May 11, 2011

Going green is pointless

Ok, deliberately provocative title.  Let me make the point clear: I'm saying personal moves toward lower greenhouse gas emissions are not going to avert major climate change, and probably won't even reduce emissions by that much.
Dick "personal virtue" Cheney.  (Let's not forget that this guy was and is a fevered ego tainting our collective unconscious.)

How can you say that?  Do you not believe in global warming?  On the contrary, that science has been settled for twenty years and is only becoming more alarming.  I am an aggressive climate hawk.

Doesn't the US, as the world's most profligate polluter, have a moral responsibility to avoid environmental devastation that will largely fall on poor countries?  Absolutely.  Climate change will, if not stopped, be one of the greatest moral failings in human history.

Ok then, smartass, what's wrong with trying to reduce my carbon footprint?  Nothing!  If it assuages your conscience, go for it.  I'm just saying that the traditional method of dealing with such a problem—raising awareness and so forth, a method that worked great to reduce smoking prevalence—won't do much good overall in this case.  Energy is sewn into the fabric of the economy at every level, and not everyone is inclined or can afford to reduce their carbon footprint.  You personally emitting less is good, but what you're also doing is making it cheaper for other people to emit more at the margin.

So what's your brilliant strategy? I look at developed countries with much lower emissions than the US—countries like Denmark—and I see the obvious strategy for reducing carbon emissions, namely massive government action.  Tax the everloving bejesus out of carbon and spend the proceeds on public transport, renewable energy subsidies, and the other infrastructure investments necessary to phase out fossil fuel use.  It would be a tough time for some people, but the plans have already been figured out.  What's more, with such a strategy one doesn't have to continually convince a bunch of recalcitrant tea party types to drive a Prius and eat vegetarian.

As Felix Salmon said the other day:
One message I did get from the panel is that individual attempts to minimize our carbon footprint are not going to make any real difference. When I see people suffering a significant loss of utility because they’re watching their footprint and refuse to fly, for instance, it’s pretty clear that the personal cost of their decision is much greater than any global benefit. Even if they act as a role model and persuade others to follow their lead, they’re still perpetuating the idea that individual actions count. And I’m not sure there’s any evidence for that. Especially when the single most carbon-intensive thing that anybody can do — having children — is the last thing that they ever will (or should) give up for the sake of the planet.
Emphasis mine. This has to be a collective thing if it's going to have even a prayer of working. The biggest things standing in humanity's way right now are the US Senate and a bunch of deluded, anti-science denialist Republicans.


    I drive my 12mpg blue exhaust spewing toyota straight to the polls to vote for the guy who'll tell me I can't do it.

  2. Nice article! I'll keep that one bookmarked for future posts.