climate change

You Can’t Save the Climate by Shrinking Your Carbon Footprint

Coming down is the hardest thing. Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Last week, Mother Jones columnist Kevin Drum informed his readers that they do not really believe in climate change. His argument was simple (and specious):

If you truly believe that climate change will broil the planet in the next 50 years or so, the very least you should do is immediately get rid of your car and adopt a vegan diet. How many of you have done that? How many of you have even considered it? Virtually none of you. And like I said, that’s just a start. If you’re really serious, you should also toss out your air conditioning; only heat your house if temps are down in the 40s; never travel anywhere by plane; buy local food; and install rooftop solar … It seems as though I’m being facetious here, but I’m not. With current technology, this is what it would take from all of us to make a serious dent in climate change. And you’re not doing it. Neither am I.

This is the sort of reasoning one expects from libertarian undergrads, not progressive pundits. After all, the latter typically recognize that an individual might rationally accept shared sacrifice — which is to say, sacrifice at a scale commensurate with realizing a collective good — but reject personal concessions that have an extremely low probability of making a social difference. Thus, one can genuinely support a more expansive welfare state funded by higher taxes without donating money to the federal government each year, or support a federal housing guarantee without turning your basement into a makeshift homeless shelter. With climate change, the pointlessness of individual action is especially acute. If you accept the scientific consensus on warming, then you know your personal carbon footprint is a drop in the rising sea. So, why on earth would you feel compelled to lower your quality of life for the sake of cutting carbon emissions by a wholly negligible amount?

To his credit, Drum eventually transitions to a more cogent argument, suggesting that neither he nor his readers would “vote for anyone who we thought might force us to live like this” (i.e., without air conditioning or air travel). It is certainly true that even the left has little interest in asking Americans accept lower living standards for the climate’s sake; the Green New Deal is self-consciously anti-austerian, promising that emissions reductions and material uplift can go hand in hand. It is also true that “with current technology” this promise is not credible. But Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez & Co. want to radically increase investment in renewable energy technology. If Drum has specific reasons for believing that technological innovation cannot possibly obviate the need for reducing middle-income Americans’ quality of life — or, say, effectively prohibiting India from fully industrializing — he should make that case. But he shouldn’t suggest that the fate of our planet depends on your dinner choices, rather than on the international community’s political ones.

Alas, this compulsion to scold individual progressives for the carbon intensity of their consumption habits isn’t peculiar to Drum. As some bitter Hillary Clinton campaign staffers revealed to Politico Monday:

In his campaign launch video last week, Bernie Sanders singled out the fossil fuel industry for criticism, listing it among the special interests he planned to take on. But in the final months of the 2016 campaign, Sanders repeatedly requested and received the use of a carbon-spewing private jet for himself and his traveling staff when he served as a surrogate campaigner for Hillary Clinton.


… In 2016, after Sanders endorsed Clinton and agreed to campaign on her behalf, the Sanders campaign’s preferred mode of travel quickly emerged as a point of tension, according to six former Clinton campaign staffers and another source familiar with the travel. Those who had worked on his primary campaign made it known that the only logistical way Sanders could adhere to the event schedules requested by the Clinton campaign was by flying private. The Clinton campaign, however, viewed the private jet flights as a needless extravagance and wanted the senator to mostly fly commercial.

The ostensible argument of this piece — that voters who favor serious action on climate change should be wary of supporting Bernie Sanders because the socialist senator insisted on a slightly less carbon-efficient mode of flying in 2016 — is a parody of environmentalist appeals to conscious consumption. If Donald Trump had a morbid fear of flying and traveled everywhere by Tesla, would that make his presidency less damaging for the climate, in any meaningful sense? If not, then what relevance does Bernie’s affinity for private planes have on his credentials as a climate candidate? America doesn’t need a president who composts. It needs one willing to prioritize decarbonization over deficit reduction, the profitability of entrenched industries, and other geopolitical goals. If such a president also likes to “roll coal” on the weekends, no one who accepts the reality of climate change should care.

Now, none of this is to say that Sanders is an ideal climate candidate. His private plane use is of no real consequence, but his past opposition to nuclear power certainly could be. Similarly, Drum is right that progressives do not behave as though they believe their own rhetoric on climate change. But this hypocrisy isn’t demonstrated by their refusal to forgo air-conditioning; it’s demonstrated by their failure to organize hunger strikes on the White House lawn.

With a problem like climate, the personal isn’t political. And the political is what’s critical.

You Can’t Save the Climate by Reducing Your Carbon Footprint