Every few months, a new report on climate change comes out that spells doom for the future of the planet. Sometimes it’s from the International Panel on Climate Change. Sometimes it’s the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Just as often, individual scientists present their papers and studies at conferences.
The news is almost never good, Elizabeth Kolbert, the environmental scribe and thinker, has observed over years writing about the planet. Every year, scientists warn time is running out to reel back emissions. And each year, the world emits about three to five percent more greenhouse gases. In the western nations that burn the most fossil fuels, what needs to be done vs. what is being done are almost completely opposite.
For more than a decade, since Al Gore’s overhead-projected An Inconvenient Truth, we’ve been told to turn down our thermostats and stop flying on airplanes. The way to save the planet is to change your light bulbs and to buy a more efficient car, or better yet, to stop driving entirely. A few years later, food activists told us to eat food grown nearby, to stop overfishing the oceans, and to stop pouring huge quantities of water, land, and grain into raising meat.
Of those who participated, all of those at-home fixes helped, but not nearly enough. Per capita emissions continued to rise every year, dipping only slightly in 2009 when the world’s economy nearly collapsed.
The real fix, Naomi Klein argues in her book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, should’ve come from policy changes, from elected leaders making sweeping changes in regulation that try less to preserve the old economy than to create a new one. A carbon tax is one idea past due. But more dramatically, climate change legislation that redefines capitalism is the radical—and likely the only effective—way to solve the problem.
Most of the world’s economy is built on the idea of consumer growth, suburban sprawl, and cheap travel. Western development offered incentives to sit in cars for long distances and to leave lights on when convenient. Flying across a continent takes only a small fraction of a western person’s income. Remaking these incentives (and many more) might address global inequity. It would spur new industries and incentivize new forms of innovation. Almost as an aside, it would also minimize the worst effects of climate change.
That wouldn’t be simple. There’s reason to think, however, it needs to be quick. Most scientists believe that aggregate emissions since the industrial revolution need to be limited to 1 trillion metric tons. That’s not much considering the world has already emitted 600 billion metric tons, or more than half of the budget. Modest projections say that if current trends continue, we’ll emit the remaining 400 billion tons in the next 25 years. In other words, despite how many light bulbs you replaced with CFLs, the world will still emit almost the same amount of fossil fuel pollution in a quarter century as it did in the prior 200 years.
So here’s what that means for you. To hit that 1 trillion number and not go over, each person on Earth is allotted a 2,000-watt lifestyle. That’s according to a Swiss study from 1998 called the 2,000-Watt Society. This would mean different things for different people. The average person in America lives a 12,000-watt lifestyle. Bangladeshis live a 300-watt lifestyle. Getting everyone to 2,000 watts means drastic reductions for some people and dramatic increases for others. A 2,000-watt lifestyle, if you’re wondering, was defined by the Swiss researchers as someone who lives in a communal setting, rarely drives, doesn’t fly, has no TV, and doesn’t use a personal computer.
"A watt is a unit of power that indicates the rate at which we are using energy. At present, the average European uses around 6,000 watts, compared to 12,000 W in the United States, 1,500 W in China and 300 W in Bangladesh. An average Swiss currently uses 5,000 W."
Few who enjoy the benefits of modern life would willingly give them up (would you?). In fact, the only people cheering a 2,000-watt existence are the Bolivians or Nigerians who see giant leaps in life quality. But Klein’s point is that, duh, no one will change unless they’re forced to—which is a political problem more than a scientific one. Legislating a solution to climate change won’t just mean assigning big winners and losers, it means that some countries—particularly the United States and those in Western Europe—will need to willingly declare themselves losers and commit to a substantially different quality of life that, no matter how adaptive, will require a seismic adjustment in less than a generation.
Put this way, stalling on climate change isn’t a result of crazy people and science doubters. It’s a function of you (and me) being unwilling to change our lifestyles to, at the very least, balance them with the rapidly rising ones of people in developing countries. Oil companies with high-dollar lobbyists take their cue from their customers who would balk at higher rates. Fuel-guzzling airlines fight for low taxes to accommodate more passengers. Carbon credits and hybrid cars not only fail to solve the problem, they hardly even help. When put in context of the planet’s future, the fix to fossil fuel largess need be something big.
Either that, or nothing at all.