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Making the perfect the enemy of the good

ikea-bag.jpgThe New York Times digs into the trend of companies who make it easy for their customers to purchase offsets or pay for other environmental goods at the point of sale. Expedia sells flight offsets. IKEA charges for plastic bags. Whole Foods markets wind power cards. Etc.

And the article contains the customary criticism from environmentalists who worry that offsets are a distraction from more substantive action:

“Helping consumers buy offsets is feel-good environmentalism that lets people duck out of responsibility for changing their behavior,” said Michael J. Brune, the executive director of Rainforest Action Network.

Mr. Becker of the Sierra Club is blunter: “People view offsets as papal indulgences that let them make environmentally bad decisions.”

It’s easy to see the logic of these assertions. It’s just as easy to see the flaw. Namely, people are already making bad environmental decisions all on their own. Most of us have sixth-degree black belts in ducking responsibility. We don’t need encouragement from offsets, and there’s absolutely no evidence to suggest that offsets do, in fact, cause people to become environmentally lazy.

That said, I can understand the frustration that many environmentalists feel. From their point of view, society as a whole has to make serious, large-scale changes to its habits if we are to achieve aggressive, near-term progress on climate change.

Unfortunately, society doesn’t want to make serious, large-scale changes to its habits. People pretty much like things the way they are now, and they don’t feel much urgency to change. This has always been the problem, and it’s a big problem. Even people who buy offsets are still deeply embedded in an energy-hungry economy. In light of this frustrating fact, it’s easy to knock offsets.

The article is actually pretty evenhanded about this issue: “Most environmentalists concede that consumers are unlikely to make radical changes. But many also contend that the programs let consumers vote with their pocketbooks for carbon constraints.”

And it ends with a nice quote about the upside:

As Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, put it, “These programs get the idea across that individuals are neither blameless nor helpless, and can really make a difference.”

I’d go a bit further. It would be really interesting to survey consumer attitudes on a number of issues related to climate change, and attempt to gauge differences between offset buyers and non-offset buyers. My hunch is that offset buyers would be quite a bit more engaged on a whole host of climate change-related topics, even controlling for other factors such as geography and political persuasion.

Mind you, I’m not saying offset buyers are more engaged than career environmentalists. That’s not the right comparison set. Rather, I’m guessing offset-buyers — our customers — are more engaged than the average concerned citizen.

The survey I’m envisioning would cover a range of issues. Basic science: how well do people understand the mechanisms and effects of climate change? Personal contribution: do people know their own carbon footprint, and do they know where it comes from? Policy sophistication: how well do people grasp basic policy issues such as the notion of putting a price on carbon, the carbon intensity of various energy sources, global sources of carbon emissions, etc.? Personal conservation: what measures have people taken in their own lives to reduce carbon emissions?

I don’t really know how such a survey would turn out, but I’m pretty confident it would demonstrate at least one thing: people who buy offsets are not using them to justify environmentally bad decisions.

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