I confess: I have felt guilty. I grew up in a religious family, hearing that we are born with an original sin. We bear sin because of the first two human beings who disobeyed and were expelled from paradise. Now we are all born with that same sin; we are born with the same guilt. Mea Culpa.
I also grew up hearing that sometime later, the Messiah came to save us all from our sins, reestablish the covenant, and die to redeem us. Thus the Messiah died for me and for all sinners. Seeing the images in the churches that show a bloody and suffering figure who, in full purity and innocence, died to erase my sins, I always considered that I was responsible for the death of the most innocent person. Mea culpa.
When I grew up, I started hearing other kinds of stories: I heard about the increasing devastation of the environment. I also heard about the hole in the ozone layer and climate change. Later, This global environmental crisis, as a whole, received a name: the Anthropocene, the time of man. The term was coined to explain the level of devastation that humans have caused up to the geological level. We human beings have caused this catastrophe. However, I do not feel guilty for the devastation of the Borneo or Amazon rainforest, but I have heard that humans cause this and more. I am human, so I must have caused this. Mea culpa.
In the same way, I recently read an article in the New York Times magazine titled “The Decade We Almost Halted Climate Change.” We were almost done with the problem, but our political interests avoided it. So close! How do we miss this opportunity? My mistake. Mea culpa.
I have seen the Chevron oil company advertisement calling me with messages suggestive of individual action: “I will unplug things more, use less energy, and take my golf clubs out of the trunk” and then, of course, I believe that it is my responsibility to reduce my water consumption and my energy expenditure, etc., and not the responsibility of the big oil corporations, despite having been aware of the risk of climate change for decades, neither of those 100 companies responsible for 74% of emissions since 1988, nor of those only 25 corporations and state entities that were responsible for more than half of the emissions world industrials in the same period.
In the negotiations on climate change, I heard years ago, with the Kyoto Protocol process, that certain developed countries had the responsibility to lead climate efforts because of their “historic emissions”, but now, years later, with the Paris Agreement I hear that, without counting the inaction and apathy of developed countries for more than two decades, now “all countries must act and have commitments.” I hear that there is a principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, but also that we all have a shared burden to face the problem. We trade historical debt for shared responsibility. Mea Culpa.
At the same time, I suspect when these same governments and institutions, which did not act for decades, now ask us to be resilient to climate change, selling the situation as an opportunity and not as a condemnation. Somehow, I feel like this blurs your responsibility for your inaction and puts the burden on peoplebut I must be wrong.
I calculate my ecological footprint and find that I need more than 1.6 planets to satisfy my needs. I order my lemonade without a straw, I shower in 5 minutes with cold water, I recycle and I take cloth bags to the supermarket, although these activities are statistically insignificant compared to the emissions of countries and corporations, but what else can I do? I bought my bamboo toothbrush and other “green” and organic products thinking that maybe the problem of climate change is solved by buying. This initially feels good and makes companies feel very happy, but I don’t see the situation changing much. I think I fell into the greenwashing.
So, as in the religion of my family where it is common to confess my guilt to expiate it, I confess to you my guilt for all this responsibility that I did not fulfill. I confess and that should absolve me of guilt.
And then, nothing happens. The world is still in the same state. Confessing this guilt doesn’t seem to change the situation. I cannot atone for my climatic guilt with confession. I also see that while I feel very bad, blaming individuals makes politicians and corporations laugh. So, after many years, I now acknowledge that my fault does nothing to change the situation.
Fortunately, in the face of my fault and my frustration at the lack of action we have caused and the time I have wasted, I recently heard from a girl, one Greta Thunberg, and now groups of students and teenagers who are also concerned about climate change but they are not loaded with guilt. They do not say that we are responsible. They don’t talk about it being our fault. They protest the inaction of governments. They protest with banners that read things like “You are burning our future” or “We are the generation we have been waiting for.” And when I read this, I could hear them say in a clear voice, “It’s not our fault.” I confess that it is the type of “We” that I like.
For individuals to act, they need to feel empowered, to think that there is something relevant and efficient they can do, creating agency for change by breaking the smoke screen created by governments, institutions and corporations that blame the individual. The agency of change thus manifests itself in individual responsibility and in a civic duty to act and denounce this discursive manipulation. In this way, instead of blame, we move to demand accountability and point to the responsibility of governments and companies that did not act.
Thus, I don’t know if blame is spiritually helpful, but maybe in the case of climate change the only good use of blame, I think, is not to make the governments or companies responsible for decades of inaction feel guilty, but make them be declared guilty … in front of a grand jury for his crimes of ecocide and inaction.
Dr. Luis R. Fernández Carril He is a researcher in environmental ethics and international climate policy and a professor at the Tecnológico de Monterrey, Campus Puebla. He is currently a member and Lead Author of Working Group II of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel of Experts on Climate Change (IPCC) for the 6th Assessment Report. He served as legislative advisor and later as Technical Secretary of the Special Commission on Climate Change of the Senate of the Republic, LXIII Legislature of 2015-2018. His main lines of research are international environmental governance, international climate negotiations, adaptation and resilience and ethics of climate change. He has published articles and lectured nationally and internationally at venues such as Oxford University, UNESCO in Paris, Yale University, and Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland.
Twitter: @ fernandezluis83