State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Opinion: You Are Not the Problem — Climate Guilt is a Marketing Strategy

person crouching on the ground surrounded by pointing fingers
Photo: Pixabay

For years I felt, like many people I know, that I wasn’t a good environmentalist unless I brought a reusable cup every time I bought coffee, only ever bought second-hand clothes, composted every food scrap, biked everywhere, and pushed every other individual in my life to do the same. If I didn’t do this perfectly, if everyone around me didn’t do this perfectly, then we were the problem … right?

Climate guilt, or guilt coming from our inability or unwillingness to effectively protect the environment, is becoming an increasing cause of stress. Most of us either give up entirely on trying to be environmentally friendly, or we fret at each trip, bite or purchase.

Feeling guilty every time we can’t be perfect environmentalists isn’t sustainable. The path towards a safer climate doesn’t need consumers to get every action right, but it does need us to understand the scope of our actions within the greater crisis.

The problem is that societal expectations are set way too high for any individual — and they were set too high to benefit the oil industry.

Do you remember the first time you thought about climate change?

The oil industry has been thinking about it since 1977, when James Black, a scientist at Exxon, reported that the burning of fossil fuels was impacting the climate.

Do you remember the first time you felt guilty about climate change?

Since 2000, oil companies have been working, through advertising, to convince consumers that we should feel guilty.

But first, they spread doubt about the reliability of climate science. In the late 1990s, as public consciousness of climate change was growing, the oil industry was planning how to undermine the public’s understanding of this issue in order to keep its business safe. A 1998 internal memo from the American Petroleum Institute, a trade association and lobbying group encompassing companies such as Chevron and Exxon, stated that “victory will be achieved when average citizens … recognize uncertainties in climate science.”

This strategy of sowing doubt was effective for a long time. But there were still those who believed the science, so the fossil fuel industry used its advertising power to blame consumers.

British Petroleum hired Ogilvy & Mather, an advertising agency, in the early 2000s specifically to sell the narrative that climate change was the fault of the individual. This was how the term “carbon footprint” was coined and popularized. They even designed a carbon footprint calculator so you could see your personal impact on the planet.

I have used that calculator, and mostly remember how it made reducing my carbon footprint feel deeply overwhelming. The concept of your “carbon footprint” emphasizes personal impact, personal responsibility, and personal guilt.

This guilt can breed inaction. As I increasingly studied the climate crisis, I went from doing what I could to limit my environmental impact to feeling that any actions I took were pointless … so why try?

A very reasonable logic underpins the argument for personal responsibility. Oil companies and their supporters argue that they are just serving a market, that it is individual consumers that drive the demand.

This argument falls apart, though, when considering the oil companies’ years of actively misleading the public on the truth of their industry’s impact on the climate. If they had brought this information to light rather than actively hiding it, there would have been more time for a transition away from fossil fuels.

We consumers wring our hands over the use of a plastic straw, a light left on overnight, or a plane ride. Meanwhile, oil companies continue to profit billions of dollars, primarily from fossil fuels.

Individual action did not get us here, and individual action alone cannot get us out, but there are actions that we can take that can help … tremendously. We can call out the decades of hypocrisy and deceit from the responsible oil companies. We can elect leaders that do not place climate change solely on the shoulders of the individual. And we can take small sustainable actions when we can, understand the history of the guilt we feel when we can’t, and remind others that they, just like us, are not the problem.

Helena Kilburn is a sustainability professional and a graduate student in Columbia University’s M.S. in Sustainability Management program.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
1 year ago

Thank you for your article.

I completely agree that the notion of a personal carbon footprint gives us misplaced feelings of guilt. I do think that doing what we personally can to reduce impact (while focusing on indirect impact through greening our pensions, lobbying workplaces to scale eco-friendly changes and voting for politicians who will make real change) will give us feelings of agency and influences our friends/family to do the same.

Reply to  Jeni
1 year ago

I haven’t changed my consumer habits out of guilt but from personal ethics based on what I know is true. If I indulged myself while calling for for corporations to be held to account for what I participate in myself, I’d just be a hypocrite. Besides, all our actions taken collectively would make a difference!

Christopher Pratt
1 year ago

I look for the joy in being a happy climate warrior. Thrifting is more interesting than buying new. Finding uses for worn out things or the ability to fix something gives me agency in a world that is constantly taking away any sense of purpose I might feel. Driving a really inconvenient electric car has gotten me to stop in a visit friends in places that have charging stations and experience all those places between here and there.
Perfection is the enemy of the good, but what we is good for the earth is also good for us. The ego-centric notion that individuals will save the planet can be transformed into the notion that the planet is saving us from ourselves by teaching us a better way to be.

Brigid McDermott
Brigid McDermott
Reply to  Christopher Pratt
8 months ago

I absolutely love this approach. I hope I can quote you on the idea of the “Happy Climate Warrior”

Joseph Kennedy
Joseph Kennedy
1 year ago

Go one step further. It’s not the individual’s fault; it’s the corporation’s fault, but now that we’re aware of what went on and goes on, isn’t it the government’s fault? Who makes the government do something to change how this all works? Isn’t that you?

Joel Hildebrandt
Joel Hildebrandt
Reply to  Joseph Kennedy
11 days ago

Remember when the Supreme Court ruled that “corporations are people too”, and that it’s essentially “unconstitutional” to restrict corporate campaign contributions?
Every day there are new articles about which candidates are collecting the biggest “war chest”. Exxonmobile’s dollars speak much more loudly than you and I ever can, by virtue of their sheer volume. The dice are loaded, and we are not on average going to roll the winning numbers. We do sometimes get representatives that represent the people and the planet, in opposition to corporate interests. But they, not we, are generally the ones calling the shots.
Yes, it is the government’s fault. Hand in hand with the big corporations. That formulation can possibly be changed, but not by blaming ourselves or each other.

Thomas H Pritchett
Thomas H Pritchett
1 year ago

Interesting. While I can see the merits of a climate footprint calculator to help individuals reduce their footprints as much as possible, I was not aware of its being promoted by the fossil fuel industry to deflect responsibility from themselves. However, it does make sense given their clandestine support of the various groups who have used all sorts of means to fight against action to control global warming and to fight against the more widespread use of renewable energy,

7 months ago

All good, but how do we influence the corps so they save the planet and let us live?