Carbon Consciousness & Action

Archive for the tag “carbon and lifestyle”


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.



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.


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 it Time to Send in the Clowns?


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.

Aos Meus Amigos Brasileiros

Aos meus queridos amigos no Brasil,Brazil flag face

Muitos brasileiros vem visitando meu blog. Fico contente em ver que ha interesse na conexao entre o consumidor e a producao de gas carbonico. Os brasileiros estao cientes de sua propria contribuicao a geracao de gas carbonico? Existe alguma pressao social para que a diminuam? O governo, propagandas, ou a midia promove essa atitude? Existe ja alguma estrategia que tenha funcionado?

Obrigado pelo seu interesse, e espero ouvir suas opinioes em breve.

What Plug-in Hybrid Sales Say About Our CO2 Emissions

What do the sales numbers of the Chevy Volt and the Ford Fusion Energi tell us about carbon reduction efforts in the United States?

In June, 2014, Chevrolet sold 1,777 of the 98 MPG Volts, compared to 26,008 for the comparably-sized 30 MPG Cruze.   Ford sold a record 1939 of the 88 MPG Ford Fusion Energis in June 2014, compared to 25,665 of the other 25 MPG Ford Fusion models. Read more…

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