Intended for healthcare professionals


Individual responsibility: a red herring that lets the fossil fuel industry off the climate catastrophe hook

BMJ 2022; 378 doi: (Published 05 July 2022) Cite this as: BMJ 2022;378:o1656
  1. Kent Buse, director1,
  2. Soumyadeep Bhaumik, co-head2,
  3. J. Jaime Miranda, professorial fellow34,
  4. Chelsea Hunnisett, co-chair5,
  5. Claudia Selin Batz, policy and advocacy advisor6,
  6. Emma Feeny, global director6
  1. 1Healthier Societies Program, The George Institute for Global Health, Imperial College London
  2. 2Meta-research and Evidence Synthesis Unit, The George Institute for Global Health, India
  3. 3Health Working Group Systems Science, The George Institute for Global Health, UNSW, Sydney, Australia
  4. 4CRONICAS Centre of Excellence in Chronic Diseases, Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia, Lima, Peru
  5. 5Planetary Health Working Group, The George Institute for Global Health, Sydney, Australia
  6. 6Impact & Engagement, The George Institute for Global Health, Imperial College London, London, UK

On the eve of the United Nations High-Level Political Forum, Kent Buse and colleagues argue that the health of people and planet can only be rescued through government led, structural transformations—but for that to happen we need to re-frame the narrative

When delegates meet this week to discuss fragile progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals, they do so against a bleak backdrop. The line that “climate change is the biggest health challenge of the 21st century” is an understatement. Climate change is not only a challenge to health, but to human development—and even survival.1

The evidence on climate change is indisputable. Ecosystem deterioration already affects more than 40% of the global population, and the climate crisis displaces 20 million people each year. People in low- and middle-income countries, who have contributed the least to global heating, are the most affected.2

Despite the enormity of the challenge, solutions to address the climate crisis are presently framed in terms of personal responsibility; it’s down to each of us to fly less and recycle more in order to save the planet.3 Why is it that this narrative prevails? The short answer is that it works for those who have most to lose—in particular, fossil fuel companies and those who profit from them. It also provides cover for governments in thrall to these companies from taking meaningful action. Much easier to deflect blame and responsibility onto individuals, and keep kicking the can down the road.

The stakes are high. Revenue from fossil fuels is vast. Moreover, globally, fossil fuel subsidies from the public sector were $5.9 trillion or 6.8 percent of GDP in 2020 and are expected to increase to 7.4 percent of GDP in 2025; a staggering sum.4 So, the issue of responsibility for climate change is of existential interest to fossil fuel companies’ profits. But the issue is also a real and present threat to humanity.

The deflection of responsibility and delaying tactics seen with fossil fuel companies are not new to the public health community. They are part of the corporate playbook.5 These tactics—the lobbying of policymakers, distortions of the evidence base, and use of front groups to enhance the credibility of industry positions—were perfected by the tobacco industry and adopted by other harmful commodities companies.6

Sophisticated strategies by the food industry, for example, have successfully shifted the debate from the need to create healthier food environments to shaming individuals for consumption behaviours. Obesity is portrayed as the individual’s fault—the fault of ‘people who are lazy and lack willpower. Not the fault of companies who aggressively market unhealthy products. Nor the fault of governments who fail to impose effective regulation.

Nick Chater and George Loewenstein recently described a range of areas in which industry, with the unwitting and sometimes witting collusion of policy makers and academics, have focused on individual level (i-frame) solutions, deflecting attention and support from structural (or s-frame) solutions.7

We know that government mechanisms such as carbon taxes, improvements in fuel standards, and legislated restrictions on the deforestation of old-growth forests, have reduced environmental impacts far more than any individual, family, or community can achieve in isolation. Even if every person on the planet were to consume a plant based diet, buy less clothing, and minimise air travel, it would only reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25% of what is needed to keep global heating down to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.89 People already perceive they are doing more than governments to protect the planet; for many, making further “lifestyle” changes is not a credible option.10

We need to be clear about who has the power to enact transformative change. This is not to say individual action isn’t important; it is simply an acknowledgment that only governments have the tools to turn this tanker around. We need to reject a misleading and self-harming framing rooted in individualism and personal responsibility, and instead compel governments to implement systems-level (s-frame) solutions to address the climate crisis.

We need ambitious, evidence-informed, structural reforms, with mechanisms to monitor processes independently at both domestic and global levels. An immediate end to fossil fuel subsidies would be an excellent place to start, together with a phasing out of the carbon credit or “net zero” system that allows corporations and governments to pay their emissions away, instead of eliminating them.11

It’s time to commit the business of government to the health and wellbeing of people and planet, rather than the profits of fossil fuel companies that have “humanity by the throat,” as the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said.12 With the climate crisis putting the entire Sustainable Development agenda in jeopardy, it’s time for governments meeting at the HLPF this week to step up, claim the narrative and take action.


  • Competing interests: none declared.

  • Provenance and peer review: not commissioned, not peer reviewed.