Recentering the conversation on Earth Day

Every year on Earth Day, my classes would take a few minutes to discuss eco-friendly alternatives we could make to help the planet. I remember my teachers suggesting shorter showers, using metal straws, or turning off the lights when we left a room. These actions were a “small sacrifice” we could make to do our part in protecting the environment. 

The reality of climate change, however, is that changing the individual habits of the general public does little to help the planet in the long term. 

A majority of carbon emissions are caused by the burning of fossil fuels from leading gas and oil corporations. 

In order to decrease emissions, it is imperative that the US government discontinue the subsidization of fossil fuels and instead push for more sustainable energy sources. However, this is only the first step of many.  

In a 2017 report published by the Climate Accountability Institute, scientists revealed that 70 percent of global emissions since 1988 can be attributed to only 90 companies. 

Another report from 2019 revealed a mere 20 companies are responsible for one-third of all carbon emissions. Some of these corporations include ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, and Chevron––and these four alone have contributed to more than 10 percent of global emissions since 1965.  

These corporations have reduced the planet to an inexhaustible supply of resources, as well as a massive garbage dump, and the Earth cannot continue to sustain either of these practices. 

Yet it is these same businesses that preach about saving the planet, promoting a facade of sustainability through greenwashing.

To deal with the onslaught of criticism garnered through exacerbating the climate crisis, gas giants such as Exxon and Shell have pledged to transition to “low-carbon,” clean energy sources and encouraged their customers to be conscientious towards the planet. ExxonMobil even co-opted Earth Day, using it to promote energy saving tips to their patrons. 

Ironic, of course, coming from a fossil fuel company. And the hypocrisy does not end there. 

In addition, Exxon, BP, Shell, and Chevron are also guilty of attempting to minimize their environmental impact, according to a Feb. 2022 study published in the journal PLOS One. 

Researchers found that these companies made climate pledges around decarbonization, however failed to make the changes that would allow for this transition. BP and Shell announced that they would be reducing investments in fossil fuel extraction, however the study revealed that both businesses have instead increased funding for new oil and gas sources. 

The PLOS One study also acknowledged how oil companies have misled the public and obstructed progressive climate political action. 

“ExxonMobil is a flagrant example, having strategically denied climate change and propagated disinformation to mislead the public for over 20 years. Multiple majors have tried to shift the responsibility for climate change onto consumers (BP’s promotion of reducing individual carbon footprints is one example),” the study writes. 

In addition to misinformation, as of 2019 oil and gas giants spent over $200 million total on climate lobbying to delay or block environmentalist policies, according to the Guardian. 

In order to truly honor Earth day, we must also honor the holiday’s historical roots in revolutionary change. It is not individual habits that exacerbate the climate crisis, but rather subsidized fossil fuel companies that continue to destroy the environment, no matter the cost. 

With a rapidly accelerating climate issue, we need Earth day now more than ever; a unified stance against corporate exploitation, one that lasts more than just a day. It is only through continued protest, demonstration, and education, can the planet be protected.