Who owns climate change?

As with most problems, it’s easy to point fingers. But in the case of climate change, there are so many fingers pointed in so many different directions that we might as well just be pointing at ourselves.

In the United States, for example, polling data shows that Americans split the onus of combating global warming almost evenly across a swath of actors. The Morning Consult and Politico survey, conducted in June 2018 among a national sample of 2,022 adults, suggests that there is little agreement over who bears the burden of solving the climate crisis. In fact, a plurality of voters, 28 percent, could not choose between governments, individuals, nonprofits and international organizations, such as the United Nations.

Among those who did choose an actor, governments (22 percent) narrowly edged out the next most common choice, individuals (20 percent).

International organizations, businesses and nonprofits rounded out the bottom of the list.

Hermione Taylor, founder of Do Nation, an environmental nonprofit that advocates for individual behavior change, said she was surprised that more Americans didn’t choose businesses. 

Word choice could have played a role. Had the term “businesses” been narrowed to "the oil and gas industry" or “corporations,” respondents might have more easily identified those entities as the climate change perpetrators most responsible for developing solutions.

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Taylor, who holds bachelor’s degrees in biology and evolutionary biology, as well as a master’s in environmental technology, added “It would be really interesting to see how those results have changed over time.” Morning Consult confirmed this was the first time they had sent that survey question into the field.

Across the Atlantic in Britain, a more directly worded (and more leading) survey, conducted by the nonprofit ClientEarth and the donor group The Climate Change Collaboration, induced stronger support for private sector action. "More than eight in 10 believe that companies who knew about climate change early on and continue to lobby government against taking action should be at least partially responsible for the costs of major weather events,” according to the 2018 report.

Results were mostly consistent across age groups in the U.S. poll, except in one circumstance: 16 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds said governments were most responsible, less than half the rate of seniors (aged 65 and over) who said the same. "I feel like the younger generations are disillusioned by politics and governments,” Taylor said. “They don't want to put blame on something like that because they don't trust them.”

She’s right in that assessment — a majority of young people, 53 percent, do not trust governments to combat climate change. Curiously, though, one of 2018s biggest U.S. climate stories surrounds the Juliana v. United States trial, where a group of young people are challenging the government to implement sweeping changes to the nation’s climate policies. The constitutional lawsuit is led by 21 youth plaintiffs, ranging in age from 11-22, who assert that "through the government's affirmative actions that cause climate change, it has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources.” 

Because polls generally do not tally opinions from people under 18, it is difficult to know if the nation’s youngest generation sees governments as more responsible and likely to solve climate change than individuals or other institutions. To confuse matters more, seniors, who said governments were most responsible for combating climate change, were also the least trusting of governments to develop solutions. Seventy-four percent of seniors would not put their faith in governments to combat climate change.

Among all demographics, Americans were slightly more confident in businesses than governments to save the planet, though not by much. A majority of respondents, 62 percent, would not trust governments to fix global warming. A near-majority, 49 percent, would not trust businesses, either.

For the general lack of confidence in anything or anyone to solve climate change, and for all the blame that goes around, one things is clear: We all have a role to play.

We all own climate change. Whether we’re acting in our capacity as an individual or as part of a business or organization, solutions will only be found by fighting for change across every facet of society. “The biggest impact any one of us can have is by inspiring people around us to start creating change,” Taylor said. “Lead the change and be visible about it. Talk to people around you about it.”

Or, as Democratic Rep. Donald McEachin of Virginia put it, just “get off the couch” and do something about it.