There is a simmering debate in the climate community about who’s to blame for climate change.  Is it the people burning fossil fuels or the people pumping them out?  There isn’t really a good answer to this question because our individualistic concept of ‘blame’ can’t cope with a society-wide problem like fossil fuel consumption.

Luckily, Iris Marion Young’s Social Connection Model of Justice provides a better framework for analyzing the issue — and it also provides us with ideas about how to move forward.  Iris Marion Young wasn’t writing about climate change — the example she used in her essay was sweatshop labour — but the theory is useful in any complex system where ‘agency’ is murky.  If you like reading political and moral theory you should read the original article — Responsibility and Global Justice: A Social Connection Model (2006) — if not, stick with me and I’ll hit you with the highlights and show you how it applies to the climate crisis.


A 2017 Guardian article about a report by the Climate Accountability Institute has become something of a meme in the climate community.  We often see tweets saying things like “100 companie are responsible for 71% of emissions, but I’m supposed to give up plastic straws.”  The problem here is neither the article, nor the report — both of which highlight important data — the problem lies in our culture’s binary idea of ‘responsibility.’

The people making those tweets are rightfully angry because they are feeling ‘blamed’ for their modest personal emissions.  They prefer to blame the big companies — which is fair — those companies had much more capacity to prevent this crisis.  But, as we dig deeper, contradictions begin to emerge.  People want companies to take all the blame.  They want corporations — or perhaps executives — to be punished.  And I have certainly had my vengeant moods and moments as well.  I often dream of designing a climate criminals playing card deck so that, when society collapses, we will all know exactly what the traitors look like.  But does punishment get us out of this mess?  This is the real value of Iris Marion Young’s model — it is forward-looking, instead of backward-looking, and it focusses on healing rather than punishment.  Let’s take a moment to examine how many distinct components are packed into a seemingly simple concept like ‘blame.’


Our judicial system — based as it is on the dichotomy of 100% guilty and 100% innocent — gives us a distorted notion of blame.  In the case of climate change, there is clearly a spectrum of responsibility.  When we see that responsibility is shared, we also see that a fossil fuel executive’s culpability doesn’t absolve others.  But responsibility is also different from guilt — just because you are ‘responsible’ doesn’t mean you are guilty and need to feel ashamed.  It only means that you have to work to make things better.

Young offers us a new model of responsibility and highlights five differences between her model and what she calls the ‘liability’ model.  We will dig into each of these distinctions a little bit — but it is the first one that is most relevant to the debate within the climate community.


1 – ISOLATING vs. Not Isolating

“The liability model of responsibility seeks to mark out and isolate those responsible, thereby distinguishing them from others, who by implication are not responsible.” (Young, 2006, p.116)

This aspect of the liability model is at the root of debates about who is responsible for climate change.  When people are asked to take responsibility for their consumption — they react defensively because they are used to thinking that if they take responsibility, the oil companies will be let off the hook.  And they are not entirely wrong here, the focus on individual consumption and consumer choices is often used to deflect blame and distract us from the need for systemic change.  But a more nuanced notion of responsibility allows us to see that there is room for both individuals and corporations to share the burden of remaking our entire world.

2 – ASSUMES A BACKGROUND OF JUSTICE vs. Judging Background Conditions

“The liability model considers the process that brought about the harm as a discrete, bounded event that breaks away from the normal flow.  Punishment, redress, or compensation aims to restore normality…” (Young, 2006, p.120)

Putting Exxon executives on trial might provide emotional resolution for some, but it will not solve the climate crisis.  Nor does it address the fact that those executives were under pressure to expand their companies at any cost and would have been replaced if they had slowed their company’s growth for environmental reasons.  Looking at the full system and considering how individuals are limited in their choices by structural pressures allows us to see a deeper, more widespread, injustice in our system.  Judging background conditions lets us see that there is a systemic pressure pushing executives to do the wrong thing.  Although they bear some responsibility, they were pushed into making bad choices by the structure of society as a whole.

3 – BACKWARD-LOOKING vs. Forward-looking

Saying #exxonknew feels good.  But it doesn’t solve our crisis.  The liability model of justice is focussed on the past, it wants to know exactly who did the wrong thing and when — but a social connection model justice is more interested in the question ‘what should we do now?’  Any trial of Exxon should focus less on executives who made bad choices forty years ago and more on what Exxon can do right now and in the future to make things right.  Stopping the ongoing misinformation that fossil fuel companies are pumping out is important than naming and shaming those who did it first.

4. INDIVIDUAL RESPONSIBILITY vs. Shared Responsibility

When a shopping mall collapses, the liability model seeks to determine which individual failed to do their job.  Did the owner hire an engineer to do safey checks as required by the law?  If so, did the engineer do their job with sufficient care?  In all likelihood, the owner followed the letter of the law, but subtly pressured the engineer to find the building sound.  And perhaps the engineer’s medical debt made it difficult for them to step away from the contract even though they were aware of an inappropriate pressure.  An injustice as large as climate change is a tangled web of injustices — environmental racism, colonialism, toxic masculinity, ratings pressure on journalists, marketing, consumer culture, our own addiction to comfort — the list goes on and on… arguing about which factor is the ‘most important’ is counter-productive.

5. DISCHARGED THROUGH PUNISHMENT OR COMPENSATION  vs. Discharged only through Collective Action

This, for me, is the most profound difference between the liability model and the social connection model.  Whereas the liability model seeks to balance out a discrete injustice in the past through a trick of moral accounting, the social connection model simply seeks to make things better and asks everyone to lend a hand.  If Exxon executives knew, how can they work to reduce the impact of their poor choices?  On their own, they can’t do much — but the corporation which employed them and profitted from their immoral decisions still exists and is still damaging our environment. A social responsibility model of justice would look to redirect Exxon’s resources towards reducing the impacts of climate change.  And if doing so would put them out of business, a social responsibility model would examine how we might change laws and economic systems.


“All persons who participate by their actions in the ongoing schemes of cooperation that constitute these structures are responsible for them, in the sense that they are part of the process that causes them.  They are not responsible, however, in the sense of having directed the process or intended its outcomes” (Young, 2006, p.114).  But Young is also careful to point out that her model does not necessarily mean that all who share responsibility have an equal responsibility.  The power to influence the processes that produce unjust outcomes is an important factor that distinguishes degrees of responsibility” (p.125).  For Young, our responsibility is directly proportionate to our capacity to make things right.  So people are right to laugh off accusations that their straws are killing the planet and executives are right to point out that they would merely have been replaced if they tried to reduce oil production.  But an executive like Rex Tillerson clearly has more power than I do — he could have — and should have — gone to congress and asked for the whole industry to be better regulated.  Indeed, he should still do so today because his influence is still quite large.  As Young says, “the difference of kind and degree correlate with an agent’s position within the structural process.” (Young, p.126)

If you remember only one thing from this discussion of responsibility, remember this: searching for someone to blame is a waste of our time when we have such a difficult task ahead of us.  Instead, we should be asking who has the power to make things right, who is impeding progress on these problems and how can we engage those most responsible for this crisis in the work of building a better world.

Iris Marion Young’s essay was focussed on sweatshop labour — she examined the defensiveness with which people buying clothes reacted to protesters highlighting the inhumane working conditions in sweatshops.   Those “ addressed hear themselves being blamed for harms. More often than not, agents who believe themselves to be targets of blame react defensively: they look for agents to blame instead of themselves… in situations of structural injustice it is easy to engage in such blame-shifting or excusing discourse because in fact others are also responsible and there are in fact structural constraints…” (Young, 2006, p. 124).  Shifting blame around in circles will get us nowhere.  Your diet or transportation choices don’t mean you are to blame for climate change, but yelling at corporations while you continue to consume doesn’t make things better either.  Young takes the complexity of this problem very seriously, she recognizes that each of us is in a unique structural position, we have certain freedoms and certain limits — and her conclusion is that we must each make ourselves aware of injustices, work to fix them and justify our own behaviour to ourselves.  Only you can know if eating meat allows you to remain healthy enough to do important organizing work.  Only you can determine if the benefits of attending a conference outweigh the harm of the flying — but we all have to accept some responsibility for this crisis and decide what actions we can take to make things better.  The moment we all accept our shared (but not equal) responsibility for this crisis and stop trying to shift the blame is also the moment we will start to make real progress.

The path to climate justice starts with each of us examining our participation in the system, studying what structural factors make it hard to change, and getting to work organizing new structures — perhaps virtual conferences or community gardens — that make it easier for you and those around you to make better choices.  And yes, sometimes protesting outside big banks will be part of that systemic change — because banks, governments and fossil fuel companies have more capacity to fix these problems than we do as individuals — but we should protest in a way that highlights our shared path forward rather than simply heaping blame upon them and then wiping our hands.

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