It is human nature to overlook or excuse one’s own hypocrisy by saying (or thinking) that other people are worse. This isn’t really good enough though, particularly if you are going to try to convince other people that they need to change the way they act.
It is much easier to accept the things that we want to believe are true, while ignoring those facts that are inconvenient. This may be OK on day to day things, but it is something we really should try to eschew in politics. It is also something which every one of us should try to avoid when it comes to minimising the serious dangers presented by human-induced climate change.
I’ve just finished reading “Heat: How to stop the planet burning”, a book by George Monbiot which is one of the better things I’ve read on climate change precisely because it does attempt to be honest and comprehensive. He is as willing to criticise pro-conservationists as he is to can coal companies when he believes there is self-deception (or worse) happening. As he says in this column:
If the biosphere is wrecked, it will not be done by those who couldn’t give a damn about it …….. It will be destroyed by nice, well-meaning, cosmopolitan people who accept the case for cutting emissions, but who won’t change by one iota the way they live.
Whilst he looks at what policy approaches governments and business should adopt, he also seeks to convince us all to take personal responsibility for changing our behaviour, rather than just blame governments and deny we have anything much to do with it. After all, governments are unlikely to make the significant changes needed if they don’t believe the population will wear them. Of course, changing our individual behaviour is also mostly a waste of time unless society as a whole does the same (and the rest of the planet is basically on board in their own way too).
Ironically, the main reason I managed to find time to finish all of Monbiot’s book was because I had a big chunk of uninterrupted time to read it – as I was flying from Sydney to Perth and then back over to Brisbane again later that same day. Monbiot sets a very high target for emission reduction – 90 percent reduction by 2030, which he believes is necessary to be reasonably sure the temperature rise can be kept to two degrees– any higher than this and the tipping points may start kicking in which will make bigger temperature hikes irreversible no matter what we then do. This target is more severe than the 60 per cent reduction by 2050 which the CSIRO advocates. However, despite the big reductions suggested, he looks at the main areas of activity to assess if it is technologically and economically feasible to make the necessary cuts in emissions. Rather promisingly, he assesses that we can do it without major reductions in our overall quality of life– if we take major action and take it now. However, the one area where he believes it will not be feasible is air travel – “long distance travel, high speed and the curtailment of climate change are not compatible.”
In deciding what sorts of policy and behavioural changes are needed to address the risks of climate change, we really need to stick to the science and the facts and try to avoid just picking solutions which match our prejudices or ideology, and rejecting ones that don’t. This is easier said than done, as the sciences of measuring carbon and other emissions and assessing the economic costs and benefits of various actions is not inch perfect.
If you are to accept Monbiot’s measurements, about the only escape clause is that he has made his assessments based on the UK, and Australia may have a few extra options when it comes to low emissions energy production, efficiencies and possibly extra savings through carbon geosequestration (extra only because we generate such a high proportion of our energy through coal and gas)
A little over a week ago I and other Democrat Senators announced that we would be trying to be carbon neutral in our campaigning during the 2007 election year. This will be done partly through funding offsets to balance our activities, and partly through trying to reduce the overall amount of carbon emissions we’re responsible for. While offsets are better than nothing and at least try to factor in the environmental cost of greenhouse emissions, we really need to be changing our behaviour significantly so there is a major decrease in the total amount of emissions.
By far the biggest area of emissions for politicians is air travel. It does sometimes irk me to see environmentalists (of which I consider myself one) flying all over the country (and the world) campaigning on the dangers of climate change with very little recognition of the massive greenhouse impact which flying has. I presume part of the reason it has got less attention so far is because air travel is not counted under the Kyoto Protocol – a neat loophole which may have helped us kid ourselves for a few years longer, but obviously cuts no ice with the atmosphere.
I won’t be reducing my flights to zero overnight, so I will have to endeavour to use carbon offsets where necessary (such as through this type of website). However, I will need to try to cut back the flights as well. (Monbiot is very harsh on the notion we can just pay to offset our emissions – saying “buying and selling carbon offsets is like pushing food around on your plate to create the impression that you have eaten it”).
To have some sort of measurement of whether I am cutting back my total amount of flying, I am in the process of tallying up the total number of flights and air miles I have undertaken in recent years. The initial bit of data I’ve had compiled suggests that in 2004 I took 260 individual flights (which does not necessarily equate to 130 return flights, as some of them would have been a series of legs before I ended up back home). Some of these would have been as short as Sydney-Canberra, while there were a few of the Brisbane-Perth variety, as well as to Christmas Island and Nauru. Longer flights naturally produce more emissions, although the short haul ones are even worse on an ‘emissions per kilometre’ basis.
I must say that figure of 260 seems a bit large – 5 flights per week – and I will need to check the details again. It is probably a higher than average figure for an Australian politician, although it also would be lower than many Ministers and shadow ministers. However, it’s fair to say I – and many other Australian politicians – fly a bloody lot, and really should be starting to look at ways to do a lot less of it.
Anyway, time for me to get to bed. I have a long flight ahead of me tomorrow. (Going from Brisbane to Hobart – not to campaign on climate change at all, but for a Senate Committee inquiry hearing into funding for disability services).
PS: A Brisbane to Hobart return flight equals 3582 kilometres, which according to this site will produce the equivalent of 1.06 tons of carbon, which I can offset for $22.41. However, according to this site it generates 4.89 tons of carbon, which will cost $88.02 to offset. I can see this is going to be messy, but one has to start somewhere.
UPDATE: This piece in The Guardian (found through The Daily Briefing) by the head of the International Air Travel Association seeks to portray air travel in a better light with respect to greenhouse emissions. I didn’t find it overly convincing I must say, but the comment thread following on from it covers most of the points that could be made in response.