Carbon offsets alone aren’t going cut it

It is not often that a sermon gets to me. This could be because most sermons, while they may be very well written and passionately delivered, have topics that hit my snooze button. Occasionally though I hear a sermon that does resonate. Even more rarely, I hear one that chimes all my bells. Such was the case last Sunday when the Reverend Dennis Daniel (co-minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston that I attend) gave a sermon entitled Footprints, Bootprints and Tireprints… If you have the time, please read it. It deserves a much wider audience than the couple hundred people who heard it in person.

Rev. Daniel articulated the real tradeoffs required to seriously address global warming. I am all for replacing incandescent lights with fluorescent or LED lights. Nevertheless, if this is how we intend to respond to global warming we might as well try to bail out the Titanic with a teacup. Not only is global warming a real problem, it is much, much worse of a problem than we are really prepared to think about.

Perhaps it is best to stay in denial. At least if you stay in denial you can leverage hope. I do not wish to sound like the problem is completely hopeless. However, given our current culture and our human dynamics, to soberly address global warming it will take a seismic shift in attitudes the likes of which have never occurred in human history. Perhaps all it will take is to have a few atolls submerged by rising seas for the worldwide consensus to become overwhelming. However, given our human history it is much more likely that the challenges of global warming will be manifest in massive migrations, war and pestilence. I suppose that if we were to engage in enough global genocide we could seriously reduce our carbon footprint. Dead men are carbon neutral.

The Rev. Daniel nailed it. In his sermon, he suggests that if we could regress our lifestyle to 1950 (with its requisite population) then maybe we could get a handle on global warming. In 1950 because our expectations and salaries were modest, instead of having two or three cars, we felt fortunate to have one. That was all most families could afford. Our electricity needs were similarly downsized. Lacking air conditioning, we got by on fans. Books and a radio were our entertainment. We got most of our produce locally because it was too expensive to ship it from far away places. It was easier to survive without a car because we tended to live either in well-connected cities or in smaller villages.

Could Americans revert to such a lifestyle again? I am dubious but I notice one other telling statistic. In 1950, the population in the United States was about 150 million. In a little more than fifty years, we have doubled our population. To have the same carbon footprint we had in 1950 not only would we have to radically downsize our lives, but also we would have to kill one out of every two of us. Umm, you first.

That is not going to happen of course. We will address global warming by tackling the relatively easy stuff first. Changing out light bulbs is the easiest. We will work at creating more energy efficient cars and appliances, and there is a lot we can do to make our homes more insulated. Solar energy and wind power is there for the taking too. There is promising research that suggests that solar panels can be made as cheap per kilowatt-hour as power generated from coal burning power plants. All this will require a massive amount of reinvestment and research. Instead of using teacups to bail water out of the Titanic, we might be using pails instead. The ship though will still go down rather quickly.

Many of us think we can resolve our guilt by being “carbon neutral”. In case you are not familiar with the term, some speciously claim they can buy enough offsets to compensate for their carbon addicted modern lifestyles. Typical offsets include funding organizations that plant new trees. As the Rev. Daniel points out, this really does little to address global warming either. It is not that we cannot replace the carbon dioxide for our jet trip to Portugal elsewhere. It is just that our real carbon footprint is far bigger than this.

Consider the carbon burned just to get a newspaper to your door. The whole newsprint supply chain is carbon intensive. Of course, it is but one example. Every convenience of modern society brings with it its carbon footprint. Just writing this blog entry, I am consuming carbon, because my computer is using something like 200 watts of power. In some coal-burning power plant a couple hundred miles from here, some chunk of coal is being incinerated so I can post this online.

To be carbon neutral as a society, massive changes are required. Everything in our supply chain must be reengineered to minimize its carbon footprint. Of course we are unlikely to get rid of the carbon altogether. If we are extraordinarily lucky, we may squeeze 30% to 50% of the carbon out of our manufacturing and distribution processes over the next 50 years.

However, all this efficiency reduces, but does not eliminate, the carbon required to run our modern society. Yet this alone means nothing as long as population growth increases. I have seen a number of studies that say the Earth can sustain no more than a billion humans without it having a negative carbon impact on the planet. In short, 5 out of 6 of us need to be planted six feet under, and arguably those of us in first world countries should be the first to be planted.

What we need is for all countries to reduce their population growth, but especially in first world countries, which produce a disproportionate amount of the carbon causing climate change. China seemed to be on the right track when it limited family sizes to three. However, it is currently engaged in its own frantic plan to become a first world nation, and its carbon footprint is becoming huge. It is hardly alone.

What is the likelihood that humanity can peacefully come together, agree to reduce its population, aggressively move toward carbon neutral technologies, end deforestation and peacefully figure out how to spend generations in a negative growth cycle? Sure, it can be done with enough will. Will we get that kind of will? If past behavior is a predictor of the future, our chances are slim to none.

To end global warming means that each generation should expect to have fewer opportunities and less comfort than the previous generation. It is a depressing prospect, and hardly the sort of scenario that inspires us toward hope. Instead, we will likely choose selfishness and convenience. We will choose it because we can. Let someone else be carbon neutral, is what we will decide. We will take measured steps toward being carbon neutral, but if it involves more than a modicum of pain (and God forbid that it raises our taxes), it will become politically unacceptable.

I have a fantasy that I am carbon neutral. My roof and backyard are covered with solar cells. I have an enormously tall windmill in my backyard that generates electricity too. With these steps, my energy efficient windows and my insulated walls I am all set and guilt free.

Except that I still would need to get to market to buy food. I could not grow it all in my backyard. I would still need to see doctors. I would still need to get to my job. I am fortunate enough where I can bike to work and I could even walk to work if required. I doubt all these things would be enough. I would still need someone to haul away my garbage. If I still had a child in school, she would need a way to get there. I would still need to buy clothes and appliances. All of that takes infrastructure. If it can all be made carbon neutral, it is many generations away.

For me what it comes down to is that at some level to be an environmentalist you have to hate your own species. The reality is that modern man is incompatible with the Earth. We are driven to destroy it. Our selfishness may in turn destroy us and much of life as we know it on this planet. When we go the way of the dinosaurs, perhaps the Earth will become carbon neutral again.

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