Government Action, Not Consumer Guilt, is Solution to Climate Threat


Don’t you have a car?” a friend was asked by a co-worker after shar­ing an opin­ion against approv­ing any new oil pipelines. “Isn’t it hyp­o­crit­i­cal to oppose pipelines when you drive, too?” Ouch!

The ques­tion seems rea­son­able on the sur­face — and I bet lots of peo­ple get asked that by co-workers and friends. After all, “green con­sumerism” is a major strand of both the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment and cor­po­rate mar­ket­ing. We’ve been told repeat­edly to make the right choice to make a bet­ter world by pur­chas­ing an option that is lighter on the planet in some way. Com­pa­nies pro­mote the choice option as a more fair alter­na­tive to gov­ern­ment ban­ning or reg­u­lat­ing the more offen­sive option. Often the right choice, say a refor­mu­lated clean­ing liq­uid, costs more and when con­sumer pur­chases go down when a reces­sion comes along, the com­pany with­draws the choice from the mar­ket. Some choice.

In the case of car­bon con­sump­tion, the “hyp­ocrite” accu­sa­tion avoids the big issue: it’s up to gov­ern­ment to lead the way to reduced car­bon emis­sions in a coun­try so depen­dent on oil, gas and coal. The accu­sa­tion is designed to shut down rea­son­able debate about an impor­tant issue. It is the nuclear option of come-backs — hit this but­ton and blow up the con­ver­sa­tion. No need to engage in a fact-based argu­ment. Just call your oppo­nent a hyp­ocrite and you can go back to feel­ing smug and supe­rior with­out exam­in­ing your own energy use or what should be done to reduce global warming.

More impor­tantly, the pos­ture is both obnox­ious and fatu­ous. It ignores the crit­i­cal issue, which is the whole con­text in which we live: a car­bon econ­omy. The West­ern world depends on fos­silized sun­shine to power the machin­ery of indus­try, trans­porta­tion, and home life.

Per­haps even more trou­bling, the oil, gas and coal indus­tries have huge influ­ence over indi­vid­ual politi­cians and even entire gov­ern­ments and a vested inter­est in max­i­miz­ing reliance on carbon-based fuels. Envi­ron­men­tally con­cerned U.S. cit­i­zens have long been frus­trated by the power of “Big Coal.” Recent rhetoric and tax threats aimed at envi­ron­men­tal groups by Cana­dian Prime Min­is­ter Stephen Harper and his cab­i­net have clar­i­fied for Cana­di­ans just how much our gov­ern­ment is either under the influ­ence of, or aligned with the world-view of, the energy industry.

How are most peo­ple, aver­age peo­ple, real­is­ti­cally able to change their energy con­sump­tion habits when the sys­tem is deeply entrenched? The game is rigged. Where are the real­is­tic alter­na­tives to most people’s gas-hogging cars and homes? Face it, pub­lic tran­sit in most cities, yet alone sub­urbs, is incon­ve­nient and under­funded. It costs too much for aver­age peo­ple to con­vert our homes — and work­places — from car­bon fuels to solar or geot­her­mal power.

Sure, we should all use tran­sit and reduce our home energy con­sump­tion. And it will make a dif­fer­ence if enough of us do it, of course. That’s a big if. There are lim­its to what green con­sumerism and indi­vid­ual actions can accom­plish. And besides, U.S. stud­ies as far back as the 1980s find that house­holds account for only one-third of energy use and between six per­cent and 51 per­cent of emis­sions of five air pol­lu­tants with the higher emis­sions com­ing from automobiles.

Research show that peo­ple don’t want to give up their car if their neigh­bor gets to keep theirs. That’s under­stand­able: peo­ple in North Amer­ica and Europe expect gov­ern­ment to pull the starter-pistol to trig­ger the race for reduc­ing car­bon. They’re wait­ing for, and expect­ing, mean­ing­ful action from gov­ern­ment. Peo­ple also know that indus­try won’t change unless gov­ern­ment inter­venes, and peo­ple want that intervention.

Per­sonal action was seen to be point­less in iso­la­tion,” write researchers Irene Loren­zoni and Nick F. Pid­geon about their study of U.S. and Euro­pean atti­tudes about cli­mate change. “A respon­si­ble gov­ern­ment was called for to lay the foun­da­tions to meet the col­lec­tive inter­ests of soci­ety through pol­icy and by enabling indi­vid­ual duties. Yet polit­i­cal insti­tu­tions were said to be absolv­ing them­selves of that role and responsibility.”

Only gov­ern­ment can impose mechan­i­cal effi­ciency reg­u­la­tions, fuel con­sump­tion reg­u­la­tions, green taxes, cap-and-trade pro­grams, energy-efficiency build­ing require­ments, and pour large sums into a mas­sive expan­sion of our pub­lic trans­porta­tion infra­struc­ture. And let’s not for­get a roll-out of wind, solar and tidal power generation—and, arguably, nuclear power. Those are the mea­sures that will reduce car­bon emissions.

If you take indi­vid­ual action from recy­cling to dri­ving an elec­tric car, you deserve kudos for doing your bit. But if you’re ready to do your bit but feel dis­cour­aged by gov­ern­ment drag­ging their feet, don’t feel guilty. Instead, make the gov­ern­ment do what’s right. That’s our role as cit­i­zens in a democ­racy. That’s what the bal­lot box is for. And the law courts. And the court of pub­lic opinion.

Daily now, some of our neigh­bors are doing what they can to stop a dozen pro­posed pipelines from car­ry­ing var­i­ous liq­uid and gaseous car­bon across North Amer­ica. They’re work­ing to smother the pos­si­bil­ity of new car­bon sourc­ing, trans­port­ing, export­ing and burn­ing. They’re build­ing alliances with other con­cerned peo­ple to force gov­ern­ment to shift from pleas­ing the carbon-energy indus­try today and instead towards what we all need for a liv­able future tomorrow.

Mak­ing gov­ern­ment respond quickly to cli­mate change: that’s the real issue, not whether you have to drive a car to work today and so should shut up in shame.


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Gareth Kirkby is a Webster-award-winning jour­nal­ist and pro­fes­sional com­mu­ni­ca­tor. He is a can­di­date for the M.A. in Pro­fes­sional Com­mu­ni­ca­tion at Royal Roads Uni­ver­sity, Vic­to­ria, Canada. His the­sis explores the impact on char­ity groups of recent fed­eral pol­icy and enforce­ment changes, audits, and anti-charity rhetoric.

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