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Consumer Education Key to Climate Policy Progress

Getting consumers to accept personal responsibility for their carbon usage is a critical step in building a durable political coalition to address climate change.  Consumers who are concerned about their personal CO2 emissions are likely not only to reduce their emissions, they are much more likely to strongly back carbon taxes and other climate-friendly legislation.

Key messages of a consumer-directed campaign include:  “Each gallon of gas you use puts 20 pounds of CO2 into the air,” “the CO2 you put in the air stays in the air,” and “reduce the CO2 that you can, offset what you can’t.”

A consumer-centric campaign will advance a number of key climate goals.  First, to the extent that consumers embrace the messages of the campaign, tangible CO2 reductions will result, as they become more concerned about their carbon usage.  Second, people making sacrifices to reduce and/or offset their CO2 emissions will be more forceful advocates for practical political solutions to help reduce their CO2 emissions.  Third, an effective consumer-directed campaign will educate the public regarding the enormous quantities of CO2 that we emit, and provide some sorely-missed numeracy and moral urgency to the CO2 debate.

Mainstream environmental organizations concerned about climate have largely avoided asking consumers to take personal responsibility for their carbon emissions, fearing that “guilt tripping” consumers could lead to backlash.  Instead, they have focused climate messaging on blocking developing of oil infrastructure such as the Keystone XL pipeline, promoting divestment from oil companies, and pushing carbon taxes legislatively.   While all of these efforts are worthwhile, they do very little to engage the ordinary consumers and voters who are each spewing, on average, about a hundreds pounds of CO2 into the air every day.

Australia’s recent reversal on carbon taxes is instructive.  Their modest carbon tax measure did not have broad-based popular support and understanding, and therefore it was vulnerable to a simplistic anti-tax campaign.  If Australian voters had better understood their personal contribution to the CO2 crisis, and had already made some sacrifices to reduce their CO2 emissions, they would have been more supportive of the carbon tax, and better able to resist its repeal.   Springing a substantial new tax on consumers anywhere is unlikely to enjoy sustained support, if consumers haven’t bought deeply into the underlying goals of the tax.

Most Americans understand that climate change is occurring, and that fossil fuels have something to do with it.  But until they understand the amounts and sources of their personal CO2 emissions, the scope of the personal and societal effort required to reduce those emissions, and the moral case for reducing and offsetting emissions, the popular support required for effecting major societal changes in carbon policy will be inadequate.

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