Saturday, July 5, 2014

Climate Misconception #6: People who drive SUV’s are causing climate change; people who drive electric cars are the ones helping to solve the problem

This one is really just a corollary to the previous post, but it is so widespread it deserves its own moment in the sun.

1. There are lots of sensible reasons to drive an SUV.  They tend to be comfortable, if that’s what you’re looking for.  With their high clearance they are good for rutty Forest Service roads, which is often where you need to go to get to an interesting campsite or trailhead.  They are adept at hauling a trailer. They can carry more passengers and hold more gear.  Why second-guess the moral standing of every SUV driver you meet on the road?

2. Can you be sure that an electric car is a climate change lightweight?  First, focusing only on the direct relationship between your car and the atmosphere as you roll down the road falls into the climate-change-as-pollution trap discussed as Misconception #1.  Yes, there are no fossil fuels being burned in your car.  But your electricity has to come from somewhere, and the impact you have on the climate depends on the fuel source of the electric utility.  In fact, it may be more complicated than this.  Even if you are drawing power from a facility that uses only renewable energy, you might be displacing some other customer who has to switch to electricity from a fossil fuel source.  Without a rather detailed analysis it’s hard to say.

And then there’s the matter of the energy used up, directly and indirectly, in the production and maintenance of your car.  We are speaking here not only of the consumption of fossil fuels in the assembly process, but also the parts, and the parts of the parts, and the machines that make all these parts, and minerals that have to be extracted, processed and shipped for all of the above, and for the infrastructure that gets the juice into your car when you need it.

This is the economic calculation problem in spades.  If we ever get a real climate policy and carbon prices rise to where they ought to go, you’ll simply find out what the score is.

3. This post is not a diatribe against electric vehicles, any more than it is a defense of SUV’s.  And it’s completely agnostic on electric SUV’s.  The point is: don’t look for a solution to climate change based on shopping.  True, a vehicle is an expensive investment, so you might want to plan ahead and consider how you’ll be affected by climate policy, under the optimistic assumption that society will get its act together.  But if you want to do your thing to save the planet, get political, not shoppy.

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