Are our gestures on climate change empty ones?

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates

Empty Gestures on Climate Change is an article by Bjorn Lomborg.  You'll find it here.  The gist of his argument is found in the next paragraph:

"Switch to energy-efficient light bulbs, wash your clothes in cold water, eat less meat, recycle more, and buy an electric car: we are being bombarded with instructions from climate campaigners, environmentalists, and the media about the everyday steps we all must take to tackle climate change.  Unfortunately, these appeals trivialize the challenge of global warming and divert our attention from the huge technological and policy changes that are needed to combat it."

The following is how his blog continues:

"... For example, the British nature-documentary presenter and environmental campaigner David Attenborough was once asked what he as an individual would do to fight climate change.  He promised to unplug his phone charger when it was not in use.  Attenborough’s heart is no doubt in the right place.  But even if he consistently unplugs his charger for a year, the resulting reduction in carbon-dioxide emissions will be equivalent to less than one-half of one-thousandth of the average person’s annual CO2 emissions in the United Kingdom.  Moreover, charging accounts for less than 1% of a phone’s energy needs; the other 99% is required to manufacture the handset and operate data centers and cell towers.  Almost everywhere, these processes are heavily reliant on fossil fuels.

Attenborough is far from alone in believing that small gestures can have a meaningful impact on the climate.  In fact, even much larger-sounding commitments deliver only limited reductions in CO2 emissions.  For example, environmental activists emphasize the need to give up eating meat and driving fossil-fuel-powered cars.  But, although I am a vegetarian and do not own a car, I believe we need to be honest about what such choices can achieve.  Going vegetarian actually is quite difficult ... [and] a systematic peer-reviewed study has shown that even if they succeed, a vegetarian diet reduces individual CO2 emissions by the equivalent of 540 kilograms – or just 4.3% of the emissions of the average inhabitant of a developed country.  Furthermore, there is a “rebound effect,” as money saved on cheaper vegetarian food is spent on goods and services that cause additional greenhouse-gas emissions.  Once we account for this, going entirely vegetarian reduces a person’s total emissions by only 2%."

This how it ends, and his key message is in the final two sentences:

"Significantly cutting CO2 emissions without reducing economic growth will require far more than individual actions.  It is absurd for middle-class citizens in advanced economies to tell themselves that eating less steak or commuting in a Toyota Prius will rein in rising temperatures.  To tackle global warming, we must make collective changes on an unprecedented scale.  By all means, anyone who wants to go vegetarian or buy an electric car should do so, for sound reasons such as killing fewer animals or reducing household energy bills.  But such decisions will not solve the problem of global warming.  The one individual action that citizens could take that would make a difference would be to demand a vast increase in spending on green-energy research and development, so that these energy sources eventually become cheap enough to outcompete fossil fuels. That is the real way to help fight climate change."


There are some tough points in here for electric car owners like me, even if we have (as I do) solar panels on the roof.  There are tough messages for us all as we stumble our way to a future where fossil fuels are either sidelined, or fully carbon-compensated for.  Lomborg is not everyone's cup of tea, but I listen to him because his is a distinctive voice in the cacophony of would-be influencers, and he is no sceptic.  I also listen because I think what he says about focusing on only a few of the SDG targets makes economic and practical sense, and because I have long resisted the siren call for individual behaviour change that has been embedded in modern environmental education since its first imaginings in the late 1960s.  At best, this misses Lomborg's point about the sort of change that is needed; at worst it is a hair-shirty, guilt-assuaging, holier/greener than thou, negative process that says modernity is a mistake.

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates


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