Your Carbon Footprint Doesn’t Matter (Unless You’re Michael Bloomberg)

Consumption shaming is bad science—and bad politics.

Kate Aronoff January 30, 2018


Unless you’re extreme­ly wealthy or in the top brass of a multi­na­tion­al cor­po­ra­tion, you prob­a­bly don’t need to need to wor­ry all that much about your own role in fuel­ing the cli­mate crisis.

Should Greek millennials—facing a 43 percent unemployment rate—worry about the carbon footprint of their dinner? Of course not.

Let’s break that down: Just 100 com­pa­nies have been respon­si­ble for 77 per­cent of car­bon emis­sions since 1988. The rich­est 10 per­cent of peo­ple in the world are respon­si­ble for near­ly half of emis­sions root­ed in per­son­al con­sump­tion, while the poor­est half of peo­ple con­tribute around 10 percent.

This isn’t to say you should burn plas­tic bot­tles or fly abroad when­ev­er fan­cy strikes. But if you’re look­ing for a cul­prit in the cli­mate cri­sis, you’ll have to look beyond the red meat on your plate. Con­sump­tion mat­ters, espe­cial­ly in the glob­al north. But the con­sump­tion of the rich and the com­pa­nies they run mat­ters a whole lot more.

From a polit­i­cal per­spec­tive, hyper-focus­ing on con­sump­tion might be even more wrong­head­ed than it is from a sci­en­tif­ic stand­point. For years the cli­mate movement’s bread and but­ter was con­vinc­ing peo­ple to change light­bulbs, recy­cle more and bike to work – all wor­thy pur­suits! Yet what start­ed to hap­pen around the time of Occu­py Wall Street was that envi­ron­men­tal cam­paign­ers start­ed to aim high­er: It was Tran­sCana­da, a multi­na­tion­al fos­sil fuel cor­po­ra­tion, that was threat­en­ing to build what cli­mate sci­en­tist James Hansen called the fuse to the biggest car­bon bomb on the plan­et”: the Key­stone XL pipeline.

It was big banks and major invest­ment funds that con­tin­ued invest­ing in and financ­ing tox­ic coal, oil and nat­ur­al gas assets. Fights to stop dirty infra­struc­ture projects and for fos­sil fuel divest­ment inject­ed new life into the fight against warm­ing, in large part by putting a tar­get on the head of the 1 per­cent and their waste­ful ways.

It was a smart shift. Envi­ron­men­tal­ism has long flirt­ed with the lan­guage of aus­ter­i­ty: In order to save the world, the log­ic goes, we’ll all have to give up some of the things that make life worth liv­ing — be it vaca­tions or the prospect of hav­ing chil­dren. Fix­at­ing on per­son­al con­sump­tion as a path toward plan­e­tary sal­va­tion — even as part of a broad­er slate of poli­cies — threat­ens to repeat the same mis­takes, alien­at­ing the mil­lions of peo­ple in our own coun­try and espe­cial­ly abroad who haven’t been able to con­sume enough.

Should peo­ple pick­ing up the pieces after Hur­ri­cane Maria and decades of aus­ter­i­ty in Puer­to Rico, for instance, fret about drink­ing bot­tled water for its plan­e­tary impact while their access to clean water has been shut off? Should Greek mil­len­ni­als — fac­ing a 43 per­cent unem­ploy­ment rate — wor­ry about the car­bon foot­print of their din­ner? Of course not. And sham­ing con­sump­tion will help ensure they nev­er join the cli­mate fight.

But what about Michael Bloomberg? In a fawn­ing pro­file of the invest­ment banker-turned-New York may­or-turned self-styled cli­mate hero, con­ser­v­a­tive-lean­ing U.K. paper The Tele­graph not­ed that the 75-year-old is so robust that he still skis, pilots planes and heli­copters, and some­times flies from New York to Lon­don and back in a sin­gle day.”

The best way to curb emis­sions is by mak­ing the rich less rich, and stop­ping the abil­i­ty of peo­ple like Bloomberg to sub­si­dize their twice-dai­ly trans-Atlantic flights with cor­po­rate tax breaks and off­shore accounts. That’s not to say that there aren’t poli­cies that could take sym­bol­ic pot­shots at the con­sump­tive excess­es of the 1%, like ban­ning yachts and pri­vate plane trav­el. Indeed, it might even win envi­ron­men­tal­ists a few friends, and help peel back the image that the envi­ron­ment is some­thing only peo­ple of con­sid­er­able means can afford to care about.

Today’s polit­i­cal cli­mate is defined by wide­spread anger at elites of all stripes. Don­ald Trump chan­neled that into faux-pop­ulism. Bernie Sanders chan­neled it into rail­ing against inequal­i­ty. Cli­mate cam­paign­ers can do the same — and win sup­port — by (cor­rect­ly) paint­ing the ultra- wealthy and the peo­ple cook­ing the plan­et as one and the same, and demand­ing a bet­ter life for the rest of us.

For all but the ultra-rich, low-car­bon life can be more lux­u­ri­ous than the ones most of us live now, pri­or­i­tiz­ing giv­ing every­one health­care and a decent qual­i­ty of life over giv­ing fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies $15 bil­lion in annu­al sub­si­dies. Built right, the tran­si­tion away from coal, oil and nat­ur­al gas can lay the ground­work for a more equal soci­ety more broadly.

In short, shame the rich for the con­sump­tion, not the peo­ple we might enlist to take them out of power.

Read Day­ton Mar­tin­dale’s response, A Social­ist Case for Curb­ing Con­sump­tion To Stop Cli­mate Change,” here.

Kate Aronoff is a Brook­lyn-based jour­nal­ist cov­er­ing cli­mate and U.S. pol­i­tics, and a con­tribut­ing writer at The Inter­cept. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @katearonoff.
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