The Seattle Times is reporting on a Bothell family — the Fraleys — who are attempting to cut their family’s greenhouse-gas emissions by 15 percent in May. Bully for them, and best of luck!
Still, there’s something about the Times account of their experiment that rankles, just a bit. It leaves a casual reader with the impression that reducing carbon emissions is a total pain in the behind. To wit:
[The Fraleys] will try to reduce the household’s greenhouse-gas emissions by using some common-sense ideas that nonetheless may be inconvenient. [Emphasis added.]
"I realized this wasn’t going to be a cakewalk. The easy changes were already made, and the next one will be more — painful is not the word — but will take more effort."
Jeez, that makes sustainability sound like hair shirts and broccoli. Good luck getting people on board with that.
As far as I’m concerned, reducing your family’s emissions by 15 percent virtually overnight — as if on a whim — is a fantastic experiment. But it’s lousy public policy. And it doesn’t really resemble the actual process of reducing climate impacts across society as a whole.
A smart climate policy would: a) start by looking for the cheapest and easiest ways of reducing climate impacts, not simply mandating across-the-board sacrifices; and b) aim to change emissions by few percent per year over several decades, not 15 percent overnight.
So the path that the Fraleys are taking isn’t the same path that society overall will take as it tackles climate change. Not at all.
- The Fraleys are making several big, wrenching lifestyle changes, all at once. But a more systematic approach to climate issues would phase in much more slowly.
- And in order to reduce their climate impacts overnight, the Fraleys have to do some things that are inconvenient. But a smart, society-wide climate change policy would likely focus on a completely different — and much more painless — set of solutions.
Just imagine, if you will, that the Fraleys had 5 years to make those changes, not one month.
Over the course of five years, they might have to replace a major appliance or two, or maybe even a furnace. Or they might buy a new car, or new tires. They might have time to take a home energy audit, and follow the most cost-effective recommendations for saving energy. And if he’s lucky, John, a piano teacher with clients all over the east side, might be able to concentrate his newer clients closer to his home.
If, each time they made a major decision, they made an energy efficient choice — an efficient car, low rolling resistance tires, an Energy-Star (or beyond) fridge, a 90 percent plus efficiency furnace, a high-end programmable thermostat, simple home weatherization — they might wind up saving even more than 15 percent on their energy bills. With good rebate programs for efficiency, they might save some money on their appliances, too.
And they’d do it while barely even noticing the changes. No broccoli, no hair shirt — just life as (almost) normal.
A smart climate change policy would probably make the 5-year experiment even easier. It would encourage manufacturers to create ever-more efficient cars and appliances, so the Fraleys would have more choices. It might create consumer incentives, to help them make even more efficient choices. It would encourage homebuilders to build more efficient homes, with better insulation and lighting, in neighborhoods where they don’t have to drive as much to get where they need to go. And it would even electric utilities into the act, so they’d get even more of their electricity from renewable sources — so the Fraleys could emit even less carbon whenever they turn on their super-efficient bulbs. And so on.
No hair shirts required.
For years, it’s seemed to me that one of the biggest political obstacles to a sane climate policy is that we simultaneously overestimate how rapid and disruptive the changes will have to be, and underestimate how powerful slow change really is.
But the truth is actually fairly convenient: the little changes really do add up to big energy savings; but over the long term, they fade into the background of busy lives that — like it or not — are already in a state of constant flux.