Telling stories about carbon

I'ts hard to find images that illustrate abstract conceptsThe two recent New York Times articles about carbon offsets — one depicting them as part of a sensible plan for reducing climage change impact, the other depicting them as indulgences for lazy environmentalists — got me thinking about the ways we talk about carbon trading, and how these narratives can influence our opinions.

Grist has been thinking along similar lines, conjecturing that real action on climate change has far more to do with public relations (or “decision science,” as they delicately put it) than with climate science. But what really struck a chord was Malcolm Gladwell’s recent New Yorker piece on the different ways that people explain their actions to one another.

In Gladwell’s quick retelling, people offer up four different kinds of explanations. The first are appeals to convention, whether social conventions or just conventional wisdom. These are the explanations that simply say, “This is the way things are done.” The second type are stories, which offer a very specific account of cause and effect and tend to emphasize the personal. The third type are appeals to code, which are similar to conventions, but more formalized. Legal or corporate procedures are types of codes. The fourth type of explanation is a technical account, which relies on specialized knowledge to argue for a more precise or deeper causality.

Read the original article for more details. But the important point Gladwell makes is that we run into problems when we counter one type of explanation with another. Carbon offsets provide a good example.

Detractors routinely fall back on a story-based explanation of why carbon credits are wrong. They invoke the SUV-driving urbanite who refuses to make any personal sacrifices for the environment, but will gladly (and usually smugly) pay a small guilt tax to duck responsibility for the problem. It’s a compelling story, and no less so for the fact that it is almost entirely fictional.

We happen to like carbon credits a lot, but our reasons for liking them are primarily technical. If you get deep in the weeds of how pollution markets function, you come to understand that they can be a remarkably effective tool for reducing emissions, while at the same time cutting through a thicket of economic, political, and bureaucratic issues. In other words, we like them because they work.

It comes as little surprise that technical explanations are often a weak rejoinder to story-based explanations. Which is why we don’t emphasize them, and instead tell our own story about the hybrid owner who conserves as much as possible and uses carbon offsets to balance out the rest. Our story is more accurate than the detractor’s story — our sales skew towards hybrids — but unfortunately it doesn’t have quite the same visceral punch.

There’s also the trickier case of the pollution-belching utility company that uses offsets to achieve carbon neutrality. This story truly rankles some people, and unfortunately the only appropriate response really is the technical one: pollution markets work precisely because they put an explicit price on the objectionable activity, allowing polluters to make an economically efficient choice between “real” reductions or “purchased” reductions. It might seem distasteful, but under the appropriate circumstances, the system works very effectively to reduce harmful pollutants.

And to us, that seems like the best argument of all.

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  1. Tom Harrison - May 7, 2006

    This is a great post, as it honestly accepts the reality of carbon offsets. I was writing about another program in my blog today and trying to make sense of the economics. It’s far from simple; there are few absolutes. But the energy and global warming issues have no single solutions: at every level from personal, corporate, state and global, we need to address the problem using a variety of incremental solutions. Some will be more important, but all are necessary.
    Carbon offsets are just one means of shifting the economic tide in favor of greater efficiency. Sure, additional energy in the form of renewables creates greater supply of energy so lower prices, so increased consumption. But the economics are gnarly, and never as simple. It’s hard to know how to measure all the externalities that are affected, and audited or not, your numbers are hard to pin down.
    But at this point, who cares what the real numbers are? We know that there’s a problem, and we can take small, incremental actions to improve things. The magnitude of the US government’s non-actions and negative actions can seem overwhelming. But the nice thing is, we can change this.
    Two things are happening: the balance of power is shifting, if just a little, but mostly just raising awareness has benefit. If a few SUV owners feel better, well, they should. But if they vote for political leaders who recognize how important energy is, then the TerraPass program will have made a tremendous difference.

  2. Reed Braman - May 11, 2006

    I look at it this way. I want to support renewable energy. I can’t afford a wind turbine (even the small ones), I (unfortunately) can’t purchase wind power from my electric company, so this provides a format for me to use my dollars to support renewables. I admit that it may not be the most efficient use of my money, but it still accomplishes the goal and gives me a warm fuzzy feeling while I sip my coffee and read the terrablog. Or maybe it’s just the coffee.

  3. Adam - May 11, 2006

    It’s definitely the TerraBlog.