What Virtue In False Promises?

One of the things that strikes me repeatedly watching the global warming debate (especially in the lead-up to and in the wake of the Copenhagen conference) is the incredible amount of excitement people have about trying to get countries to make commitments in regards to CO2 emissions which they obviously are not going to keep.

For instance, in discussing their hopes for Copenhagen, a number of environmentalists expressed hope that there would not be another “do nothing” commitment such as the Kyoto Accord — despite the fact that even those countries which did agree to Kyoto had not managed to keep those very modest commitments. The goals that environmentalists did very much want to see committed to (generally a 80-90% global drop in CO2 emissions within somewhere between 10 and 40 years) are far more aggressive, and thus far more unrealistic.

This struck me in particular when I stumbled across this advocacy piece, in which the author expresses hope that leaders of nations will commit to decreasing CO2 emissions by 80% in ten years (by 2020) and as a first step urges people to take the radical step of decreasing their “carbon footprints” by 25%. If committed environmentalists are only finding ways to decrease their household CO2 emissions by 25%, how in the world do they expect a whole country to drop its emissions by 80%?

Environmentalists have widely branded the Copenhagen summit as a failure because it didn’t produce a firm commitment to massive CO2 emission reductions within a couple decades. Even beloved left-of-center leaders such as President Obama have been branded by their own base as “irresponsible” for not making strong commitments at Copenhagen. But if there simply does not seem to be a way to achieve such reductions, if even activists willing to significantly change their lifestyles in order to reduce their personal “carbon footprints” are not able to reliably achieve such drastic reductions in the short term, I fail to understand how it was “irresponsible” of Obama, Sarkozy, etc. to refuse to commit to doing something they frankly have no idea of how to do.

Wouldn’t it be irresponsible to make a commitment you have no idea how to keep?

7 Responses to What Virtue In False Promises?

  • If committed environmentalists are only finding ways to decrease their household CO2 emissions by 25%, how in the world do they expect a whole country to drop its emissions by 80%?

    Households can reduce consumption but have to, more or less, accept the type of energy they consume. Governments can turn coal-fired plants into wind farms.

    Those who claim that carbon pricing will ruin our economy, overestimate the costs. They have the tendency to think of carbon emissions reductions as cuts in consumption alone. If we had to reduce our consumption 80%, we’d be in trouble. But most of the reductions would come from switching to alternative energy and make more efficient use of it. It’s possible to cut emissions by more than half without any change to our lifestyle.

  • Jonathan Sadow says:

    The reason that none of these leaders are making firm commitments to reduce carbon emissions is because they don’t want their peoples to live in poverty. It’s well-established that the prosperity of a society is strongly correlated with its energy consumption. It so happens that presently the most effcient energy sources also produce a lot of carbon dioxide. Reducing carbon emissions therefore necessarily reduces one’s energy use, which necessarily reduces one’s propsperity. Their rhetoric otherwise, these leaders know this, which is why, for the time being, their talk about emissions cuts will remain a bunch of, uh, hot air.

  • Households can reduce consumption but have to, more or less, accept the type of energy they consume.

    Actually, households are in the same position as power producers and governments: they can reduce consumption, or they can make massive capital outlays in order to use the same amount of energy from some other source. I could, if I wanted to spend 20-40k on it, cover my roof with solar panels and massively reduce my carbon footprint. I don’t do so because I’m hesitant to turn a monthly bill of around $100 into an immediate outlay of 300x that amount, especially when that wouldn’t even totally cut my dependence on carbon-based electricity as I’d still need to get electricity from the power company on cloudy days (like the whole last week).

    If individuals are hesitant to make this kind of massive capital outlay for questionable benefits (the idea of powering most of the US by wind and solar is massively unrealistic — at best one could do so through lots more nuclear power), I don’t know why they should be surprised if the government is unwilling to make the same sacrifices on a larger scale.

  • Like you said, solar won’t eliminate your dependence on the grid. The vast majority of us need to use electricity generated from coal. Transitioning to wind and nuclear over the next few decades is not unrealistic. 80% by 2020 may be too optimistic but 2050 is doable.

  • Big Tex says:

    Nuclear moreso than wind. Wind is good for supplementing whereas nuke power would be a solid backbone. Two problems: wind requires much real estate and has the “not in my backyard” issue to contend with. Nuke is a PR nightmare that also brings its “not in my backyard” issue.

  • I can see the concerns about promises that aren’t going to be kept, particularly as international law is so weak at holding anyone accountable to their commitment.

    However, I do want to say that your comment about activists reducing their emissions is a straw man argument. They are reducing their emissions 25% over the next year or two. They are asking the government to reduce emissions 80% by 2050, 40 years from now.

    McKinsey Consulting said that we can slash our emissions in half at net zero cost and in fact the first 40% of emissions reductions will make us money, more efficient, and more competitive internationally.

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