Anyone engaged in climate action runs into pushback from people not ready or willing to hear about our carbon pollution crisis. Climate action detractors love to accuse climate action figures of hypocrisy. "Here you are blabbing about climate change while using fossil fuels all the time." Those trying to interrupt the conversation level this charge against individuals and whole institutions. "You fight global warming by flying all over the world. How much CO2 did you people spew just to attend that climate summit?" We hear the message loud and clear--we have no authority to talk about climate change and carbon pollution because we are nothing but hypocrites.
The reality is I am a hypocrite. My life is completely infused with greenhouse gases and fossil fuel pollution. No matter how I try to untether myself from the system--abstaining from air travel in North America and buying carbon offset when I visit family in South Africa, changing all the lightbulbs in our house and hang drying clothes in the attic, walking or biking instead of driving--still I am responsible for over 13 tons of carbon pollution every year simply because I live in the USA. According to the World Bank, the average American is responsible for 17.6 tons of carbon pollution each year, while the world average per person is 5 tons. Why is this?
I leave my house and walk on public roads and sidewalks soaked in fossil fuels. The streets in my rural Pennsylvania town are lit, cleaned, and maintained thanks to the power of fossil fuels. I walk into my local grocery store, one that relies on fossil fuels for light, heat, air conditioning, and for refrigerating the products shipped in by plane and trucks. I can literally go an entire day never driving and never turning on the stove. I could shut off the hot water heater, unplug all my appliances, and never turn on a light. I could avoid the Internet and the data stored in the cloud. I could live like my Amish Mennonite neighbors, a life of simplicity off the grid, hand pumping water from a well, eating only the vegetables I grow, and still I live and benefit from a country that runs on greenhouse gases.
And even if I did my utmost to purge my life of products, hobbies, and activities that depend on fossil fuels, it would be absolutely futile in making a difference in reducing global rates of greenhouse gas emissions. It would not even a drop in the bucket; it would be a molecule of H2O in the Atlantic Ocean. Too little, too late.
We fantasize that if everyone just did their part--consumed less, went vegan, walked, rode a bike, sacrificed and conserved energy--we could make a serious dent in curbing fossil fuel pollution. Well, we have tried that tactic since the 1970s; it is not working. Guilting people into action, shaming them or appealing to their better selves is wasting time and simply does not work.
And why should I the individual consumer make all the hard choices? Sure I am responsible for my actions, but I have virtually no control over the fossil fuel lifestyle that runs my little town and my country.
When my local paper interviewed me about why I attended the Peoples Climate March last September, the reporter came with questions his editor demanded he ask of me right off the bat. "How do you heat your home? What kind of car do you drive? Are you just telling people they need to recycle more and lower their carbon footprint while you are still using fossil fuels?" I responded, "Who cares what kind of car I drive or how I heat my home because it makes precious little difference in light of the crisis we face today. This is not about what I can do as an individual but what we must do as a society, how government must act to create an environment that shapes the way we all get and use energy."
I went on to talk about the institution of slavery, and how there was a time when government and businesses ran on slave power. Free citizens, no matter how moral they were, traveled on roads built by slaves and had little choice but to buy products that at some point were dependent on the forced labor of Africans enslaved in the Americas. It was not enough to address that evil from one's home, declaring, "We refuse to participate in the slave trade in our house," because it was everywhere. The blood and sweat of slave labor soaked the entire infrastructure of the nation. Abolitionists in response to such systemic harm needed to do more than individual efforts. They needed to get government to respond on a large scale, to address injustice and the devastatingly cruel oppressive business as usual -- work that continues today because of the ongoing pressure from the people.
Perhaps that is why I stand behind ideas put forward by groups like Citizens Climate Lobby advocating for a Carbon Fee and Dividend. Place a fee on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases and suddenly we will see unbelievable ingenuity, creativity, and resourcefulness on the part of consumers--especially governments, corporations, and agriculture, the biggest consumers of fossil fuels. Instead of using that money collected to subsidize wind and solar, give it to households to help with the rising costs of fossil fuels and products dependent on them, and see a new energy market enlivened by market demand for cheaper cleaner energy supplies. As the price rises on greenhouse gases, governments, corporations, and agribusinesses will turn away from dirty energy sources and opt for cheaper cleaner ones, not because the citizens and consumers demand it from them, but because it is too expensive to do otherwise.
After decades of campaigns to curb smoking in America, the single biggest factor in getting smokers to change their consumption patterns has been to raise the price. State governments added fees to the price of cigarettes and suddenly people stopped smoking or smoked a lot less. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 42% of American adults smoked in 1965. That number dropped to 18.1% in 2012. We saw a rapid dramatic decrease in smoking over the past 10 years with the steady increase in fees placed on tobacco products. If I can no longer afford to burn a toxic substance, I will go in another direction--not out of guilt, fear, or a sense of doing the right thing, but because it costs me too much money. This is even more true for corporations and governments that constantly look for ways to save the most money.
I am tired of being a hypocrite, of profiting from destructive greenhouse gases, but our current pollution crisis is bigger than what you or I do in our homes because we cannot do enough. We need to get out of our houses, organize, and apply sustained pressure on government to change the system.
Now when someone tries to deflect a serious discussion about the climate crisis we face by accusing me of hypocrisy, I reply, "Yes, I confess, I am a hypocrite. Despite my best efforts, my country and my town and its businesses are enabling me to remain one, so that is why I want to talk to you about much bigger solutions to address pollution and climate change than those I can adopt all by myself."