Last week, the United Nations issued a climate change report stating that we only have about 12 years before the world begins to see the disastrous effects of global warming. If no global initiatives attempt to combat this problem soon, then hundreds of millions of lives are at stake. This report came soon after NYU’s announcement of its new sustainability plan, which pledges to achieve a 50 percent reduction of waste on campus by 2025 and total carbon neutrality by 2040. As a powerful institution, NYU holds a certain responsibility in the fight against climate change; by implementing these changes campus-wide, NYU is taking steps in the right direction toward being a trailblazer in environmental sustainability. However, the UN’s report and NYU’s new sustainability plan should serve to remind us that we have a long way to go — fully resolving the problem of climate change will be impossible if those with the power to effect true change are not held accountable.
At the end of the day, simply curbing our impacts on individual levels will not reasonably stop climate change. We must consider the fact that 100 companies are responsible for over 70 percent of carbon emissions worldwide. The greater public discourse, however, has steered the conversation toward what individuals can do to combat the issue. Placing the responsibility of dealing with something as gigantic as climate change on individuals may shift the responsibility of the corporations causing climate change away from the larger culprits. That transfer of responsibility may result in people believing that the only way to combat global warming is through individual actions — which are definitely not accessible to all — and in turn cause us to ignore the true perpetrators of global warming.
Something as small-scale as the implementation of non-plastic straws, or the gradual elimination of straws in general, may appear somewhat inconsequential in terms of long-term outcomes. NYU is not necessarily unique in its decision to make the move toward plastic-free alternatives — college campuses across the country have been putting this policy into effect over the course of the last few months. A few weeks ago, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill into legislation that would ban sit-down restaurants from automatically giving customers plastic straws and, if violated, would institute a fine of $25 per day.
This is, of course, an incredible step forward, if only because it indicates an active governmental acknowledgement of climate change reform in a time when it seems that the Trump administration has rejected all recognition of this increasingly dire issue. But these changes, and NYU’s newest plan, should not be interpreted as complete solutions — they are solely steps forward, and shifts toward greater progress.
We are not claiming that people should not try to be more eco-friendly in their everyday lives. However, it is important to acknowledge how problematic it can be to blame climate change on individuals rather than the corporations truly responsible for its hazardous effects. The NYU sustainability plan should serve as a reminder that the broader goal should be to pressure leading consumers of fossil fuels into taking steps to decrease their corporations’ role in climate change, and in turn validating just how dangerous climate change has become.
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A version of this appeared in the Monday, Oct. 15 print edition.
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