CitizenMetz

Carbon Consciousness & Action

Archive for the tag “Carbon Strategies”

Can a Recommended Carbon Limit Do for Carbon what Recommended Daily Allowances Do for Food?

Carbon DietWhat policies can bridge the divide between the public’s concern about the climate crisis and their unwilling-ness to pay additional taxes on energy?

Recent  New York Times polling found that 83% of Americans (including 61% of Republicans) believe that global warming will be a serious world problem if nothing is done about it.    The public’s high level of concern about global warming does not translate into willingness to pay more for carbon.  The poll found 63% of the public opposed to higher gasoline taxes, and 74% opposed to higher electricity taxes.

One low-cost, high-return approach would be for the government to set and promote voluntary guidelines and targets for individual carbon emissions limits similar to the “recommended daily allowances” the FDA sets for calorie and sodium intake.  The Recommended Carbon Limit (RCL) for Americans could be set, for example, at 27,500 pounds (12.5 metric tons) of CO2 emissions per year (30% below the existing U.S. per capita average or more than 50% above the European average), and could be reduced 5% annually from there.   Just as with food’s “nutrition facts” box, the RCL could be paired with a labeling campaign, which could, for example, inform consumers at the gas pump that using a gallon of gas emits 20 lbs of CO2, or state on their electric bills how much CO2 was used to generate their electricity.

The purpose of the RCL would be to raise consumers’ awareness of their carbon emissions and how those emissions contribute to the world’s CO2 problem, and to encourage consumers to set limits on their emissions.

Establishing an RCL would generate enormous controversy and debate about the individual’s duty to conserve carbon, the role of government in setting carbon limits, what the appropriate carbon limits should be, and whether there should be different limits depending upon where one lives.  These debates would highlight the consumer’s role in carbon reduction and raise awareness of key carbon-reduction issues that receive little public attention.  The debates would also highlight key issues hindering carbon reduction efforts, such as many communities’ dependence on coal-generated power, poor mass-transit in suburban and rural area, and the difficulties of financing home weatherization and solar panel installation.

The RCL would likely be more politically popular than carbon taxes.  Americans’ visceral opposition to higher taxes would be avoided.  The limits would be set without regard to personal wealth, and would therefore be more egalitarian than gas taxes, which fall harder on the poor than the wealthy.  The limits would be completely voluntary.

RCLs would bring out into the open the issue that has long been obscured in public debates—whether individuals’ use of carbon should have limits.  Carbon limits should have the imprimatur of government, because of government’s unparalleled reach and credibility, and because it is important that the entire population understand that everyone needs to do his or her part in solving the CO2 problem.

We are running out of time to deal with the climate crisis.  A clear message from the government to consumers about their role in addressing their carbon emissions is both critical and long overdue.  Just as the FDA’s recommended daily allowances help people establish a healthy food diet, RCLs are necessary to help us establish a healthy carbon diet.

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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.

CO2 Imaging Key to Changing Consciousness

CO2 Black Bag behind car croppedIf CO2 came out of the tailpipe dark and smelly, strict controls on emitting it would probably have been in effect long ago.  Instead, CO2 is invisible and odorless.  We exhale it with every breath.   Most of us are unaware that our cars spew vast quantities of it.

In a society in which visual image is paramount, how can we show people the vast quantities of CO2 comes out of their tailpipe?  How can the invisible be made visible?

Much of the effort to visualize carbon has been at the macro scale, showing computer models of CO2 emissions at the planetary and state level.  NASA recently released a video modeling CO2 as it swirls through the planetary atmosphere.

NASA Carbon Planet Cropped

Red on map shows high concentration of CO2

Blue Carbon Balls Cropped

Carbon visual’s image of one metric ton of CO2.

Others have also created simple, powerful visual models of CO2 pollution.Carbon visuals, a UK company specializing in producing images and videos of CO2 emissions, uses giant blue balls to show the actual volumes of CO2 being emitted by  automobiles.  The blue ball in the photo represents 1 metric  ton of CO2, or the volume produced by the average US driver in about 2 months of driving.   New York City produces 54,000,000 balls in a year.

All of the above images are models, not actual visual images of CO2.   Imaging CO2 has been extremely difficult because of the properties of CO2’s  electronic transitions.  Researchers are presently working on using lasers in the infrared spectrum to excite CO2 molecules so that they can be imaged.

The successful imaging of CO2 spewing from a tailpipe could lead to an important breakthrough in human understanding and consciousness, similar to the breakthroughs resulting from the first film of a horse running or the first images of Earth from the moon.

The representation of CO2 need not be left only to scientists.   Visual artists, actors, and poets can make the invisible visible, the unreal real, and the unimportant urgent.

Our ability to reduce CO2 emissions rests largely on our grasp of our personal role in the CO2 crisis, and our resolve to minimize our contribution to the problem.  Our grasp and our resolve depend in large part upon our ability to see and communicate visually the CO2 we and others emit.

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?

lego shell

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…

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.

Moral Pricing of Carbon

While a carbon tax or other form of carbon pricing is stuck in our gridlocked political system, a psychic or moral price that will limit carbon usage can be established without need for congressional action.

The principal constraint on most consumers’ carbon usage now is their ability to afford fuel, and given that the price of energy is relatively low (driving a car costs less than $.20 a mile), energy cost is for most people a relatively weak inducement to substantially reduce their carbon usage relative to the convenience of car travel. Read more…

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