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Human activity is on course to heat our planet by more than 2.5°C above pre-industrial levels, even if we abide by all policies currently in place to reduce emissions. If this happens, it’s estimated that around one-third of the entire human population will be displaced. It’s important not to understate the magnitude of the crisis we face. It’s also important not to consider the crisis in a detached, apathetic manner; academics and politicians too often consider only the impacts on their own countries, such as increased migration, rather than the domicide, mass starvation, and poverty forced on millions, if not billions, of people.

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One of the largest contributors to the crisis is the use of fossil fuels. We’re still utterly reliant on oil and coal. More than 80 percent of our global energy consumption still, in 2024, comes from fossil fuels. Decarbonization is essential, yet difficult, due to a severe lack of infrastructure required for renewable energy expansion and the historical and current injustices inherent to the topic of climate change; why, for example, should developing countries be denied the opportunity to industrialize when it’s critical for their poverty alleviation and growth?

Climate activism groups such as Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion are loud in calling for change, and their ire has fallen on a multitude of groups, organizations, companies, and individuals. But who of these has the power to make a meaningful difference?

Let’s start with the fossil fuel executives. These are individuals in powerful positions within their companies. They can direct strategy and, in theory, reduce the amount of oil and coal being pumped out of the ground. This isn’t quite the case. These individuals are employees and are legally obliged to serve their employers and shareholders. If they begin acting in a way that doesn’t maximize profit, they’ll soon be fired and replaced by someone that will. This is not to exonerate their historical role in amplifying the climate crisis; on the contrary, the extensive misinformation campaigns peddled by fossil fuel companies and their funders can be seen as some of the most damaging forms of ecocide ever seen. Yet their historical complicity must be viewed as distinct from their capability in fixing the problem for which they have been partially, if not majorly, responsible.

Next up the chain are those to whom the executives answer: the shareholders. Most of the ownership of fossil fuel companies is in the hands of major institutional investors, who act on behalf of others and have a duty to maximize profit for them. Again, the investment industry is not blameless for the crisis, but nor does it have great power to solve it. As long as fossil fuel extraction is still profitable, these shareholders have a legal obligation to own and profit from the shares. It’s a system designed to destroy itself.

So why is it profitable to extract fossil fuels? Because this supply has demand from consumers. Consumers manufacture demand by flying in jets, by driving petrol cars, building with steel, and using plastics. Some try to place all the blame on the consumer, but this misses the critical issue at the heart of behavioral economics: socio-technical lock-in. Essentially, in many cases, consumers don’t have much of a choice. Electric vehicles are becoming cheaper but still cost more than their fossil-fueled competition, and meat on the shelves remains an easy, cheap, and tasty food source. Renovating a home to improve energy efficiency may help bills in the long run, but the up-front cost can be substantial. Ultimately, choosing to be more sustainable is expensive.

The solution to this market failure? Intervention and regulation: the role of government. Governments step in to correct market failures and have the power to tax, regulate and redistribute in order to shift supply and demand. For a multitude of reasons, some reasonable, some political, governments globally have been slow in acting, leading to the trajectory we are now on of 2.5°C and catastrophe. But their role is critical; actions such as subsidizing electric vehicles and meat substitutes, implementing building efficiency regulations, and providing concessional financing for climate solutions initiatives can all help to turn the rising tide of disaster.

There’s no doubt that fossil fuel executives and investors need to think longer-term and bear plenty of responsibility for the climate crisis, but their actions in fixing this are constrained by the system in which they exist. If the crisis we find ourselves in is to be solved, it will be governments who solve it, and activism needs to focus on these rule-makers who can change the game rather than those who are playing it.

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Inside EPA’s Clean Air Report, Vol. 7, No. 26 (December 26, 1996), pp. 16–17
Inside Washington Publishers
The Climate Crisis: South African and Global Democratic Eco-Socialist Alternatives, Ed. Vishwas Satgar, (2018), pp. 30–46
Wits University Press
The Economic Journal, Vol. 99, No. 394 (March 1989), pp. 116–131
Oxford University Press on behalf of the Royal Economic Society