The manipulation behind the term ‘carbon footprint’ | Whale’s Tales

“Carbon footprint” was the crowning achievement of an advertising campaign.

I have found that studying words and phrases, asking when they first popped up and why they popped up, can be eye-opening.

Lately I’ve been chewing over the now-common phrase “carbon footprint” and asking myself, where’d it come from?

Well, I know it entered the vernacular in the early 2000s as the global warming debate began to heat up as a way to measure one’s personal impact on the world’s climate.

But where’d it come from?

The answer surprised me. Mark Kaufman, a columnist for the Mashable Social Good Series, revealed on the online publication’s website in August 2020 that “carbon footprint” was the crowning achievement of an advertising campaign.

Turns out that British Petroleum, or BP, “hired the public relations professionals Ogilvy & Mather to promote the slant that climate change,” as Kaufman noted, is not the fault of oil giants like itself, but of individuals like you and me.

Yes, BP, “the second largest, non-state owned oil company in the world, with 18,700 gas and service stations worldwide,” shifted the onus for doing something about global warming onto us, Kaufman wrote.

In 2004, the company even rolled out its “carbon footprint calculator” so one could assess how his or her daily life affected climate change. And the phrase stuck.

Danged nice of BP, eh?

Today, it’s common to read comments on social media castigating the consumption habits of outspoken environmentalists and holding them largely responsible for heating the globe when the discussion turns to climate change, ripping them for traveling on planes, for going to work, for buying food.

Perhaps some climate snobs deserve it.

As Rebecca Solnit, a columnist for Guardian US, wrote in Aug. 2021:

“Personal virtue is an eternally seductive goal in progressive movements, and the climate movement is no exception. People pop up all the time to boast of their domestic arrangements or chastise others for what they eat or how they get around,” Solnit wrote.

But, as Kaufman wrote, the goal of personal virtue is merely not to be part of the problem.

“It’s not good enough for a bystander to say, ‘I personally am not murdering this person’ when someone is being stabbed to death before them — and those of us in the global north have countless ties to systems that are murdering the climate, so we are not exactly bystanders. The goal for those of us with any kind of resources of time, rights and a voice, must be being part of the solution, pushing for system change. To stop the murder.”

This was clearly a well thought out campaign to supersize the individual’s responsibility and diminish that of Big Oil. That’s how Big Oil would like you to think it works. But it isn’t.

Because as Kaufman, himself a mathematician, said, private individual actions don’t increase at a fast enough rate to affect global warming in a timely fashion. Collective action seeking changes in policy and law can. In other words, democracy.

“Say you have a certain amount of time and money with which to make change — call it x, since that is what we mathematicians call things,” Kaufman wrote. “The trick is to increase that x by multiplication, not addition.”

The trick, he continued, is to take that 5 percent of people who really care and make them count for far more than 5 percent.

“The main reason to defeat the fossil fuel corporations,” Kaufman said, “is that their product is destroying the planet, but their insidious propaganda, from spreading climate-change denial to pushing this climate footprint business, makes this goal even more worthwhile.”

I write here because like many of you, I despise manipulation. And this was clearly what happened here. The minds behind this campaign had to have factored into it our gullibility, and larded in generous helpings of contempt for our intelligence. Sadly, they were right — we swallowed it hook, line and snooker.

As The Who sang: “I get on my knees and pray: we don’t get fooled again.”

Robert Whale can be reached at