2017 study that appeared in the Guardian

Also, other information was gaining traction: the carbon footprint was created by British Petroleum (BP), an oil corporation with a long list of egregious crimes. This information completely changed the individual’s view on carbon emissions. McDowell was frustrated about how this information was misleading to regular individuals when she first learned about it. “The carbon footprint was created to divert the blame of climate change from big oil producing companies, which are literally going to light the world up in flames, and instead shift blame onto individuals,” she said. Park agreed with this statement, saying that “it’s not the individual’s fault, we should place the blame back on big corporations.”

Park also reflected on his peers’ views on this topic. “There’s definitely widespread misinformation about this. I think that people in this generation think that both corporations and people contribute to carbon emissions, but don’t understand the level of oil companies’ emissions that these statistics are showing,” he said. 

To shift the focus from negative to positive, McDowell envisioned new ways to approach the carbon emissions crisis. “Instead, we should think about how we can design our cities and the places that we live to be less car-dependent,” she said. When reflecting on how we got to be car-dependent, she said, “Because of the way that our society is designed…we’re forced to drive our cars every day because it’s the most efficient way for us. Then, oil companies are dictating what we individuals should and should not feel guilty about, and the blame is shifted away from huge corporations like BP or our government, who aren’t providing us with the infrastructure that we need.” 

Park also brainstormed ways for climate activists to work with this new information. He thought that a way to start big change would be to “get a passionate group together with similar opinions and figure out a way to get into contact with a government official that could change the policy about the carbon footprints of major corporations,” he said. Like Park said, many environmental groups are shifting towards politics to advocate for systemic change that would make a huge impact on the current global carbon emissions.

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