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Carbon Consciousness & Action

Archive for the category “Campaigns”

“Beyond Gridlock” Finds Enormous Potential in Private Emission Reduction Efforts

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Vanderbilt Professors Michael Vandenbergh and Jonathan Gilligan’s new article “Beyond Gridlock” (advance version available here, publication in the Columbia Environmental Law Journal in Summer 2015) finds enormous potential for carbon emissions reductions from voluntary private actions by businesses and households despite governmental gridlock.  Mobilizing such private initiatives could buy additional years to enact comprehensive national and international climate legislation and agreements before we reach a 2oC rise in global temperatures.

The authors examine a wide array of private initiatives, ranging from corporations requiring carbon-emission disclosures from the suppliers in their supply chain (as Walmart, Cisco, and Dell have done), to drivers shutting off their cars when they idle for more than 30 seconds, to a private climate registry wherein individuals can register their actions to prevent climate change for future generations.  They conclude that these and other private initiatives together could lead to a reduction in annual CO2 emissions worldwide of a gigaton or more.

Beyond Gridlock is an important counterweight to the excessively narrow focus of many in the climate movement on carbon pricing and other forms of governmental action.  Many sectors of society are ready, willing, and able to make major reductions in their carbon footprint without any governmental involvement whatsoever.  Corporations, foundations, and people concerned about climate change should deploy their creativity, resources, and energy towards voluntary efforts now, regardless of what our politicians are doing (or not doing) on climate.

The authors suggest that private action may accelerate the likelihood of government action, by enlisting broader participation in the climate mitigation effort, and by reducing the negative impacts of a carbon tax on businesses and individuals.

Beyond Gridlock points the way to further research.  What conditions activate dormant citizens and corporations to reduce their carbon footprint? What can foundations, universities, advocacy organizations, and others do to promote and support private action?  What role can local, state, and even the federal government play in expanding it?  How can a culture of private action be fomented?

Beyond Gridlock is an important work because it marks a path for citizens and organizations to realize major reductions in CO2 emissions despite a gridlocked political system.

(Coming soon: Interview with Beyond Gridlock author Michael Vandenbergh)

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DEMAND FOR OIL CAN DECREASE DESPITE LOW GAS PRICES

gas nooseOil companies’ share prices tumbling.  Fracking and oil exploration projects cancelled.   Environmentalist dreams? No, these are today’s headlines caused by falling oil prices.

But what about the demand side?  Will low gas prices cause consumers to use more gas and emit more carbon?    While the supply-and-demand curves of economics textbooks and some survey evidence suggest that they will, it is hardly a foregone conclusion that gasoline demand and usage must increase if gas prices remain low.  For example, bus ridership in King County, Washington is up, despite service cuts and gas prices well below last year’s. Nissan Leaf sales in December 2014 were up nearly 20% over a year earlier.

A fundamental challenge for climate activists is to find a way to continually depress gasoline demand in the face of low prices.   Reducing gasoline demand in a low-price environment represents a different challenge from the one climate activists thought they would be fighting.  For most of the past decade, high carbon prices caused by carbon taxes and/or “peak oil” were viewed as the key motivators for consumers to embrace renewable fuels.  Now, with gas prices around $2 a gallon, carbon taxes politically infeasible, and vast new supplies of fracked oil depressing prices, a new non-price-based strategy is required.

Price is only one of many motivators of consumer decisions. For example, Apple smartphones are both the most costly and the best-selling phones in the market, because Apple’s products represent the person that many of us want to be and the lifestyle we want to have—clean, elegant, and powerful.

The same logic can be brought to bear with respect to gasoline cars and gasoline usage.

As evidence of global warming becomes more pervasive, the use of gasoline becomes more morally questionable and undesirable.   Pope Francis recently said that “man has slapped nature in the face” by causing climate change.  If Francis’ statement can somehow be personalized and internalized—such that we feel each of us are personally giving an unkind “slap in the face” to nature when we buy gasoline-powered cars and use gasoline, then consumers will embrace alternatives.  If climate activists do our job well, the clean, elegant, and powerful person will not want a gas-powered car or to be seen pumping gas.

Translating the moral argument into a consumer argument against the purchase of gasoline-powered cars and gasoline is feasible, but it will require a different moral approach and vocabulary than we presently use.   We need to move away from an analysis of the relative costs of conventional versus green technologies, and instead emphasize an approach to consumer choice based on our personal values.

While a values-based argument to consumers relating to energy choices must be made with subtlety and care, it must nonetheless be made, even if consumer and industry sensibilities are ruffled.  Unnecessary burning of carbon is, as the Pope says, a slap against nature, and such violence should not be condoned or ignored.  This is particularly so as new technologies, such as the long-range electric car, become widely available over the next several years, making the unnecessary burning of carbon all the more indefensible.

There are many forms that a values-based consumer-oriented campaign against gasoline can take.   One nice example is an emerging campaign to put climate-warning stickers on gas pumps.  Messages against gasoline purchase can be spread through social media, places of worship, and ballot measures.  Theater and other arts can undermine our deep psychological dependence on oil.   The main thrust of these campaigns is to confront consumers and convince them that filling their gas tank is antithetical to their own values and unnecessary.

Low gasoline prices are in many respects a consequence of our success in limiting demand for oil. The more success we have in limiting energy demand, the lower we should expect those prices to go.    We need to find new pathways to the consumer’s sense of self and values, and then work with those values to power the transition away from fossil fuels.

LOW GAS PRICES FINAL BLOW TO CARBON TAX STRATEGY

Today’s low gas prices (the national average this week is $2.69 a gallon) are another nail in the coffin for the climate movement’s longstanding strategy of reducing gasoline use through imposition of higher motor fuel taxes.  As discussed in an earlier blog post, higher federal gas taxes to disincentivize gas consumption are completely off the table until a new Congress arrives in 2017, and probably long after that.   And even if additional gas taxes were to be miraculously enacted, their effects would be masked by highly volatile gas prices that are presently more than $1 a gallon under their recent averages.

For the next several years, consumers’ rejection of gasoline will not be based on an economic calculation based on price signals, but rather a choice based on their desire not to be throwing 20+ lbs of dangerous garbage into the air on a daily basis.

GAS STATIONS: AN OVERLOOKED STAGE FOR CARBON EDUCATION?

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The gas station is the oil companies’ tentacle into the cars and pocketbooks of consumers.  Located at prominent street corners in nearly every neighborhood in the developed world, gas stations proudly carry the flag of Shell, Chevron, BP, and other oil giants into our communities.   The gas station would therefore appear to be an ideal stage for educating consumers about carbon pollution and its role in fomenting climate change, and for generating friction in the normally smooth transfer of carbon from the oil company to the gasoline consumer.

Despite their potential for education and advocacy, gas stations have rarely been utilized as a platform for protest, advocacy, or carbon education. Rather, with rare exception, they function quietly and efficiently as the oil companies’ community-based carbon spigot, their latent political, economic, and social significance cloaked by the numbing routine of pumping gas.

Since the oil price shocks of the 1970s, most gas stations protests have been about the price of gasoline, most recently with the price spikes of 2008 and 2011.

Recent protests have focused more narrowly on oil company malfeasance.  On Earth Day 2010, activists in Oakland protested at a Valero station in connection with the company’s opposition to climate legislation.  The 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout caused a brief flurry of protests against BP across the country.

In 2014, the pace and variety of gas station protests increased.   In January, protesters in Manchester, England demonstrated against fracking outside a Total station.  In August, 2014 a small group secretly disabled pumps at two Chevron stations in Vancouver, BC protesting Chevron’s actions in Ecuador and the construction of a nearby Chevron oil pipeline.

Greenpeace organized demonstrations at Shell stations in Buenos Aires, Argentina and Santiago, Chile in August 2014 in connection with Shell’s Arctic drilling.  These protests, coordinated with an effective video mocking Shell’s actions in the Arctic, leveraged Lego’s product tie-in with Shell to create strong visuals and international news about the protest, and ultimately caused Lego to cancel its 50-year relationship with Shell.

Gas station protests draw substantial media coverage because of gas stations’ political and economic importance in the community.  Their ubiquity and prominence render them an ideal platform for climate advocacy and protest.  Recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions relating to picketing of abortion clinics provide robust rights to sidewalk protesters.

Coordinated, consistent, fun, well-organized, and friendly actions at gas stations could effectively challenge a broadly-accepted yet ultimately untenable aspect of American life—filling one’s gas tank at the local gas station.  They would likely attract significant media attention, put the oil companies on the defensive, and help generate vigorous debate about personal and corporate responsibility for reducing carbon emissions.

CLIMATE POLITICS BLOCKED BUT CONSUMER CONSCIOUSNESS OPEN

nueromarketingThe 2014 midterm results assure that legislative progress won’t be made on key climate issues until 2017 at the earliest.  Republican majorities hostile to carbon pricing and other carbon-control legislation will be firmly in control of both houses of Congress.  Climate-denier Sen. James Inhofe will be the new chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.  President Obama and the Democrats in Congress will be fighting desperate rearguard battles simply to maintain regulations on coal-fired power plants, block development of the Keystone XL pipeline, and defend other important climate-related laws and regulations. So what are Americans deeply concerned about the climate crisis to do?  Obviously, biding time for two years and hoping that a new pro-climate president and Congress take control in 2017 is not an option.   Rather, the climate crisis requires that we push ahead with even greater urgency the movement to decrease CO2 emissions, despite conventional political channels being blocked. One area where enormous progress can be made now is changing consumer perception of gasoline and other fossil fuels.  Consumers have not been pushed to change their carbon habits—habits that by some estimates account for 71% of all carbon burned in the U.S.   Buying gas, using fossil fuel-powered electricity, and other environmentally destructive routines of daily life are poorly understood and go unchallenged and unquestioned by both consumers and the broader society. Read more…

Is Naomi Klein Right–Do We Have to Take on Capitalism to Address Climate Change?

This Changes EverythingNaomi Klein argues in This Changes Everything that capitalism and the environment are on a collision course and that narrow measures to address climate change will be inadequate if free-market, corporate-dominated structures and political ideologies remain dominant.  She writes that the Right fully grasps the latent threat that climate change poses to the existing capitalist order, and that its need to squelch this threat explains the lavish financing it bestows on the climate denial movement.

Klein says that in the early stages of battling the present corporate-dominated order to address climate change, “a fight for a minimal carbon tax might do a lot less good than, for instance, forming a grand coalition to demand a guaranteed minimum income,” and that “Fundamentally, the task is to articulate not just an alternative set of policy proposals but an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis—embedded in interdependence rather than hyper-individualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy.”

Klein would thus set the bar for an effective response to climate change much higher than most climate activists presently do. Rather than simply institute a worldwide climate pricing regime and other measures to favor renewable energy over fossil fuels (a tremendous feat in itself!), she argues that it is necessary to form an alliance with other social movements to tear down much of the capitalist order and replace it with a more centrally-planned, collectivist economy dedicated not only to environmental sustainability but also to income redistribution and equal rights for all.

Is Klein right?   Is working towards an environmentally-oriented socialism the most efficient path to reversing the disastrous carbon-spewing road we are on?  Or can the existing capitalist order be tamed sufficiently with narrowly-tailored regulatory and tax measures to achieve the carbon reductions necessary to preserve the planet in livable form?   The latter road would seemingly be much easier given the status quo of free-market ideology buttressed by vast rivers of unrestricted money in politics, and the antipathy many people feel towards government, socialism, and collectivist solutions.  The significant gains the free-market-oriented, climate-denying Republican Party is poised to make in the 2014 midterm elections is evidence of the continued hostility of the political system towards restraints on corporate dominance.

Because the task of dismantling corporate dominance of the economy and the urgency to address the climate crisis is so immediate, I wish that Naomi Klein were wrong about the need to aim beyond climate policy fixes. But I fear she isn’t.  People concerned about climate are overwhelming white, highly-educated and middle class, and therefore a group without the numbers to hold sway over the American and world economy.  Climate change is still too remote and abstract an issue to really move large numbers of people.  In a recent Gallup poll, climate change was identified as number 14 of the nation’s 15 most important problems.

The environmental movement must join the fight against our society’s pervasive income and social inequality, not only to broaden the coalition in favor of climate-friendly policies, but also to help redefine how people can live together peacefully in harmony with their fellow human beings and with the Earth and its creatures.   A society built on narrow pursuit of self-interest and the domination of a small number of rich people over vast numbers of poor people will never achieve a healthy equilibrium with Nature.

The environmental movement has yet to forge a durable alliance with the vast numbers of people discontented with and disenfranchised by the present political order, in part because until recently we believed that the political system could and would make the changes necessary to address our pressing environmental issues. But it is now becoming clear that the oil-and-cash-soaked political system is not any more open to effectively addressing climate change than it is to addressing income inequality, racial inequality, or other pressing issues that affect vast numbers of Americans.

The inflexibility of the present political system is allowing social pressures to build that can ultimately overwhelm it.   The question is whether we can channel these pressures peacefully and positively to create a movement capable of building a world we want our children and grandchildren to live in.

Building such a movement will require that we find new ways of getting people out of their homes and activated as citizens. It will require using public spaces such as streets, parks, and sidewalks to gather and educate one another about overcoming obstacles to a better future.  It will require finding artists, performers, and orators to help us honestly reflect on where we truly are as a people, and to inspire us to reach a higher level of consciousness.  It will require us disentangling ourselves from the corporate-fomented consumerism that ensnares us. The Obama Campaign of 2008 and the Occupy Movement of 2011 both provided us with glimmers of the power that such campaigns can have and the speed with which they can develop.  They also provide us with a reminder that such efforts can be fleeting if not supported with long-term planning and resources and a fierce commitment to keep going to the end.

Only by developing, propagating, and implementing a broadly shared vision of how we can live better with one another and with Nature will we achieve a sustainable balance on this Earth. Creating such a movement will require enormous patience, hard work, and creativity, but it is the most noble work we can do and the best hope that we have to preserve our Earth and its creatures.

Platinum Polluters: The relation between carbon emissions, and income.

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By Guest Blogger Will Deacon

Is there a relationship between carbon pollution and income? Do the wealthy pollute more? What does this mean for carbon policy? These are fair questions when we are asking everyone to change their consumption habits in order to fight climate change.

For starters let’s look at the largest contributor to consumer carbon emissions, automobiles. Wealthy Americans will often own two or more cars. They drive more and are not as worried about how much money they spend on gasoline. On the other hand, low-income Americans tend to drive less, and are much more careful on how they use fuel. The urban and suburban poor may not even own a car, and will likely rely more on alternative means of transportation such as bicycling, walking, and public transit.

The rich also fly more and take more out-of-state and out-of-country vacations. The top earners may even own a private jet. If you’re wealthy in the United States it’s also likely that you own a larger home. More square footage to your house means more space to heat in the winter and cool in summer.

It is not hard to see that the wealthy consume more and therefore contribute a greater amount of CO2 to the atmosphere. If those of greater means pollute more, is it not fair to ask them to sacrifice more for the sake of the planet and our future?

Some climate activists, and advocates of economic justice, have asked for a wealth tax. They believe that part of the revenue could be used to fight global climate change and lift some of the burden the poor will face because of it. But the amount of influence the rich in this country have over our politics makes such a proposal impossible and doesn’t address the fact that the rich will continue to pollute on a higher level.

To be fair, not every wealthy individual mindlessly emits a megaton of carbon dioxide. Some of the most notable of the upper class are fierce climate activists. On December 23, Leonardo DiCaprio, a Hollywood actor with a net worth of $220 million, spoke before the UN. He proclaimed that climate change is real and that the world must act to stop it.

Mr. DiCaprio is not the only celebrity to vocally state their support for the fight against climate change. Actress Cameron Diaz, singer Will.i.am, and, the richest of them all, Bill Gates, have all been active in the climate movement.

What if wealthy celebrities, such as those I’ve mentioned, showed off and bragged about how they use their wealth to reduce their carbon footprint. They could have tours of their homes in the style of MTV’s “Cribs”. The camera would follow them through their house as they show off their solar panels, their bamboo hardwood, their $100,000 Tesla electric car, etc…

There could also be campaigns where the wealthy compete for who can get their carbon emissions the lowest. They could brag about who gave more money to put solar panels on schools, as well as other carbon offsetting causes.

If we could make having a low carbon footprint just as much of a status symbol as owning a Gulfstream jet, the implications could go far beyond the wealthiest among us. Everyone at least once in their lifetime has dreamed of being rich and what that could mean for them. What if that also meant being able to do more to stop climate change?

Is it Time to Send in the Clowns?

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How can deeply ingrained civic habits be changed?  How can the pessimism inherent in collective action problems be overcome?

Antanas Mockus, upon becoming mayor of Bogota, Colombia in 1995, confronted Bogota’s epidemic levels of traffic fatalities with a unique blend of statistical analysis, street and performance art, and civic education.  Statistical analysis told Mockus that the key to reducing traffic deaths (and improving traffic circulation) was getting drivers to stop before reaching crosswalks and getting pedestrians to only cross in crosswalks.   Rather than hiring legions of traffic police to write tickets to drivers and pedestrians who violated these norms, Mockus hired 40 made-up street mimes to stop cars and buses from entering crosswalks, and to poke fun at offenders of crosswalk rules.  The streets became a massive stage for lighthearted education about traffic norms, with jay-walkers,  crowds on the street, and the mimes all engaged in the performance, and television and other media drawn to the spectacle and amplifying its message. Bogota pedestrians and motorists adopted the norms promoted by the mimes, and traffic deaths began to fall, successes widely reported by the media. The mimes proved so successful that Bogota’s ranks of mimes increased to 400, and traffic deaths in the city plunged by more than 50%.

The injection of mimes into Bogota’s traffic mess has become a famous example of “cultural acupuncture”–a shot of art/culture used to change behavior and heal social problems. Read more…

The Great Climate Movement Miscalculation

homer2At the People’s Climate March, we didn’t hear much about the role of the consumer in reducing emissions. Why? In the mid-2000s, leading organizations in the climate movement such as Greenpeace and the Sierra Club made a key decision:  carbon emissions reduction by individuals was to be de-emphasized as a climate reduction strategy.  Rather, organizing efforts would focus on promoting carbon-pricing legislation, blocking development of domestic fossil fuel resources and infrastructure such as the Keystone XL pipeline, and divestment from fossil fuel companies.

Climate movement leaders made the decision to de-emphasize consumer carbon reduction on the assumption that consumer-oriented strategies would achieve less carbon reduction than carbon-pricing legislation, and that focus on consumers would imply that consumers, and not the fossil fuel companies, had agency to reduce the climate problem. Climate leaders also believed that consumers’ willingness to act politically might be reduced if they were “turned off” or “guilt tripped” by activists asking them to cut and offset their carbon usage.

The present climate strategy has achieved little. Entrenched energy interests will block carbon-pricing legislation at least through the 2016 elections, given the Republicans’ (and some Democrats’) staunch opposition to any form of carbon pricing.   The public has generally shown little interest in carbon pricing or taxes, and little belief that anything they do can possibly influence a Congress receiving gobs of oil and coal industry cash.  The movement’s tenuous blocking of the Keystone XL pipeline has thusfar been a success, but meanwhile development of hundreds of other fossil energy projects continue unabated, and gas prices and consumption remain stable.  The divestment campaign, although slowly gathering steam, is still miniscule, and is unlikely to present a significant obstacle to fossil fuel companies for decades.

While the climate movement struggles to gain traction and achieve results, ordinary consumers’ role in the climate problem has been ignored, even though consumers account for more than half of the fossil fuel consumption in the U.S. Consumers still have minimal understanding of their role in polluting the atmosphere with carbon, and no ethic of personal responsibility for curtailing their pollution.

To complement its traditional strategies, the climate movement should embrace a campaign to break the bonds between oil companies and the consumers which sustain them. This campaign should seek to alter the psychology of consumers with respect to fossil fuels, by encouraging them to perceive their use of oil and coal as dirty, polluting, and incompatible with their lifestyle.  This campaign can be achieved through a combination of advertising, educational campaigns, local government action, and other strategies that were used successfully to cleave smokers from tobacco companies. If successful, these campaigns will hurt oil companies where it hurts—in their bottom lines.

If a consumer campaign is successful in making consumers dislike and avoid petroleum products, not only will it reduce fossil fuel consumption, it will smooth the way for achieving the climate movement’s traditional goals of a carbon tax, rolling back carbon supply infrastructure, and divestment from oil companies.

The Carbon Pledge

Carbon Pledge Classic PhotoI have contributed to the carbon pollution shrouding our Earth;

Now, therefore,

I pledge to no longer add to the problem;

I will cut my carbon use by 25% each of the next three years

I will offset the carbon I emit

I will encourage my friends to do the same

I will support policies which reduce carbon pollution.

I will do my share.

. . .

. . .

What is the responsibility of each of us to reduce carbon pollution?   The Carbon Pledge defines those responsibilities as reducing our personal carbon use substantially, offsetting the carbon we do use, and supporting policies that reduce carbon pollution. Read more…

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