02/21/2007 02:46 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Al Gore's Environmental Footprint is Irrelevant

Having finally gotten the memo that the debate on climate change science is over, conservatives now need a new attack on green advocates. It appears they're reverting to an old standby: hypocrisy. Watch (via Hugg) as FOX News' Sean Hannity lays out the charge against Al Gore:

The hypocrisy attack on environmentalists is extremely common, so it's worth discussing why it's almost entirely bogus. I've inveighed against it numerous times (see here, here, here, here, and here), but once more for the cheap seats.

Hannity fails to mention that Al Gore works hard to mitigate his impact on the climate. Gore purchases offsets to account for the carbon emissions of all his air travel, just as he did for his movie and his book. He purchases green power for his home, drives a hybrid, and flies commercial when possible. But he's no doubt slipped up and there's no doubt more he could do. A snide, tabloidy cable-TV debate over Gore's personal rectitude is just what conservatives want. It's red meat and character assassination rather than substantive policy debate (i.e., it's FOX).

But it's utterly beside the point. Nobody -- least of all Al Gore -- would claim that it's possible in today's world to be a high-profile issue advocate without negatively affecting the environment. It's scarcely possible to be a functioning citizen of a developed country without having a substantial environmental footprint.

The merits of carbon offsets are hotly debated, so erring on the side of caution would mean abjuring all carbon-emitting activities. That rules out all non-self-propelled travel; it means going off-grid and growing all one's own food and neither participating in nor purchasing the results of any industrial process. Etc. It's possible to reduce one's environmental footprint substantially, even to get it close to zero, but it requires extraordinary effort and self-discipline, and a life far, far out of the mainstream in any developed country.

Almost by definition, very few people are going to attempt that kind of lifestyle. Does that make all greens who fall short of that mark hypocrites?

Of course not. The primary message of the green movement is not that everyone should become monks. The primary message is that we need to change the system -- the laws and physical infrastructure that underpin our collective life. We need a new industrial revolution that makes eco-friendly living the default choice, the one that requires little thought, much less heroics.

On the positive side, that means changing the way we produce electricity. It means creating benign ways of traveling. It means figuring out how to build zero-impact houses and buildings, shifting to sustainable agriculture, and creating dense, walkable, safe cities. On the negative side, it means putting a steep price on carbon, either through taxes or cap and trade systems. It means removing subsidies from fossil fuel industries, internalizing pollution costs for other industries, and pouring massive amounts of R&D into clean energy. (For more on green solutions, see here.)

These are the kinds of things Gore is out stumping for. If he helps achieve these changes, the good that results will outweigh his personal environmental footprint by many orders of magnitude. If he can't succeed in generating these kinds of changes, reducing his personal environmental footprint will amount to pissing in the wind. The system's got to change or we're all screwed, whether or not Al Gore occasionally flies on a private plane.

Living an eco-friendly lifestyle is a mark of personal virtue, but nothing will substitute for systemic changes in the way the world economy operates.

Gore's personal environmental footprint is irrelevant. Don't get sucked into Hannity's distractions.