There is a famous line in the classic film “The Wizard of Oz” that strikes me every time I hear it: “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”
The line is spoken by the ‘wizard’ in a last-ditch attempt to distract the movie’s heroes just as they are about to expose him for lying to his people.
America in 2019 may be a far cry from the technicolor land of Emerald City, but the line still manages to feel fresh, even 70 years later.
We live in an age where, according to the United Nations and the world’s leading climate scientists, we have only 12 years to limit global warming to moderate levels. If we fail to maintain a sustainable temperature, the risk of drought, famine, floods and wildfires will significantly worsen, which will result in poverty and displacement for millions of people.
Now is a better time than ever to start paying attention to the man behind the curtain - or, in the case of climate change, the companies behind the curtain.
For years, the national conversation has perpetuated the notion that climate change is the result of our individual failings. We are taught, from a young age, that the fate of our planet lies in the hands of ordinary consumers who simply don’t care enough to take shorter showers or recycle. We are taught that if only we took steps to transform our lifestyle, the global crisis could have been averted and we could all avoid watching the world burn.
This is a lie. Worse, it is a systemic misdirection that keeps us invested in actions with very few political or economic repercussions- which allows the people actually responsible for the climate crisis to go unexamined.
Mary Anaise Heglar, an editor at the Natural Resources Defense Counsel, described this phenomenon in an essay published by Vox.
“The dominant narrative around climate change tells us that it’s our fault... [because] we left the lights on too long,” she wrote. “But if the light switch was connected to clean energy, who the hell cares if you left it on? The problem is not consumption — it’s the supply.”
According to a report by the Carbons Major Database, just 100 companies have been the source of more than 70 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. Among these companies are ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, Chevron, and Peabody.
Many of these companies, like Exxon, promoted climate change denial for years despite knowing about the risks since 1981.
In recent years, nearly a dozen of the world’s biggest oil companies, including Exxon and Chevron, announced a $1billion fund aimed at cutting the climate change impact of oil and gas. The Guardian reported that the fund is being deployed in $100million dollar investments over the course of a decade - which sounds like a lot until you remember that this amount represents just 0.4 percent of the company's yearly capital expenditure.
Companies aren’t the only ones invested in the destruction of our planet. According to The Center for Responsive Politics, members of Congress received more than $20million in donations from the oil and gas industry in 2018 alone.
The wealthy and powerful may be responsible for the climate crisis, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be able to pay their way out of it.
During Hurricane Katrina, rich New Orleanians hired private security guards for their homes while low-income black residents lost everything. When Hurricane Maria struck, wealthy islanders bought expensive generators to keep their lights on while many Puerto Ricans lived without power for almost a year. And during the wildfires in California, affluent Californians hired private firefighting companies to protect their homes while over 50 people lost their lives.
The companies behind the curtain want us to believe that if only we had turned the water off while we were brushing our teeth, all of this could have been avoided.
This isn’t to say that riding your bike to work or composting doesn’t make a difference, or that striving to be an ethical consumer isn’t a noble pursuit. Forgoing a straw at a restaurant to save sea turtles is a good thing, but a public discourse on climate change that revolves around straws means that the people in power will remain very comfortable - and if the people in power are comfortable, it's time to change the conversation.
We can talk about carpooling, but we also need to talk about the catastrophic effects of unbridled capitalism on our planet. We can talk about reusable grocery bags, but we also need to talk about the fact that most casualties of climate change are and will continue to be people of color, and those living in poverty. We can talk about giving up meat, but we also need to talk about taking tangible steps towards clean and sustainable energy, through programs like the Green New Deal.
If not, the companies responsible for the crisis will continue to make a profit as they remain safe behind their curtains, while the rest of us face the consequences.