Whatever the political issue, there seems to be a tendency for people to personalize it—to believe that if only each individual would look in the mirror, recognize how her behavior contributes to the problem and vow to mend her ways, the world can be set right again. I will skip how this mindset operates in other contexts and consider it just in relation to climate change.
We are talking about a shape-shifting mentality that shows up in many forms. There is the flat out claim that the solution to climate change is in each individual heart; don’t wait for governments or other organizations to take action, just do what needs to be done yourself. Then there is the moralistic stance according to which the world is divided into good people and bad people, where the good people are the ones who live their lives in an ecologically responsible fashion, and the bad people are everyone else. (You know, them.) And even among those who understand that collective action is necessary to avoid the worst that climate change has to offer, there are arguments like, “Al Gore (or Jim Hansen or whoever) should have the integrity of his convictions and stop flying to conferences/meetings/demonstrations.” Each person’s individual action must thus be judged and found consistent with Right Living or condemned.
There is more to be said about individualist ideology, and especially its moralistic embellishment, than I can take on here, but a few points specific to climate change policy and the political movements we need to enact them cry out to be made.
1. Climate change is a collective action problem. Let’s cue the prisoner’s dilemma here. If you are familiar with the PD, you know exactly where I’m going and can skip ahead. If not, let’s suppose that there are two people in the world, Arthur (A) and Everyone Else (E). (We fold everyone else up into a single person to make it easier to discuss.) There are two options for both A and E, to personally refrain from every sort of fossil fuel use or to use these fuels when convenient. We will call the first option cooperation (C) and the second defection (D), which is the game theory convention. (Cooperation is whatever is in the interest of the other player.)
Each player has two influences on his or her well-being, lifestyle convenience and forestalling climate change. Let’s say that, of the two, forestalling climate change is more important, but convenience still matters. Finally, whether or not climate change takes place depends entirely on what E does, since there are billions of people and A is just one of them.
There are four possible outcomes for A:
(1) no climate change, personal convenience
(2) no climate change, personal inconvenience
(3) climate change, personal convenience
(4) climate change, personal inconvenience
Given what we’ve said about personal values above, the listed order is the order of preference. Now we have everything we need to construct a “payoff matrix”:
Here I’ve included only the payoff to A, since each individual in the Everyone Else group can be viewed as an A when they make their own choices. You can check these payoff entries by going back to the list of outcomes to make sure that each outcome results from the cooperation and defection choices of A and E.
Best for A is to defect when E cooperates; this means that climate change will be stymied by the voluntary self-denial of the multitudes of others, but A gets to continue to drive, eat frozen seafood flown in from distant locations, and all the other nice things that E abjures. This is the free rider effect. Worst is to cooperate while E defects—the worst of both worlds. As you can see, no matter what E does, A is better off defecting. But the irony of the situation is that if every single person is in A’s situation, each will tend to make the same choice, to defect, with the result that the whole planet ends up in the lower right-hand cell. Indeed, that’s pretty much where we’re at these days. (There are wrinkles in the prisoner’s dilemma that allow for shared cooperation to emerge over time, but they aren’t likely to materialize when there are so many anonymous participants, and the costs of denying oneself all the conveniences of a carbon-fueled lifestyle are so large.)
The moral of this story is that there are many things in this world that require cooperation between people; they won’t come about on the basis of individual, disconnected action. Ending the use of fossil fuels is one of them.
2. Connected to this first point is a different collective action problem. Many of the alternatives to a high-carbon lifestyle themselves require collective action. It’s a lot easier to give up driving if there’s a train going where you want to go, but individuals acting separately don’t have magic wands that make trains appear. The same goes for smart grids and job opportunities in walkable, dense urban neighborhoods. Markets can sometimes overcome economies of scale and interaction effects (nonconvexities), and sometimes not. In any case, each individual faces only those choices that are available at the moment, not necessarily those they dream of.
3. When people talk about choices that feed or counter climate change, they assume that the consequences are self-evident. Drive a car, burn the gas. Fly in a plane, burn the jet fuel. Turn on the air conditioner, and your electric utility is probably burning something or other. So far so clear. But lots of choices are extremely complex. Take one that’s trivial but typical: which causes more climate change, cleaning and reusing your plastic bags or throwing them out and getting new ones? It’s not obvious. On the one hand you have the energy consumption that goes into heating water for cleaning, on the other the fossil fuel feedstock for the plastic the bag is made of. As a consumer, how are you supposed to know?
And that’s a relatively easy one. Is it better to buy a new car with high gas mileage or stick with your old clunker? This means trading off fuel efficiency for the fossil fuels that go into producing a new car. And it further depends on how much you drive, how the car was made, and how the machines that made the car were made, and so on. In fact, when you think about it, the carbon content of every good you buy is truly complex if you take into account all the indirect upstream costs—the stuff that goes into the stuff that goes into the stuff that produces and ships the final good to your doorstep.
This is an old conundrum in intellectual history, the economic calculation problem. It surfaced during the 1920s and 30s, when economists debated whether a nonmarket economic system could be tolerably efficient. The answer, which most people who’ve studied the matter have come to accept, is no. It’s simply too hard to try to calculate in advance the entire interconnected system of production and consumption effects. But the same is true for carbon. Using today’s state of the art techniques, we can sort all our goods and services into a few hundred sectors, measure the direct carbon use of each and its contribution to the other sectors and crank out a rough estimate of the total carbon cost of each item. Unfortunately, the economy doesn’t have a few hundred goods but millions of them, and there are practically an infinite number of options available to produce each one a bit differently—for instance if the prices of fossil fuels change.
In the end you can guess but you can’t know for sure. Even if you wanted to be the Saint of Carbon Self-Denial, there’s no set of instructions you can follow that tells you how to do it. At some point policies have to be enacted that put a significant price on carbon, and then, through the normal operation of prices, you’ll find out about that plastic bag and the rest of the carbon mysteries.
4. Finally, let’s take a quick look at that morality business. What does it mean, for instance, to say that people who fly in airplanes are evil, or at least are guilty of contradicting their stated principles? There are lots of perfectly good reasons to want to fly places. The world would be better off if more people had international experiences that enlarged their vision and helped them form friendships with others whose customs and languages are different. Science, the arts, and just about every other field is enriched when smart, creative people come together from all over for meetings, expositions, and symposia. Why shouldn’t students be able to attend far-away colleges and universities, including those in other countries? What about touring musicians? Athletes? And why is it so bad to travel to magnificent scenery or historic wonders or just visit friends and family? What makes any of this immoral?
It is true that serious action to prevent catastrophic climate change will require restrictions on the extraction of fossil fuels and that, with existing technology, this will greatly curtail the amount of air travel that can occur. If and when that happens, we will have to adjust. In the meantime, whether or not you or I take a plane trip next month will have negligible impact on the climate but large impacts on everything else that matters to us individually. What’s with the blame thing?
And two more points. First, if by flying in a fuel-sucking jet a climate campaigner can move forward the moment of serious, effective policy adoption by a single minute, it’s worth it. Second, a political philosophy that leads people to classify almost all of their fellow citizens as immoral is not a very helpful guide to building a winning coalition.
In the end the reason we have a climate problem is not that there is a stain on the human heart, but because there is an unfortunate side effect to using fossil fuels that would otherwise be wonderful resources. It’s an effect that occurs in the aggregate and has to be met at that level.