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The Carbon Pledge

Carbon Pledge Classic PhotoI have contributed to the carbon pollution shrouding our Earth;

Now, therefore,

I pledge to no longer add to the problem;

I will cut my carbon use by 25% each of the next three years

I will offset the carbon I emit

I will encourage my friends to do the same

I will support policies which reduce carbon pollution.

I will do my share.

. . .

. . .

What is the responsibility of each of us to reduce carbon pollution?   The Carbon Pledge defines those responsibilities as reducing our personal carbon use substantially, offsetting the carbon we do use, and supporting policies that reduce carbon pollution.

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Our Atmospheric Commons Doesn’t Have to Be a Tragedy

collective action image

Worldwide annual CO2 emissions are about 35 billion tons and rising.  So what difference does it make if I ride my bike to work every day to avoid 5 tons of emissions this year, or if decide not to make that family trip to Hawaii because of the 20 tons of CO2 it will emit?  Even if I do make these sacrifices to reduce my carbon footprint, China’s emissions are increasing so fast that they will cancel my reductions out by a factor of millions.  I might as well just live my life and hope that our governments deal with the problem, or that a new technology comes along just in time to save the day.  And even if the Earth’s atmosphere becomes unlivable, there is nothing that I could have done about it.

Even for people deeply concerned about climate change, these attitudes are widespread and rational.  Why make a personal sacrifice when its effect on overall climate is negligible?  Even though my children and I would benefit from a cleaner atmosphere, we, and a billion other families, will get that benefit regardless of whether or not I personally “green up my act.”

Similar calculations are made by individuals, companies, industries, and countries the world over, and represent a major barrier to action on climate change.  No one wants to sacrifice unless everyone else is sacrificing, and many would prefer to be a “free rider” on sacrifices made by others.   Economists and social scientists refer to the refusal of individuals to give up a small individual benefit for a large collective benefit as a “collective action problem” or the “tragedy of the commons.”

Because of the widespread belief that the collective action problem makes voluntary approaches to carbon reduction impractical (or that focus on individual voluntary action will reduce pressure for institutional change), much of the focus on addressing carbon emissions has been on achieving global-level climate accords or national-level actions such as a federal carbon tax.  These supra-national or national-level efforts promised to avoid the collective action problem by imposing binding quotas and restrictions by ensuring that the sacrifice is borne by all.  Unfortunately, international climate negotiations and national carbon taxes have borne little fruit (in large part because of collective action problems occurring at the national and international levels.)

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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.”

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What Plug-in Hybrid Sales Say About Our CO2 Emissions

What do the sales numbers of the Chevy Volt and the Ford Fusion Energi tell us about carbon reduction efforts in the United States?

In June, 2014, Chevrolet sold 1,777 of the 98 MPG Volts, compared to 26,008 for the comparably-sized 30 MPG Cruze.   Ford sold a record 1939 of the 88 MPG Ford Fusion Energis in June 2014, compared to 25,665 of the other 25 MPG Ford Fusion models.

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Do Gasoline Consumers Deserve a Free Pass?

While public pressure mounts on universities and pension funds to divest from oil companies because of their role in causing global warming, consumers that buy gas from the oil companies are getting a free pass.   As long as a person isn’t driving a large SUV or Hummer, his or her gasoline usage is considered beyond reproach.  No moral stigma is attached to filling the gas tank up on a weekly basis, even though those 15 gallons of gas are releasing about 300 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere.

There are four main reasons why personal gas consumption is not negatively judged—the subtle nature of carbon pollution, the necessity of a car for modern life, the ubiquity and scale of the problem, and the fact that most of us are afraid of being branded as hypocrites with respect to our own carbon usage.

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Carbon Education for Consumers

Strategies for reducing global warming have focused mostly on stopping large oil infrastructure projects such as the Keystone XL pipeline, enacting carbon pricing strategies such as cap and trade, and promoting divestment from carbon extraction businesses.  Relatively little attention has been paid to effectively promoting voluntary carbon use reduction by American consumers, even though changing consumer carbon usage patterns holds the potential for enormous carbon emissions reductions.   On a per capita basis, Americans emit 17 metric tons (37,000 pounds) of CO2 per capita, roughly twice the European Union average and eight times as much as the Brazilian average.

The majority of Americans understand generally that it is important to conserve energy to help the environment, but lack the conceptual foundations to translate that notion into an understanding of personal CO2 emissions.  Consumers should be given the following basic conceptual tools to understand the volume of their carbon emissions: Using 1 gallon of gas releases 20 pounds of CO2 into the air; the 15 gallons in your car’s gas tank will spew 300 pounds of CO2;  1 kilowatt hour of electricity equals 2 pounds of CO2; 1 airplane mile = 1 pound of CO2.  A firm understanding these basic equivalencies, driven home by repetition, will give people a way to measure, understand and evaluate their personal carbon output, and the output of others.   

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