Our Collective Blind Spot

Scientists and the media are establishing new ways of looking at who is responsible for anthropogenic climate change. This expanded view of responsibility is some of the most important news of our time, because whomever we see as causing the problem informs whom we see as obligated to help fix it.

The earliest phases of climate responsibility focused on greenhouse gas emissions by country, and highlighted differences between developed and developing nations (a distinction that has become less valuable as China and India have become two of the top three national emitters). Then, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, the focus, at least in the U.S., narrowed in on individual consumers.

However, in a very short time, the twenty-first century’s second decade has brought corporate producers into the spotlight, not only for their role in greenhouse gas emissions but also for their coordinated efforts to mislead the public about the science of climate change and prevent political action.

Although we have traditionally held producers responsible for pollutants, as in the case of hazardous waste, a debate followed about whether it was fair to shift the burden of responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions from demand to supply. New research revealing how some corporate fossil fuel companies responded to climate science has placed a greater burden on the producer.

Since the late 1980s, when the risks of climate change began to be clear, some corporations systematically funded efforts to deny and reject climate science and worked to ensure the future of fossil fuels. Producers influenced public beliefs and preferences.

One reason for the recent research into corporate influence is the increasing number of disciplines (and interdisciplines) involved in climate research. While psychologists were some of the first to conduct headline-generating climate-related social science (which helps explain the focus on individual responsibility and preferences), researchers from other disciplines like sociology and history of science joined in and are documenting the role of corporations and a complicit media in the failure to act on climate change. They are part of the reason for our expanded view of responsibility.

The mounting evidence for producer culpability in climate change has happened relatively quickly, but its timing remains embarrassing. Over the last couple decades of the climate wars, scientists have been blamed in so many ways for the lack of action on climate change. They have been accused of being bad communicators, of emphasizing uncertainty, and of depressing and scaring people. I find none of these lines of argument particularly convincing.

But the failure of researchers and the media to, until recently, neither see nor document the industry legerdemain as partly responsible for the stalemate over climate represents their (our) biggest failure on climate action. We might be able to blame corporate influence over politics and the media for the public opinion divide on climate change, but that does little to explain how researchers and journalists overlooked the role of corporations for so long.

Now that we have seen the important role of industry in climate change, hopefully we do not allow it to regress into our collective blind spot.