Paging Nordhaus and Shellenberger


This New York Times editorial says a bunch of stuff that I agree with, in a way that doesn’t seem helpful at all:

The overriding environmental issue of these times is the warming of the planet. The Democratic hopefuls in the 2008 campaign are fully engaged, calling for large — if still unquantified — national sacrifices and for a transformation in the way the country produces and uses energy.

The term “sacrifice” gets bandied about a lot, mostly as a way to lend moral seriousness to arguments about climate change. Are you merely paying lip service to the issue, or are you willing to lay down the hard truths?

Of course, no one really knows how much sacrifice will be required. Economic projections of the cost of dealing with climate change put the value somewhere around “not terribly much.” But who knows? It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.

The bigger problem is that the term “sacrifice” misrepresents the process. Decarbonizing involves millions of consumers and businesses making billions of small consumption decisions in response to price signals, just as they do every day.

Sacrifice implies giving up a bunch of stuff that you enjoy now and probably like a lot. Imagine lining up your 10 favorite toys and then picking three that you have to throw away. Isn’t that sad? In the real world, though, we make such choices all the time. Only we don’t call them sacrifices. Last night, for example, I opted to consume pizza rather than sushi, in part because pizza was cheaper. Yes, I nobly sacrificed my desire for yuppie food treats on the altar of caloric efficiency. Don’t call me a hero. I’m just a regular guy in extraordinary circumstances.

I’m not trying to be glib. Sushi is a luxury item, and energy is not. Increases in the price of energy are highly regressive. And, frankly, I am a little bit poorer in the technical sense for having to restrict my dinner options.

But let’s not exaggerate the situation. Reducing carbon emissions isn’t like living in war-time London. Every day we make consumption choices, based on the relative price of goods. Bike or drive? Steak or chicken? Insulate the attic or repave the driveway? If we put a price on carbon, millions of these decisions will start to break a different way. Consumers will look for substitute goods that provide similar benefits at lower costs. Producers will rush to meet this shift in demand by wringing carbon out of their supply chains.

Why cast this process in the worst rhetorical light possible? I guess you could call it sacrifice, but to paraphrase some deep environmental thinkers, I call it life.

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  1. Linda Stanley - January 7, 2008

    While you debate whether US citizens will ever get motivated, I have plenty of motivated people.
    We are Orphans International World wide.
    In Haiti we need lots of Sun Ovens ( ) so our poor families raising foster kids can save 25% to 35% of their income that is now being spent for fuel for cooking and boiling water. These ovens are assembled in Cap Hatian, Haiti at the lowest cost possible… $160.
    The are high quality, and insulated so you can start cooking and go to work and return to a hot, safely cooked, meal. The ovens have a tempered glass lid and a thermostat, and are warranted for 15 years. I can give away thousands. I have access to the ovens, I can oversee the training and distribution.
    In just one household, actively using the oven, the $160. oven saves $500. to $1000. in fuel costs each year, and fuel costs are inflating.

    Kerosene, charcoal and wood are depleted in Haiti and very costly. Haiti will never get reforested until every family is using sun ovens. There are 200 sun ovens in Cap Hatian right now, ready for distribution. Our orphans are in Gonaives, Haiti. Can you raise the $32,000. needed to get this started? Or $160.?

    Linda Stanley
    Executive Director

  2. Paul Severance - January 9, 2008

    I’m not enough of an expert to know how much sacrifice it will take to solve or even seriously mitigate global warming, but I am suspicious of claims that it won’t require real sacrifice of us. I can’t imagine that we Americans can continue to consume anything like the huge % of the world’s resources we consume without serious consequences for the future of humanity at home and around the world.
    I do believe that we must truly dedicate ourselves to the welfare of future generations, and that will require us a good bit of our consumer gratification – and I hope for their sake that we will be willing to make that sacrifice.

  3. Diane - January 9, 2008

    I think that the first thing that must be sacrificed is not so much precious “quality of life” stuff as obliviousness.

    Americans (and probably even most of us who DO care and try) make most of our decisions based on convenience, how we’ve always done it, price, etc., but not carbon emissions. I don’t know how hard that’s going to be, but so far – it looks hard.

    To put it in a positive light, we have to gain mindfulness (which will involve demanding more options). I don’t think sacrificing cluelessness will hurt too much – but an awful lot of people do cling to theirs!

  4. Adam Stein - January 9, 2008

    Diane —
    I have another positive spin to put on the issues you’re perceptively raising. Hopefully very soon carbon will have a price on it, at which point Americans will automatically become conservationists simply by taking cost and convenience into account, much as they always have.
    This is an oversimplification, to be sure, but it’s really hard to overstate how important it is for carbon to carry a cost!
    – Adam

  5. robie - January 9, 2008

    I think the biggest hump to get over here in terms of sacrifice is the sense of entitlement people feel towards consumption (mostly in the states). The USA has had a multi generational era of abundance and we have very high expectations when it comes to creature comfort. If we as individuals can set realistic examples of responsible living then it may be easier for all people to not sacrifice, but live within their means and save more and have a better lifestyle in the end. rb

  6. Monty - January 9, 2008

    I have to agree that anyone who thinks we (Americans) can get anywhere toward solving climate change without true ‘sacrifice’ (and I mean that with the most negative context possible) is living in a dream world. Examples:
    1. Arguably, one of the biggest contributors to climate change is airline travel. It is not a surprise that climate change did not start to become a problem until we started treating a flight to the other side of the country like a trip to the grocery store. The only short-term fix to this problem is for people to fly less. Dramatically less. This is real ‘sacrifice’, and I have not seen any progress on this item (in fact, we seem to be going backward).
    2. One of the easiest ways to reduce a carbon footprint is to use less hot water and have a max temp on the thermostat at 68 degrees (when a room is occupied). It does not cost a cent and will have a dramatic effect on carbon output. Yet, I have never visited a home set to 68 (aside from our own), and have never met anyone else who turns off the water when lathering in the shower.
    My point is that freezing your tush when showering and skipping plane travel each holiday to see family is truly ‘sacrifice’. In the short term using that word may mean people have a negative view of what the greenies are doing, but eventually we are all going to have to come around on this. Giving up the annual vacations to Disney World is truly step one toward fixing the problem, and you would be hard pressed to convince me that we (a) don’t need to give that up or (b) it will not be interpreted as sacrifice.

  7. Jackie - January 9, 2008

    My thermostat is set on OFF most of the time. Granted, I live in a somewhat moderate climate in the marine Northwest, with winter temps generally in the 40s. Still, I wear sweaters and wool socks, and use a warm wool afghan when I am sitting. It ain’t that bad!

  8. Donald Shank - January 10, 2008

    Living in a carbon fueled age is the real sacrifice. We sacrifice our time, labor, health, families, peace and the planet to maintain a constant stream of consumer goods which will head straight to the landfill when the next fad, fashion or technological tweaking comes along. We work ever longer hours to surround ourselves with “labor saving” gadgets.
    In a post-carbon economy, we’ll have to content ourselves with sustainable activities such as art, science, literature, music, theatre, gardening, hiking, swimming, sailing, kayaking and spending more time with family and friends.
    Which era sounds like a time of sacrifice to you?

  9. Ed - January 12, 2008

    It’s hard to know what to believe regarding how much less fossil fuel energy we’ll have to consume in order for carbon in the atmosphere to stabilize. One place I read that Americans will have to cut their emissions by as much as 80% from 1990 levels.
    I can’t see that happening on a mass scale. Terrapassers seem to be actively trying to limit their footprint, but are any of us using 80% (by now probably 90%) less than we were a few years ago? And look at your neighbors. Does anyone seem to be using less? I see people talking to friends as their car idles. You’ve observed people driving up and down the rows at the mall looking for a closer spot. My former neighbor used to drive (about 50 yards) to get his mail. I heard a guy at a motor home rendezvous say that gas could get to $20 a gallon and these people would still drive their trailers.
    How often have you walked into a building that was 80+ degrees in winter, and so cold in summer there was condensation on the windows? People who say they can’t sleep unless it’s under blankets.
    We’ve gotten used to comfort and convenience. And people who don’t have it want it.
    It seems we’re waiting for a technological fix that won’t alter our choices.
    Perhaps Richard Branson’s offer of $25 million to the creator of an invention that pulls carbon out of the atmosphere will result in the magic bullet. We can hope.