Why Should I Be Good? If the world is to slow global warming, individuals need a helping hand
THE QUESTION IS AT LEAST AS OLD AS SOCRATES:
IF we know what the right thing to do is, why do we not do it? It’s an especially acute question when applied to global warming. The science showing that carbon-dioxide emissions are already changing the planet’s climate, and are likely to have severe effects (melting ice caps, sea-level rise, species extinction), is compelling and now barely disputed. Almost 90% of Europeans say they recognize climate change as a major issue, and 75% identify fossil-fuel emissions as a major cause.
And yet, as was widely discussed at a conference of environmentalists, geologists and writers last week in Ankelohe, Germany, public understanding has not translated into even the simplest of public actions. Less than 1% of Britons, for example, have switched their home electricity to renewable sources, even though it requires little more than a phone call to one’s existing provider (I should know-I did it last week). Proportions on the Continent are slightly higher, but there’s clearly no rush to go green or shudderstop driving cars.
Why such a disconnect between information and action? Part of the problem is that environmental advocates emit mixed messages. In mid-May, Britain’s Guardian published a front-page story showing that five companies in Britain produce more C02 pollution in a year than all the country’s motorists combined. That’s a strong argument for targeting industry, but the average reader could hardly be blamed for thinking, “Why should I bother to cut down my driving?”
Similarly, not enough thought has been devoted to the best role for government. Climate change is too vast a problem for individuals to solve alone, and some big businesses have an incentive not to solve it. That leaves government to take the lead, which is tricky, because overreliance on government can allow individuals to fob off their own responsibilities. What’s worse, government power seems to tickle autocratic fantasies. In my experience, environmentalists spend far too much energy advocating hard-line government “solutions” that don’t stand a chance of being enacted. Sure, it might be good for the planet if governments banned the use of sport-utility vehicles-or, for that matter, of all fossil fuels. Yet not only is it hard to sell outright prohibitions to voters, but the sad truth is that governments have a woeful record in even the mildest interventions.
One of the most significant innovations in the last decade has been Europe’s carbon-emission trading scheme: some 12,000 companies, responsible for more than half of the E.U.’s emissions, have been assigned quotas. Companies with unused allowances can then sell them; the higher the price, the greater the incentive for firms to cut their use of fossil fuels. The system seemed to work for about a year-but now it turns out that Europe’s governments allocated far too many credits, which will likely hinder the program’s effectiveness for years.
Perhaps the real reason that; well-intentioned consumers m don’t change is that they don’t see any benefit. Climate change may be a frightening, irreversible versible calamity, but its worst is the effects will not be felt next week or next year. The planet looks the same whether I buy a skychoking gasoline-powered car or an electric hybrid-except that I’ve got to pay at least $3,000 more for the hybrid.
And so there’s something that governments and environmentalists ought to agree on, right now: give consumers a motivation to go green. Currently, if I pay my utility bill through a direct debit to my checking account, I get a small but welcome discount. It should be the same if I switch to renewables: the utility should give me a saving, which the government can subsidize with a tax break (it can’t be more expensive than building the nuclear stations that Prime Minister Tony Blair proposed in May). Similarly, Britain gives motorists breaks on efficient cars, but new guidelines make the program so restrictive that it’s useless. Instead, governments should be moving in the opposite direction: give me a cash rebate for buying a highly efficient car, and charge me a tax if I don’t. Such “feebates” are gaining popularity with state governments in the U.S.
Yes, consumerism itself is part of the global-warming problem-but so are population growth, agriculture and a host of other realities that aren’t going to go away just because environmentalists disapprove of them. If climate change can be slowed, it’s going to require an attack on all fronts. Getting the public genuinely involved in modest but effective solutions will not only cut the growth in carbon emissions, but help build the constituency for the larger tasks needed. Even the virtuous need an incentive, as Socrates would surely admit if he was still around.