“. . .every American who understands the full threat of global warming has a moral obligation to make as many personal changes as possible right now.”–Mike Tidwell, in an essay entitled “Forget the Light Bulbs”Al Gore has not only helped bring the issue of climate change into our political discourse, he has also shaped and framed the discussion in terms of a moral issue. In a country obsessed with family values and strong morals, that is perhaps an effective way of getting the attention of, for lack of a better term, “the religious right.” However, by making environmentalism, and therefore environmentalists, bearers of moral propriety, he has created a situation in which the lay public views the green movement as sanctimonious.
What truly exacerbates the problem is the fact that while greens preach the importance of individual actions, the reality is that changing a light bulb and buying a hybrid are paltry contributions when compared with the massive development going on in India, China, Qatar and other places. (For more on this point, see Tom Friedman’s op-ed.pdf) In other words, the problem with framing global environmental issues in terms of morality is that individual actions are so limited, and so infinitesimal, compared with the scope of the problem, that we are left dealing with those now ubiquitous “10 things you can do to help the planet” lists, which invariably mention the same things: 1) recycle; 2) change your light bulbs; 3)drive less, walk or bicycle; and so on. . .While those actions are nice, they alone will not keep atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions below the 550 parts per million threshold above which scientists warn we must not go.Attempts have been made to compare global warming to, among other things, the civil rights movement of the 60s. But it should be kept in mind that when it came to civil rights there was a clear foe and a clear wrong that could be righted. Action could be taken in many ways: protests, boycotts, letters/speeches, and voting. At a minimum, one could choose not to be racist. It took tremendous effort, unbelievable persistence and much suffering to get the civil rights act passed, but imagine how hard it would have been had the problem been as nebulous and global as climate change. Consider the difference. Who is the foe when it comes to climate change? What clear individual actions can we take to solve the problem? Let’s not kid ourselves: efficient light bulbs and cars are great, but China is building one new coal-fired power plant a week, erasing whatever gains we might be making. This is a case where the most the individual can do is push for a change in policy, be an early-adopter of new technology, and be a well informed consumer, citizen and voter. That is not to say that individual actions are meaningless, rather, it means that when we say climate change is a moral issue we are forgetting that morality requires clarity, i.e., “this action is clearly just, and this action is clearly unjust”; and in the case of climate change, that clarity is clearly lacking.Let me give another example: the genocide in Darfur. What can an individual do? Well, one can do many of the same things as in the case of climate change: lobby congress, make donation to charities and be well-informed. However, in this case one can also make clear purchasing decisions, for instance by boycotting countries or products associated with the genocide. There is a clear action that can be potentially taken. But with climate change, even if we boycott Exxon-Mobil, we cannot really boycott oil (while we can, say, stop driving, our whole economy is so “soaked in oil” that we cannot avoid fossil fuels without completely and utterly shunning modern life). So we are left feeling guilty about everything we do.My point is that we need more than small individual actions; we need those actions to take place within a framework that encompasses the nation and strives to make bold steps to not only reduce our usage of fossil fuels, but also to create new jobs, new markets, new technologies, so that we can lead the world into a sustainable, prosperous and beautiful future. The only way we can turn this into a moral issue is by providing people with options that are clearly “good for the climate” or not. And even once we do provide those options, what is the usefulness of bringing morality into the equation? It seems to me that all this talk of morality creates nothing but guilt, resentment, fear and stagnation. But if we can get past the question of right vs. wrong, moral vs. immoral, and really take on this big problem we can, As Mr. Tidwell says,”respond in an appropriately big way. We did it during World War II. We did it during the civil rights era. And now nothing short of a Bill of Rights for our life-giving climate will do. A Bill of Rights that bans the bad stuff — new coal-fired power plants and energy-profligate cars — while incentivizing the good stuff: wind power, solar energy, and ethanol from switchgrass.”For more on how American companies are responding see the US-Climate Action Partnership (US-CAP)Mike Tidwell’s essay can be read here