Forget your Footprint. Responsibility for Climate Change = Power + Resources + Talent. (W/ Schindler’s List Clip)

Climate change threatens to destroy the global climate and cause human civilization to collapse. Given this grave set of circumstances, what is my moral obligation? What is yours? How is it possible to live a moral life under these circumstances? When the systems we live within fail so terribly, how can we, as individuals succeed at living morally?

Deconstructing “Reduce your footprint”

The most common answer has long been to “reduce your carbon footprint!” We are exhorted by corporations, politicians, environmentalists, and the media. In the highly contentious arena of climate change, individuals reducing their impact may be the sentiment that has the most common ground.

Unfortunately, it is myopic and apolitical. Emphasizing individual emission reduction places the debate about climate change to the individual realm, rather than realm of societies, systems, and politics. This is why the carbon footprint  is a non-controversial approach to advocacy; it puts the onus of change onto the individual, freeing corporations, institutions, and governments from pressure to change.

Americans have, throughout our history, elevated the status of the individual. Individual freedom is paramount in our founding documents, and we generally esteem individual achievement above group achievement (Think sports stars or Steve Jobs; we love a hero).

Focusing on Systems and Systemic Change

We focus on the individual so much, that we can sometimes forget that we live within cultures, societies and governments; that our lives are governed by systems; that systems set the rules of the game. Governments, capitalism, the legal system, land-use schemes (zoning laws) and cultural norms—these systems structure and contain our lives.   These systems encourage consumption in thousands of ways. They make pollution free and reducing your carbon footprint expensive and difficult.

Our current systems—the ways we have structured and regulated human life, the way our civilization functions— is careening towards chaos. Our systems are destroying our climate, which has provided us humanity with stability and bounty, making human civilization possible for the last 10,000 years.

These systems are bigger than us. They comprise billions of people and trillions of dollars. Individual action is a speck of dust when compared to these systems. It will never succeed.

Our moral imperative, then, is not to reduce our carbon footprint. It is to change the systems. Though systems are daunting and powerful, they are developed and maintained by people, especially powerful people. We built them, we maintain them, and we can change them. Social movements have  done it many times before. We must create a social and political movement that fights denial and minimization and demands that the United States government respond to climate change as the existential threat it isto fight back with a WWII level mobilization.

Individual Responsibility, Reconceptualized.

When the systems have gone off the rails, then it is up to individuals to change those systems. A governments most basic responsibility is to keep its citizens safe. The climate crisis threatens all Americans and all humanity. Our government, as well as our culture, media, and economic system, have failed. Its up to us now.

Each of us must ask: what can I do to fight the culture climate change denial? How can I contribute to shifting the United States from passivity to action? How can I use my power, resources, talents, and connections to further the movement? Each person will have their own answer. Journalists can report on climate change; artists can create art about climate; religious leaders can preach about climate change in their sermons. Academics and students can apply their knowledge to helping the Human Climate Movement develop innovative strategies for success. Everyone can spread the truth of climate change amongst their family and friends.

Every person must give what they can to usher in the social movement. This means that the more power, resources, talent  you have, the greater your obligation. Perhaps Spiderman said it best: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

People often underestimate their power (and hence, their responsibility), thinking, “I’m only one person.” Or, “I’m just a student,” or “I’m not a politician or a scientist. What can I do?”

The truth is, if you are reading this, you probably have a good deal of power and privilege. You are literate, you speak English, you have access to the Internet, and you have the time available to read articles about climate change. Are you an American?  Than you are a voting member of the worlds most powerful nation. Do you have a college education? You are more powerful still. Globally, only 6.7% of people have a college degree. If you are one of the privileged, educated few, I believe you have a moral responsibility to use your knowledge to fight the climate crisis. Do you have money in your bank account? That’s a lot of power right there. Remember, 2.4 billion people live on less than $2 a day.  Are you talented? Do people respect you? Do you have a leadership position at work or in a community organization? These are assets that can be utilized for change, also.

Oscar Schindler: The Burden of Power in an Evil System

Oscar Schindler understood  that, in a crazed, immoral system such as Nazi Germany, powerful individuals bore a great burden of moral responsibility. Schindler was a rich German factory owner who, during the war, began to produce munitions and military supplies for the Nazis. As Schindler realized the evil of the Nazi system, he realized that he had to fight back. The situation was different in several ways than the climate crisis— the Nazi system was being challenged by the Allied forces, and open dissent was brutally suppressed. So Schindler did two things: 1) He began a mission to save as many Jews as he could, by employing them in his factory, relocating his factory to a safer area, and giving lavish bribes to officials and 2) He sabotaged his own factories operations. He never wanted to produce a working bullet; he knew that those bullets would be used to defend the Nazi cause.

Schindler understood that he had a moral obligation to stand against an evil system and that he had to use his power and privilege to do so. He undermined the system by providing it with faulty munitions, and shielded more than a thousand Jews from the system’s murderous intent.

So how did Oscar Schindler feel when the system was defeated—when Germany surrendered to the allies? Stephen Spielberg illustrates in the ending of his film Schindler’s List:

Schindler, rather than accepting the gratitude of his workers, is acutely aware of how much more he could have given—how much more his privilege and power required of him. And this was after the Allies had won. 

Imagine how you will feel as climate change continues to worsen, prompting resource wars, famines, and outbreaks of vector borne disease? Will you be able to hold your head high, confident that you did everything you could to contribute to the solution? Or will you live with the pain of knowing that you had power, resources, and talent, but failed to use it to change the system?


  1. This is the best piece on our obligation when it comes to climate change that I have ever read. Who cares what my footprint is if the concrete company that builds the roads that I drive on and pay for doesn’t count theirs. Even if I stop using the road now, and stop paying for gas that funds the road now, it is already far too late, we are part of the system and therefore need to be part of the solution. The problem is communal, the solution needs to be communal as well. I support taxation based on consumption of natural resources rather than income, it is the only “game changer” that I can see actually working to directly impact individual decisions.

    • Margaret Klein

      I’m glad you liked the piece, Patrick. Thank you 🙂
      Changing taxation so that it reflects environmental impacts is definitely a critical part of solving climate change, but I think we need even more than that: a WWII level response, which I discuss in “The Solution”.

  2. At the Copenhagen UN climate conference in 2009 civil society united around the slogan: “System Change Not Climate Change”. Nearly 100,000 people marched in the cold chanting it. This has not been as prominent ever since – thoughts on why?

    • Margaret Klein

      One factor, in the United States anyway, is our sense of rugged individualism. We have a pervasive myth that people are self sufficient, and do not need government regulation, or services, for example. So individual action appeals to that cultural idea. It glorifies the individual at the expense of the collective….I don’t have a reason to believe that culture has specifically shifted since the Copenhagen, however.

      Another factor is helplessness.. these system have gotten so big, impersonal and complicated that we wonder if we CAN change them.

      Thanks for reading, and for your comment 🙂

  3. Wonderful site. There is no more important issue. Thank you.

    People want to ignore, deny and forget pain. Far more comfortable to disengage.

    After we feel real pain and begin know how dire it is, whether we consciously or unconsciously know, then there are two distinct paths: acceptance and struggle. Either path involves suffering. We may try each path.

    Interesting times. Thanks for all that you do.

    • Margaret Klein

      We need both acceptance and struggle. Internally, we need to fully accept the truth of climate change. Externally, we need to struggle and fight like hell!

      Thanks for reading 🙂

  4. Dillon Culbreth

    Another wonderful piece. As much as I appreciate the WWII mobilization, I think the lead sentance in that paragraph speaks with greater volume, “Our moral imperative, then, is not to reduce our carbon footprint. It is to change the systems.”

    You also recognize that our government has failed us miserably. The crony capitalism and the concentration of power in the hands of the many psychopathic CEOs, the demands for loyalty to “the firm”, and similar political loyalties, have turned our representative republic into a sham that now invites derision instead of respect.

    There is great power in the people. The issue is how to galvanize, to enlist and encourage, and put boots on the ground here and around the world to effect the systemic change it will take to eliminate the fossil fuel dependencies and accomodate alternative sourcing, not to even mention the raft of other negative environmental issues especially affecting our water and the free use thereof. My European friends are constantly amazed at what we as a people accept here while they are hitting the streets in protest.

    The banksters hit me for over $800k in the crash of 08, killed the AEC industry nationwide, yet I’ve kept the lights on and the doors open. Bouncing along the bottom, you don’t have to worry quite as much about crashing again, there’s just not as far to fall. The point in my opening that door relates more to the “power and privilage” than anything else, and I acknowledge your listing in that paragraph to be some long strokes of a very big brush.

    What I’m saying is we need to find the gimmick, the trick, the “can’t resist” input for a society now so spoiled and fattened as to be the Germans who did nothing while Shindler was doing what he felt was too little. I would hesitate to count the number of times I have made the comparison to Weimar Germany’s transition to Nazi Germany against our country’s transition following 9/11 to today. When we look at the intransigence of the House, SCOTUS, and now apparently the President, I fear our passage to clinical facism is almost complete.

    I am proud to be active with Post Carbon Institute in distributing “ENERGY: Overdevelopment and the Delusion of Endless Growth”, with more set to be shipped to the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church and the North Carolina and national directors of Interfaith Power and Light, where I volunteer and also carry the environmental message into my ministry.

    Let me know if you’d like a copy

    I keep waiting on the Tahoes to pull up, figure I have to be on several watch lists by now, the shoestring radical that I am. Thanks again for all you do with the gift of your writing.

  5. Margaret Klein

    Hi Dillon. I certainly agree that the government is badly in need of reform. I think Lawrence Lessig’s book “Republic, Lost” explains very well the way that corporate interests have corrupted the democratic process in the United States. But I don’t think there is possibly a non-governmental solution to the climate crisis. Governments are, definitionally, who sets the rules of how society will operate. Governments alone are able to back up their actions with the power of the law, and the threat of force to those who do not follow the law. Given that we still elect leaders in this country, it seems to me that the best course of action is to work within the system to change the system, demanding a WWII level response. (I outline my strategy for this in Climate Change/ Civil Rights part II). This would certainly mean electing new leaders, likely from beyond the current 2 party system. Also, remember, during 1944 and 1945, the highest tax bracket in the US was 94%
    We knew that, in such a monumental crisis, everyone had to contribute what they could.

    Thanks again for reading!

  6. Those who have the privilege to know have the duty to act, and in that action are the seeds of new knowledge.
    – Albert Einstein

  7. No doubt the planet has been affected by burning, in a couple of hundred years, energy from the sun that took millions of years to accumulate. However, we are hubristic in the extreme if we think we can put the evils back in Pandora’s box. There is a bigger picture here that most people cannot see. The Nazi’s played their role in human evolution by giving us all an extreme negative example of human behavior. And remember those Nazi’s thought they were doing good. There will always be evil. There will always be some catastrophes. The earth will survive for billions of years yet and most probably humans will survive for a time too. But if they don’t, so what? Everyone and everything physical will whither away in time.

    Perhaps there is a deeper meaning to life than just saving our physical selves.

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