Berman and Saxifrage Exchange Email on Climate Change

In the February 25th issue of The New Yorker, Michael Specter wrote that “In measuring carbon emissions, it’s easy to confuse morality and science.” The article talks about measuring carbon footprints and trading carbon emissions. It tells the story of Sir Terry Leahy, chief executive of the British supermarket chain Tesco, who recently laid out a series of measures that he hoped would ignite “a revolution in green consumption,” including the development of a system to label carbon friendly foods. Tesco sells nearly a quarter of the groceries bought in the UK and has “a growing share” of the Asian and European markets. Last month, it opened its first stores in the US.

I thought the article was so important and illuminating that I sent the link to a few friends who do climate change activism. I was surprised by the response. Barry Saxifrage debunked a lot of the points in the article. Tzeporah Berman disagreed with some of what he said and agreed with other parts.

Here's how they took it apart:

Barry Saxifrage:

My thoughts on "Big Foot" article: I liked the focus on how everything we do has a potential carbon footprint.

However I strongly disliked the "it's too complicated to understand" tone of it.

For example, it continually harps on the fact that "local foods" might not be as carbon-lite as "long-distance foods."

Here's one of many such quotes: "The idea that a product travels a certain distance and is therefore worse than one you raised nearby—well, it’s just idiotic."

Idiotic? No. Just not the only criteria. The author could have focused on making the issue simple: local, organic, in-season foods will average less emissions than out-of-season, long-distance, industrial foods. And: factory farm meat and fish have huge carbon footprints.

Here's another: "The environmental burden imposed by importing apples from New Zealand to Northern Europe or New York can be lower than if the apples were raised fifty miles away." Sure it can be...but it isn't for an organic apple in season.

Or buying roses in England from Kenya vs. Holland? How about a simple: "buy local flowers in season" instead?

Exceptions don't equal averages or even a rule. Instead of making it all seem too complicated to follow...why not an article about simple rules of thumb that do work?

The theme is summed up in: "personal factors like food choices and driving habits are small facets of a far larger issue: making pollution so costly that our only rational choice is to stop."

Except there is a huge hole in this plan according to research by Professor Stephen Pacala of Princeton. He was co-author of "Stabilization Wedges" paper that redefined world debate on climate change mitigation. His research says that less than 8% of humanity are responsible for 50% of climate change emissions.

If his numbers are anywhere close to correct, it becomes clear that just pricing carbon and expecting big enough cuts will never work. The less wealthy 90% of humanity can NEVER come up with the cuts needed even if they all stopped using fossil fuels completely. You can't rely just on carbon pricing to solve climate change.

The wealthy love solutions that limit resources by price. But in this case the resource is essential still to many people's lives and they can't afford to compete. The price of carbon would need to be so high to make big cuts by wealthiest 10% that the rest of society will fall apart and/or revolt first.

This article is part of a larger mis-direction in the climate change debate in my view. According to Pacala's research, it is impossible to get the cuts the planet needs without large percentage cuts by the wealthiest people in the world. Pricing carbon will destroy lives of vast majority of planet long before it gets high enough to cause big cuts by the world's super-wealthy.

The only mathematical solution is for the wealthiest 10% of humanity to cut their carbon footprints down to the "luxury lite" levels of the current 90th percentile. And soon.

This 10% also holds most of the positions of political, economic and media power. And most "solutions" that come out of these power centers say "it's complicated" and "it's not personal choice" and "pricing is the answer" and "cutting carbon will send us back to live like cave people".

The only solution is temporary restraint by the global rich. A pause in the hyper-emissions "big lives" of a tiny minority until alternative energy infrastructure is in place to support 'big lives' again. We need a "luxury-lite" ethic until we are able to "recreate super-luxury" in a sustainable way.

This groups needs to redirect those dollars towards building an infrastructure that can support those lifestyles sustainably. Since this group also controls media, economic and political levers, at least some significant chunk are going to need to personally choose to lead the way. So far very few are.

The article ends with: "The trouble with you environmentalists is that you see a problem coming and you slam your foot on the brakes and try and steer away from the chasm. The problem is that it often doesn’t work. Maybe the thing to do is jam your foot on the pedal and see if you can just jump across.' At the time, I thought he was crazy, but as I get older I realize what he was talking about. The whole green movement in technology is in that space. It is an attempt to jump across the chasm."

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