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On GreenPeace, defeatism, and the nature of human progress

evolution.jpgBelow is a reprint of a post I wrote a little while back for Grist in which I noted that most individuals will never make the sort of dramatic lifestyle changes in response to climate change that many environmentalists are hoping for, and that fortunately they probably won’t have to. The post got an unexpected reaction. It was meant to be fundamentally optimistic, but some took it as fundamentally defeatist.

I understand the reaction, although I think it was at least partially overblown. I am quite obviously not, as a few suggested, arguing against the possibility of human progress. The stuff I’m talking about is far more prosaic. Do you think in ten years that the average television screen will be bigger or smaller than it is today? I say bigger. That’s the type of stuff I’m talking about, not, say, the spread of human rights.

But partly the reaction reflects a legitimate debate that can be had over what constitutes a “significant” change in consumer behavior. Clearly changes do occur over time. What instigates these changes, and how do they make the transition from fringe to mainstream?

I think I’m correct in my belief that history has rarely if ever witnessed significant voluntary shifts in consumer behavior in response to environmental concerns — particularly shifts that require paying more or doing without. But it’s interesting to consider exceptions to this pattern. Some of the more obvious examples seem like red herrings to me. The success of the organic food industry, for example, is probably more related to health and quality considerations than environmental ones (although that doesn’t diminish the environmental value of these products).

Read the original post, and let me know your thoughts.

* * *

Virgin Blue, the Australian extension of Richard Branson’s airline empire, recently launched a program to allow passengers to purchase carbon offsets when they book a flight.

That’s nice. But what struck me was this quote from Greenpeace’s energy campaigner, Ben Pearson:

Virgin should not be criticized out of hand for this scheme, but it promotes the idea that dealing with climate change is easy and cheap rather than being about the difficult task of changing consumer behavior, government policy and investment.

Let’s take the Pepsi Challenge. Pretend I just told you that I have a problem that I’d like your help in fixing. To address this problem, we have to pick a course of action. Which course of action sounds more appealing to you:

  1. Easy. Cheap.
  2. Difficult task. Changing consumer behavior. Government policy. Investment.

I confess that I find criticisms like Ben Pearson’s utterly baffling. Of course addressing climate change will be difficult. Of course it will require changes to consumer behavior. It most certainly will require government policy and investment.

But if carbon offsets work as a way to engage individuals (who, let’s recall, are not the ones actually making government policy or infrastructure investments) on the issue of climate change and also convince them that solutions are attainable — that’s a good thing!

It is the precisely the people who would have us do nothing who are shouting most loudly about the price tag. Dealing with climate change will entail enormous pain and sacrifice, they want us to know. And Greenpeace’s message is: “We agree. This is going to totally suck. Let’s get to it!”

What makes this criticism doubly odd is that it’s most likely wrong. Consumers will never significantly change their behavior, and they probably won’t have to. Let’s say we decided to ban incandescent light bulbs and double CAFE standards tomorrow. The result would be massive energy savings through technology switching, with no discernible changes to consumer behavior.

Better lights and cars alone won’t solve the climate change problem, of course, but various studies have put the total cost of achieving the necessary carbon reductions to be somewhere around a single percent of global GDP or less.

In other words, easy and cheap.

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