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You Can't Save the Climate by Shrinking Your Carbon Footprint
Written by <a href="index.php?option=com_comprofiler&task=userProfile&user=38755"><span class="small">Eric Levitz, New York Magazine</span></a>   
Tuesday, 26 February 2019 14:30

Levitz writes: "Last week, Mother Jones columnist Kevin Drum informed his readers that they do not really believe in climate change."

Coming down is the hardest thing. (photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty Images)
Coming down is the hardest thing. (photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

You Can't Save the Climate by Shrinking Your Carbon Footprint

By Eric Levitz, New York Magazine

26 February 19


ast week, Mother Jones columnist Kevin Drum informed his readers that they do not really believe in climate change. His argument was simple (and specious):

If you truly believe that climate change will broil the planet in the next 50 years or so, the very least you should do is immediately get rid of your car and adopt a vegan diet. How many of you have done that? How many of you have even considered it? Virtually none of you. And like I said, that’s just a start. If you’re really serious, you should also toss out your air conditioning; only heat your house if temps are down in the 40s; never travel anywhere by plane; buy local food; and install rooftop solar … It seems as though I’m being facetious here, but I’m not. With current technology, this is what it would take from all of us to make a serious dent in climate change. And you’re not doing it. Neither am I.

This is the sort of reasoning one expects from libertarian undergrads, not progressive pundits. After all, the latter typically recognize that an individual might rationally accept shared sacrifice — which is to say, sacrifice at a scale commensurate with realizing a collective good — but reject personal concessions that have an extremely low probability of making a social difference. Thus, one can genuinely support a more expansive welfare state funded by higher taxes without donating money to the federal government each year, or support a federal housing guarantee without turning your basement into a makeshift homeless shelter. With climate change, the pointlessness of individual action is especially acute. If you accept the scientific consensus on warming, then you know your personal carbon footprint is a drop in the rising sea. So, why on earth would you feel compelled to lower your quality of life for the sake of cutting carbon emissions by a wholly negligible amount?

To his credit, Drum eventually transitions to a more cogent argument, suggesting that neither he nor his readers would “vote for anyone who we thought might force us to live like this” (i.e., without air conditioning or air travel). It is certainly true that even the left has little interest in asking Americans accept lower living standards for the climate’s sake; the Green New Deal is self-consciously anti-austerian, promising that emissions reductions and material uplift can go hand in hand. It is also true that “with current technology” this promise is not credible. But Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez & Co. want to radically increase investment in renewable energy technology. If Drum has specific reasons for believing that technological innovation cannot possibly obviate the need for reducing middle-income Americans’ quality of life — or, say, effectively prohibiting India from fully industrializing — he should make that case. But he shouldn’t suggest that the fate of our planet depends on your dinner choices, rather than on the international community’s political ones.

Alas, this compulsion to scold individual progressives for the carbon intensity of their consumption habits isn’t peculiar to Drum. As some bitter Hillary Clinton campaign staffers revealed to Politico Monday:

In his campaign launch video last week, Bernie Sanders singled out the fossil fuel industry for criticism, listing it among the special interests he planned to take on. But in the final months of the 2016 campaign, Sanders repeatedly requested and received the use of a carbon-spewing private jet for himself and his traveling staff when he served as a surrogate campaigner for Hillary Clinton.

… In 2016, after Sanders endorsed Clinton and agreed to campaign on her behalf, the Sanders campaign’s preferred mode of travel quickly emerged as a point of tension, according to six former Clinton campaign staffers and another source familiar with the travel. Those who had worked on his primary campaign made it known that the only logistical way Sanders could adhere to the event schedules requested by the Clinton campaign was by flying private. The Clinton campaign, however, viewed the private jet flights as a needless extravagance and wanted the senator to mostly fly commercial.

The ostensible argument of this piece — that voters who favor serious action on climate change should be wary of supporting Bernie Sanders because the socialist senator insisted on a slightly less carbon-efficient mode of flying in 2016 — is a parody of environmentalist appeals to conscious consumption. If Donald Trump had a morbid fear of flying and traveled everywhere by Tesla, would that make his presidency less damaging for the climate, in any meaningful sense? If not, then what relevance does Bernie’s affinity for private planes have on his credentials as a climate candidate? America doesn’t need a president who composts. It needs one willing to prioritize decarbonization over deficit reduction, the profitability of entrenched industries, and other geopolitical goals. If such a president also likes to “roll coal” on the weekends, no one who accepts the reality of climate change should care.

Now, none of this is to say that Sanders is an ideal climate candidate. His private plane use is of no real consequence, but his past opposition to nuclear power certainly could be. Similarly, Drum is right that progressives do not behave as though they believe their own rhetoric on climate change. But this hypocrisy isn’t demonstrated by their refusal to forgo air-conditioning; it’s demonstrated by their failure to organize hunger strikes on the White House lawn.

With a problem like climate, the personal isn’t political. And the political is what’s critical.

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Last Updated on Tuesday, 26 February 2019 15:00


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+11 # lfeuille 2019-02-27 00:09
His opposition to nuclear is right. It may not cause climate change but it nevertheless holds dangers to life on earth and is much more expensive than wind and solar.
+8 # USADUDE 2019-02-27 03:10
My rooftop solar power system is now 17 years old. My hybrid car is 11. We eat mostly vegan with some fish. I’m not perfect ok maybe perfectly flawed. I personally think the thresholds have been crossed and this civilization like many in history will collapse. What seems clear is our best estimates always seem too optimistic as the rate of melting clacier ice only seems to accelerate. I’m glad I don’t have children. The planet doesn’t need more “fucking people”. People are the problem. We fail to learn, at our peril, how to live in peace and harmony with each other and the biosphere.
+5 # treerapper 2019-02-27 03:39
Lots of opinions thrown together here but the final paragraph shows that the article's author has missed many relevant points. Indicating that "opposition to nuclear power" makes Sanders a less than ideal climate candidate is irrational at best. Nuclear anything is tantamount to disaster, both from mining the uranium to the waste product. What would the author has us do - create more depleted uranium weapons so they can continue to contaminate environments and kill people all over the world. Ridiculous summation of an article that struggled to make its point.
+4 # DongiC 2019-02-27 05:50
Given the nature of the peril that is approaching us, articles like this are kind of stupid. We need decisive leadership which will point out how much we have to do and have to suffer if we are to have any chance at all of a reasonable future or maybe any future at all. Let's all get serious about what we are facing, then we can project some idea about how much we need to give up. Whatever we must sacrifice, it is worth it! And, our future generations demand it.
+3 # economagic 2019-02-27 07:02
"This is the sort of reasoning one expects from libertarian undergrads, not progressive pundits."

Since when is Kevin Drum "progressive"? Was Eric Levitz on some other planet throughout the aughts?
+5 # RLF 2019-02-27 07:46
Once again we see the Kevin Drums of the world telling us everything we should do but quit having children. I graduated from high school in 1977...planet population around 4 around 8.5 billion. There is a word for this kind of growth...cancer ous! The only excuses for having more children are economic and ridicules. The economists presume that expansion forever is the future forever...Yeah! Right!
+7 # they said what? 2019-02-27 10:08
This promotion of nuclear power as necessary to reduce carbon use is nonsense. The amount of carbon used to build the plant, and the toxicity of uranium at all stages of its use - mining, preparation, use and disposal - make nuclear power a no-go. Promoting nuclear power is exchanging the immediate threat of climate change for the long-term threat of damaging all living things through the genetic and cellular damage caused by radioactive materials. There was no life on earth until background radiation levels decreased to levels compatible with living creatures.

If you read about short-term and long-term effects of radiation exposures - a little bit all the time over long periods of time, versus a lot all at once - you can learn about this.

To reduce climate change risk we have to re-structure how we use energy and how we do things, and that means everything. 100% renewable energy is PART of it. Radically reducing energy use (stop building all-glass buildings, for one thing) is another. Restructuring agriculture to be regenerative and soil-building, not soil-destructiv e, is another (regenerative folks can build INCHES of soil a year, not the inch every century that USDA talks about). We have the knowledge to do this NOW. What is lacking is political will.

And if we do it all at once, as suggested in drafts of the New Green Deal, we "solve" a lot of problems at once - since they are all basically symptoms of the same problem.