When I moved to Colorado in 2004 with two young children, I volunteered time and energy to form "Green Teams," groups of neighbors, churchgoers or co-workers who wanted to collectively reduce their carbon footprint and waste production to help the environment. At the time I possessed the zeal of the newly converted, with my recent Environmental Studies degree tucked under my belt and hourly motivation from the two little faces constantly turning to me, sunflowers to the star. One neighborhood group was profiled in the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News, and photos showed my backyard compost pile and efficient sprinkler system. The smart sprinklers were new then, and the Wall Street Journal also called for a quote.
I felt good about the work at the time, but looking back now, I feel I was duped by big oil and gas companies who wanted us to stay busy measuring our individual footprints, our trash output, our electric and water use. With our heads down in the daily nitty-gritty we stayed out of their (big) business, failing to note how the investment in fossil fuel infrastructure continued, how the money from sales of oil, gas and coal flowed steadily into pockets. Many oil and gas companies promoted tools like the Green Team guide, the "footprint calculators" that proliferated online and guilted us into faulting ourselves, focusing attention on our neighborhood and social groups rather than big companies who kept pushing their damaging products.
Guilt distracted us from the real issue behind the climate crisis - that burning fossil fuels will eventually render this planet unfit for habitation by humans. The Chevrons and Exxon-Mobils of the world have known this for sixty years, but they obscured the knowledge, lied about the effects, paid climate naysayers to spout garbage on television and in the papers, driving the locomotive of our destruction to the edge of a cliff while raking in profits. They love the footprint calculators, and they don't want us to lay the blame for this crisis at their door.
"But we drive! we use too much gas! we fly!" Yes, all true. But we need comprehensive legislation, energy policy, infrastructure builds and other high-level changes to provide us with choices. We drive because no investment has been made in good public transportation, we fly in the US because we don't have high-speed rail, we get our electricity from coal because utilities refuse to shut down coal-fired power plants.
No more. The House Oversight Committee has now focused attention on the oil and gas industry's role in "spreading disinformation about the role of fossil fuels in causing global warming" (NYTimes). Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) said she "intends to hold the fossil fuel industry to account for its central role in causing and exacerbating this global emergency." As citizens of the world, we need to focus our protest energy, our investments and purchases in such a way as to influence banks, oil and gas companies, coal companies, and governments to move immediately away from fossil fuels in order to prevent a catastrophic rise in temperatures and an uncertain future for humanity.
Futher, House Representatives Mondaire Jones, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley introduced the Fossil Free Finance Act in Congress just this past week. The act would require the Federal Reserve (the bank that makes rules for all US banks) to hold big banks accountable for financing fossil fuels. In the last five years, the world's 60 biggest banks have financed fossil fuels to the tune of $3.8 trillion (350.org). I recently protested the Fed's involvement in financing fossil fuels at their Denver office. Our chants: "Fossil free Fed" and "leave it in the ground."
We should continue to do what we can in our own lives both because it's right and because it makes us (or at least it makes me) feel better. With constant headlines of floods, fires, heat domes and drought, daily efforts to help our environment can empower us to believe in positive change. The birds at my feeder inspire me, my solar panels make me smile, and my drip sprinkler keeps plants happy without wasting valuable water. But if you're called to do more in the face of the climate crisis, keep an eye on the oil and gas industry, the banks, and central government. Don't waste time on guilt, go after the real culprits.