09/24/2014 02:02 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2014

Fossil Fuels Don't Pollute, We Do

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On Sunday, more than a quarter million people gathered in New York City for the largest ever climate change protest. The next day, a number of high profile investors, including the Rockefeller family, pledged to divest a total of $50 billion from coal, oil and gas companies. The move was seen as demonstrating a commitment to lessen dependency on fossil fuels, curb greenhouse emissions and combat manmade climate change. The argument goes as follows: coal, oil and gas companies produce fossil fuels, fossil fuels produce greenhouse gases, and greenhouse gases produce climate change. Therefore, coal, oil and gas companies are responsible for climate change. Straight forward enough. But upon closer inspection, this argument falls apart.

It is inaccurate, or at least incomplete, to say that fossil fuels produce greenhouse gases. Sitting in the ground, coal, oil and gas do no such thing. Nor do they pollute (much) when they are piled in a heap, stored in a barrel, or transported in a pipe. Rather, it is the use of fossil fuels that produces greenhouse gases.

To be sure, it takes energy to produce energy, and coal, oil and gas companies do cause pollution in their own right. But these companies would not have a viable business if they were getting high off their own supply, so to speak. It is, rather, other industries that are the largest consumers of fossil fuels and, consequently, the largest direct contributors to climate change.

Ranking industries by how much fossil fuels they consume does not really address the question of who is to blame for climate change, either. For the fact is that certain industries that pollute a lot are necessary to sustain those that pollute a little. There would be no Internet without servers, and there would be no servers without the metals from which they are made or the energy with which they run. At a more fundamental level, all of the polluting industries today exist to meet the demands of human consumption.

The most popular solution for combating climate change is not to reduce consumption, but to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels by substituting "clean" energy sources in their stead. This is appealing because it requires little shift in behavior as a society or as a consumer. And while we can and should continue to work towards viable fossil fuel substitutes, the thought that such alternatives will meet energy demands in the short run is, unfortunately, a fantasy. Which means that the most, and perhaps only, surefire way to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels is simply to consume less.

Insofar as consumption follows from basic needs, like food or shelter, "overpopulation" is rightly seen as the root cause of climate change. But this assessment does not match the facts. As the UN Population Fund notes, "the wealthiest countries, with less than 20 per cent of earth's population and the slowest population growth, account for 86 percent of natural resource consumption." In terms of carbon emissions, population growth has had a much smaller impact than increased per capita consumption. For example, since the start of the millennium, China's carbon emissions have grown eighty times faster than its population. Furthermore, research shows there is not a direct correlation between quality of life indices and per capita emissions, which suggests that the majority of pollution generating consumption has nothing whatsoever to do with satisfying basic needs or, for that matter, improving human welfare.

If we accept these facts, the list of industries culpable for climate change grows considerably. We should hold accountable companies that serve up advertisements and encourage people to consume beyond their needs. We should hold accountable companies that provide debt and enable people to consume beyond their means. We should hold accountable companies that design new products with the aim of rendering their old products obsolete. And, above all else, we must hold accountable our culture of conspicuous consumption, without which the whole fossil fuel economy could not exist.

The overarching point is not that coal, oil and gas companies should be excused for the role they play in causing climate change. But if human consumption is the root cause of climate change, as it surely is, responsibility can hardly be assigned to a single sector. Instead, when it comes to private divestment or public regulation, we must take a more holistic view, one that encompasses not only fossil fuel production, but fossil fuel consumption, too.