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Carbon Footprint Boomerang

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorMay 6, 2011 4:37 PM


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Felix Salmon, a financial journalist who blogs for Reuters, attended a panel discussion earlier this week in Los Angeles at the Milken Institute, entitled, "Solving Climate Change: Plan B." According to Salmon's dispatch, the consensus view from the panelists was that "there's essentially zero chance that a cap-and-trade bill will become law in the foreseeable future." Well, that's not exactly news, is it? What might be surprising and perhaps disconcerting to those who argue that changing individual behaviors are necessary to help reduce the kinds of carbon-intensive actions (such as flying and driving) that contribute to global warming, is this from Salmon:

One message I did get from the panel is that individual attempts to minimize our carbon footprint are not going to make any real difference. When I see people suffering a significant loss of utility because they're watching their footprint and refuse to fly, for instance, it's pretty clear that the personal cost of their decision is much greater than any global benefit. Even if they act as a role model and persuade others to follow their lead, they're still perpetuating the idea that individual actions count. And I'm not sure there's any evidence for that.

Now comes news of a study that suggests he might be right. But for different reasons. As reported by Miller-McCune, the study finds that some people react negatively when told they have a big carbon footprint. And these would be people who you would most want to persuade to cut back on their cross country flights to Vegas for a night at the roulette table. Part of the problem appears to be that the carbon footprint message appeals mostly to those that are environmentally predisposed, and in fact, may "discourage sustainable behavior among people who are not already committed to environmentalism," the study concludes. (Then again, maybe not.) Holy backlash! Reading about this finding made me rethink my own on-going battles with litterers in New York City. It's one of my pet peeves (right up there with bicyclists who race through red lights). People who casually toss garbage out their car windows or on to the sidewalk while they're walking drives me bonkers. I just don't get that behavior. But I tend not to be preachy. I usually just shoot the offender a disgusted look, or, if he doesn't have tattoos riding up both arms or any jagged facial scars, and I'm feeling pumped up from an extra latte, I'll run up to him with his discarded refuse in my hand and say, "you forgot to put this in the garbage." It never works. Usually, the louse scowls back at me, unmoved, or, as happened a few weeks ago, lets loose with a tirade of profanities that starts off with, "Mind your own fuckin' business!" (And that was a woman. I'm playing it safe lately.) Now I know: these are people who do not want to be told or reminded that they're fouling the planet. It might even make them litter more just to spite me! I'm still inclined to believe that individual actions can count for something larger, but as with any harmful behavior--from smoking to overeating, perhaps shaming someone over the size of his carbon footprint isn't the best way to go. Take it from me, who can't get shame anyone in New York City to stop being a litterbug.

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