Cognitive Dissonance from the Left

On Tuesday, the fears of many ecologists, environmentalists, and conservation biologists came true as He Who Must Not Be Named abolished many of the protections against climate change put in place by President Obama. Frankly, these should also be the fears of anybody planning to live on this planet in the coming decades. These protections weren’t going to be enough to reverse the trajectory of climate change, but complying with the Paris Agreement was our best option of at least slowing climate change.

Most businesses are unlikely to regulate their own carbon emissions if it affects their bottom line. The quick fix would be to set a global standard restricting the average carbon footprint of one human or business entity, but those attempts have met with mixed success. This no longer seems likely at the federal level in the United States, so states like California and New York have decided to control carbon emissions within their own borders. As the control of one’s carbon footprint moves down the chain of command, it is becoming increasingly obvious that this will come down to personal responsibility. So what are you going to do now to reduce your own carbon footprint? More importantly, are you sure you’re even committed to doing that?

Lately I’ve noticed more and more cognitive dissonance on the left about this issue. Liberals are arguing for increased state and federal regulations of carbon emissions (which is clearly important, and which I fully support), while not accounting for their own personal carbon footprint. Part of the rationale is, well, what difference can one person make relative to a huge coal plant spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere? That’s understandably daunting, but a large group of people with the same goals CAN offset the negative consequences of bigger entities. Look at what was accomplished during the Arab Spring. More recently, the Women’s March in January gathered together nearly a million people in the streets around cities in the U.S. and in other places in the world (and those were just the most fervent of people who were free to march that day). The full power of progressives has yet to be harnessed and put into action. If a million people can significantly reduce their carbon footprint (and maybe convince a few friends to do the same), that can offset a lot of carbon pollution.

“But I’m already conscious of my carbon footprint”, you say. Great. I’d guess that on average, liberals probably have a lower carbon footprint than conservatives, though I wonder about that when I think about how many of us travel long distances for work, conferences, vacation, etc. See here for a previous post about your conference carbon footprint. Just because you’re conscious of it doesn’t mean we can’t be doing more. Is it fair? Nope. It’s never fair that the conscientious have to sacrifice more, but it’s the only way to avoid the tragedy of the commons. So let’s not worry about fair and still do what’s right. I’m infuriated when I have to pull my neighbors’ recycling out the the dumpster, but it doesn’t mean I dump my recyclables in there too. So you’re going to have to make bigger sacrifices than others, but if you are truly concerned about climate change, put your efforts where your mouth is, starting today.

Speaking of your mouth, think about what you’re putting in it everyday. The Women’s March has yet to produce substantive change, but our diet choices as consumers have. Between 2005 and 2014, Americans cut their beef consumption by 10% (a pretty modest decrease), and cut carbon emissions equal to the annual output of 57 million cars. That’s a huge decrease in carbon emissions for a very small sacrifice. How many hamburgers and steaks do you eat per year? Think you could cut it in half to save the world? Or *gasp* stop eating beef altogether? If you want to think more about your food choices, here are the foods that are the biggest contributors to climate change:

If you’re not a vegetarian or a vegan, you could be doing more. (except for eating asparagus, which was a big surprise to me! apparently it’s because there’s so much air travel required to get asparagus to market.) Besides it being better for your health, you’re also helping to save the lives of those that would otherwise be lost to climate-related tragedies. How many times have we all been at a scientific conference, where we spend the whole day talking about the effects of climate change, followed by a dinner where everybody orders meat.

If you want an example of cognitive dissonance, think about a table of ecologists gorging themselves on cheeseburgers, while complaining about what Trump is doing to the EPA. 

What if we thought more about what to feed ourselves and our kids? Or what if we thought more about whether or not to have kids at all?

Yeah, that’s right. I’m grabbing that third rail and criticizing people for having kids. I will argue that ultimately the biggest contributor to climate change is overpopulation. Yes, I’ve heard the argument that your kids will be better environmental stewards. But will their green lifestyle have less carbon footprint than their non-existent counterpart? NPR had a great story about the ethics around whether or not, as a conservationist, it makes sense to have kids. I know I’m not going to change many minds on this, but this is really something that we need to talk about more. Consider this: if you drive less often, drive in a hybrid car, recycle, use energy-efficient appliances, and do all the other things you should be doing to live a green lifestyle, you could save 488 metric tons of carbon over the course of an 80 year life. That’s a lot of work, with a huge payoff in carbon credits. If you choose to have one fewer child, you save 9,441 metric tons! That’s 20 times the benefit for doing nothing at all. We don’t talk about these numbers nearly enough, because it’s taboo to tell people not to have kids. But here I am telling you, stop putting more and more people on this planet.

Look, I don’t hate your kid. In fact, I like kids a lot. My best friend is pregnant and I can’t wait to meet that kid. I know there are more considerations than just climate change when deciding how to live your life. I’m just saying, the cost of your decisions to the world deserve some consideration too.

Not eating your favorite foods is a huge sacrifice. I love a well-prepared ribeye, a sizzling al pastor taco in Los Angeles, or a properly fried piece of chicken. Deciding not to have kids, or at least having fewer kids, is even more of a sacrifice for a lot of people. When we make these decisions, too often we forget the fate of millions of people who will suffer from climate change. Are you willing to help out? Or are you going to only rely on the government and other people to do that? Keep marching, and keep calling your congressperson and senators and asking for big-scale changes…but while we’re doing that, let’s also take personal responsibility for our own actions. If I’ve learned anything from the post-election protests and marches, it’s that collectively, we have so much potential energy that just needs to be put into action. I leave you with the cliche quote from Margaret Mead:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Imagine what a large group of thoughtful, committed citizens could accomplish. Be a thoughtful, committed citizen.

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