July 29, 2009

Should we expect climate scientists to cut their carbon footprint?

I saw an article by someone who talked to climate scientists, and found they were planning to take long plane trips. Trips like that create a lot of CO2 - doesn't that say they aren't serious about climate change?

No. This kind of analysis is misleading.

First, air travel is a relatively small contributor to CO2, and that the marginal cost of CO2 reductions from other sources is very likely much larger. Air travel isn't really the place to start. This is a good example of why public policy is better than random, ill-considered individual action. Better is a society-wide program like carbon taxes and/or cap-and-trade, which unleash the power of markets to find the easiest and cheapest ways to cut CO2 emissions.

Markets are nice and simple, in many ways. Unfortunately, institutional resistance (primarily the car makers, but also the oil & gas industry) has killed any chance of a gas tax, and is working hard (joined by other fossil fuel producers, primarily coal) on killing a cap-and-trade market approach, so all that's left is regulation, such as CAFE and the efforts of CARB.

Second, people don't want to be the only ones doing making sacrifices: they know that their individual contribution is tiny, and their personal sacrifice is very large to themselves. They want uniform rules so that everyone is sacrificing.

Sports give us some good analogies: no player is going to wear protective gear that gives them a disadvantage, but they are likely to be very much in favor of uniform rules that require all players to wear the gear.

But, if you talk the talk, Shouldn't you walk the walk, or be a hypocrite?

Sure. If a climate scientist says that everyone should take the individual initiative to stop flying, and then goes ahead and flies, he's a hypocrite.

But...is that the case? Do scientists actually say that? I suspect not. I think if you look at their public statements on What Should Be Done (if you can find any - many confine themselves to the science), I think you'll find that they recommend changes in public policy, and when they talk about individuals they mention relatively minor personal changes like CFLs and electronic thermostats: things that actually save people money, or are minor sacrifices.

We don't want to lump together everyone who deals with climate change. Is the average climatologist out there being an activist? Mostly not.

Scientists....activists..mostly different. Sure, there's the occasional Hansen, but they're mostly different groups.

Doesn't this suggest that human nature isn't conducive to solving climate change via billions of people deciding to restrain their fossil fuels consumption?

Sure. Individual actions can help a bit, but it's very clear that public policy ("rules of the game") is the big lever.

If a police chief were to advocate for a law against drunk driving, and then were to commit the currently legal act of drunk driving, we wouldn't think much of him.

Sure. I'd have to say that I'd agree that climate scientists probably are being at least a little hypocritical. Part of it is probably external influences, like pressure to go to meetings for professional reasons, and family desire for vacations. And, partly....they're human.

But...does that really say anything about climate science? Of course not. It does say something about the difficulty of dealing with climate change. I'm not all that optimistic, and I would say that we really need to develop cheaper low-CO2 tech, to make dealing with climate change less painful to implement.

Here's a comment from WCW:

hypocrisy is not interesting, and even if it were, this is not hypocrisy. Individual virtue is not a solution to collective-action problems. The way we solve collective-action problems is collectively. The fair question about hypocrisy is something like, have you organized to help stop AGW, have you voted for people who have committed to stopping AGW, and such. Any question about individual behavior is prima facie misdirection, and calls into question the motives of the questioner.

Good points.

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