Please, can we lay off the calls for sacrifice in the face of climate change?
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 wartime 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.