Last Sunday's New York Times honed in on the dubious practice of Americans buying carbon offsets to brand themselves carbon-neutral. Andy Revkin, the paper's global-warming reporter, quoted me saying, "There isn't a single American household above the poverty line that couldn't cut their CO2 at least 25 percent in six months through a straightforward series of fairly simple and terrifically cost-effective measures." My claim has hit a nerve. Despite the absence of a link, already a dozen readers have tracked me down on the web and written to ask what measures I have in mind. This article is for them and anyone else who might be interested. First, a confession. As often happens, assertion preceded analysis. But my claim didn't come from thin air -- I have experience in energy analysis and a feel for the numbers. With a bit of figuring, I made a list of 16 energy-saving (hence carbon-reducing) steps that together should do away with a bit more than one-quarter of a typical U.S. household's carbon emissions. The top five:
What's a percent or two? Or three? Not much, sometimes. But a lot when we're talking about carbon dioxide emissions that are throwing earth's climate out of whack. And quite a lot when effort is going into ranking emission sources to help prioritize our responses to the climate crisis. These thoughts are occasioned by a scoop in the Guardian (U.K.) reporting that world shipping -- essentially, freighters and tankers moving goods and raw materials -- accounts for "up to 5% of the global total" of carbon emissions. "CO2 output from shipping [is] twice as much as airlines," shouts the Guardian headline, in light of the 2-3 percent share of emissions associated with air travel. Goodness, a dozen eco-blogs seemed to mutter in unison, have we been barking up the wrong tree? Were we wrong to hammer globe-girdling celebs and fret over cheap air fares, instead of targeting ships carrying shirts from Bangkok to Berlin and plasma screens from Seoul to San Francisco? Well, not so fast.
At the Carbon Tax Center, we're forever on the lookout for new and outsized ways in which Americans are using energy. Too often, today's novelty item is just a clever marketing campaign away from tomorrow's sizable carbon emitter. Witness high-definition televisions, or Jet Skis. If history is a guide, efficiency standards to govern new devices' fuel consumption won't be promulgated until after they have proliferated -- if ever. Carbon taxes, in contrast, could help rein in new products' energy requirements from the get-go, i.e., in the design stage. Where a product has little redeeming social value, the price signals from a carbon tax might even keep it from gaining a toehold in the culture. These thoughts came to mind when we read an article in The New York Times (sub. rq.) last week about suburbia's latest must-have energy-guzzlers: home snowmaking machines.
Yesterday Gristmill ran a curious article by Bill Chameides of Environmental Defense, attacking a carbon tax strawman that no one is advocating, least of all the Carbon Tax Center (CTC). Chameides stated that the "government would use additional tax dollars to subsidize the development of selected low-carbon technologies." We invite him to look at CTC's proposed carbon tax, which is revenue-neutral. Revenues will go to reduce regressive taxes or to finance progressive, equal rebates to all U.S. residents. Contrary to Chameides' charge, we have never advocated targeting tax revenues to any technology, privileged or otherwise. Nor, to our knowledge, have the Washington Post's Anne Applebaum, whom he also took to task, or the dozens of columnists, economists, scientists, and other public figures who support taxing carbon.
With the new IPCC report finally out in the world, climate activists can again focus on action. What do we do now? I say, first let's cut through the defeatism that's posing as realism, as in this article in yesterday's L.A. Times, "Game over on global warming?": Everybody in the United States could switch from cars to bicycles. The Chinese could close all their factories. Europe could give up electricity and return to the age of the lantern. But all those steps together would not come close to stopping global warming. Really? I ran the numbers and came up with a 17-18% reduction in global CO2 emissions (4.3% from zapping U.S. cars, 7.7% for closing Chinese factories, 5.6% for converting European electricity to wind). Hasn't the Times heard of harm reduction? Every percentage drop in emissions will translate into some mitigation in sea level rises, violent storms, and other harms from global warming. No less vexing, for this writer, was Robert Reich's blog reaction to the IPCC report. The former Clinton Secretary of Labor hadn't even finished his lead paragraph when he threw in the towel: "You can forget a carbon tax any time soon." C'mon, Bob. Don't mourn, organize. Surrendering just when a political critical mass is assembling to attack carbon emissions is, well, un-American. A carbon tax is essential, and the work of coaxing the public and pressuring policymakers has to start now. There's just no alternative.
New crises demand new modes of thought. In the early 20th century, scientists were baffled by the paradox that the speed of light never changes, even if the observer is rushing toward the light source. Einstein resolved the crisis by redefining time from a constant to a variable. In the mid-20th Century, America was struggling to escape its centuries-old legacy of slavery and segregation. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement found us all a way forward, by redefining racism as an assault on the souls of whites as well as blacks. Today, America's and the world's prodigal use of fossil fuels is creating twin crises: a climate crisis from emissions of heat-trapping pollution into the atmosphere, and a security crisis self-created by the industrial world's thirst for other people's oil. We can solve both crises, but only if we relinquish deep-seated beliefs about fuels and energy. And the attitude we must fling overboard first is our sense of entitlement to cheap energy. We need to recognize that energy does not cost too much; in fact, it doesn't cost nearly enough. To preserve Earth's climate, and wrest political authority from the corporate oil barons and petrodollar sheiks, we must conserve fuel massively and permanently, starting now. The United States, the biggest consumer of coal, oil, and gas by far, probably needs to cut back by 75% within just two decades. Yet so long as energy is cheap it will never be conserved, except in token and totally inadequate amounts. Energy-efficiency standards are often held out as the alternative to higher fuel prices. Standards have proven modestly valuable in some sectors, and going forward they can be a helpful supplement to price-based conservation. But by themselves, standards will never come close to achieving the necessary reductions in energy usage. For every activity that is brought under efficiency standards, dozens of others will elude regulatory control, either through industry "gaming" or due to the creative unruliness of consumer capitalism, forever finding new ways to burn fuels. (Cases in point: the "light truck" loophole to CAFE standards that spawned the SUV plague, and the advent of flights-by-the-hour air travel that consumes even more fuel per passenger.) The lesson should be clear: whether the resource is muscles, water, fuel, or time, we humans squander what's plentiful and husband only what's dear. To be sure, few people in public life have yet articulated the need to make energy expensive. One prominent advocate missing in action so far is Ralph Nader, the activist icon and two-time Green Party candidate for president.
Dumb me. I went to the Zappa Plays Zappa concert last month. Great show, with Dweezil faithfully channeling his dad Frank. But I felt kind of dorky lugging my bicycle helmet around the theater. You see, I had made the 10-mile round trip between lower Manhattan, where I live, and the Beacon Theatre on the Upper West Side, by bicycle. Burning a gallon of gas to go 20 miles makes 20 pounds of CO2, so I figure that by biking instead of taking a taxi I prevented 10 pounds of climate-altering greenhouse gases from going into the atmosphere. That may not be much, but it's something. But now I'm told that for 6 cents I could have been just as "climate-neutral" as I was by pedaling ten rather sweaty miles. Just a nickel and a penny could have purchased enough wind-generated electricity to keep the coal-fired power grid from burning a few lumps of bituminous and releasing 10 pounds of CO2 -- the same climate-altering amount the cab ride would have made. Says who? The very popular, and now supposedly climate-conscious, Dave Matthews Band.