Stopping Climate Change Means Changing Our Lifestyle

How much sacrifice in our consumer culture is it worth to save the planet?

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Emily Atkin, a staff writer at The New Republic, argues that the government must force us to give up our consumer culture in order to save us. Because science.

C40 Cities, a network of 94 of the world’s biggest cities, released a report on Wednesday estimating how much consumption habits drive the climate crisis. The results were staggering: In those nearly 100 cities, where a combined 700 million live, the consumption of goods and services “including food, clothing, aviation, electronics, construction and vehicles” is responsible for 10 percent of global greenhouse gases. That’s nearly double the emissions from every building in the entire world.

If consumption-based emissions in those big cities continue on their current track, they will “nearly double between 2017 and 2050—from 4.5 gigatons to 8.4 gigatons per year,” the report says. That means the cities would not be able to achieve reductions necessary for the world to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, which the scientific community says is necessary to preserve a livable planet. In fact, they would use up their budget for that target in the next 14 years.

Certainly, preserving a livable planet is a goal on which we can all agree. Then again, food, clothing, housing, and transportation are pretty significant contributors to livability.

For cities to do their part to limit global warming to 1.5°C, the report says, they must limit their consumption-based emissions by 50 percent by 2030, and 80 percent by 2050. That will be extremely challenging. It will require changes in how goods and services are produced on the industrial level, which will likely require policy intervention by national governments. Scientific advancements must be made as well, including “sweeping decreases in the carbon-intensity of industrial processes such as the making of steel, cement and petrochemicals,” the report reads.

“Extremely challenging,” indeed. It’s not obvious from the summary whether population growth has been factored into these calculations.

There will be little incentive for businesses and governments to make these changes, however, if the people who support them—with dollars and votes, respectively—aren’t also making change a priority.

“Individual consumers cannot change the way the global economy operates on their own, but many of the interventions proposed in this report rely on individual action,” the report reads. “It is ultimately up to individuals to decide what type of food to eat and how to manage their shopping to avoid household food waste. It is also largely up to individuals to decide how many new items of clothing to buy, whether they should own and drive a private car, and how many personal flights to take.”

I’ve already foreshadowed the next part:

And this individual action must occur collectively. Put more bluntly, it will require personal sacrifice from our entire society. We will have to fly less, drive less, Uber less. We will have to eat less red meat, drink less dairy, waste less food, and generally buy less crap that we don’t need.
A lot of Americans won’t want to do this! So, our government may have to compel it, whether through the Green New Deal or some other legislation. Some countries are already taking small steps to address “throwaway culture”: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday that Canada will ban single-use plastics as early as 2021. But if the world is to stand a chance, the U.S. will have to take even bigger steps—nothing short of a wholesale rejection of modern American consumerism itself.

That . . . simply isn’t going to happen.

I’m persuadable that the main idea behind the Green New Deal—a massive investment in research and development—is both good policy and politically feasible. The American people might even be persuadable on some restrictions on our throwaway culture, including such things as banning single-use containers, so long as reasonably convenient substitutes are found. But we’re simply not going to put up with laws or regulations requiring us to give up our automobiles, airline flights, and most other aspects of consumer culture.

The good news, for those favoring government compellence along these lines, is that most people living in the C40 cities live under authoritarian or otherwise much less liberal regimes. Most of the megacities are in communist China. But I suspect that even those people aren’t going to be all that keen on giving up their aspiration to a middle class lifestyle.

How all of this squares with preserving a planet suitable for human habitation remains to be seen. But I think we’re going to have to figure out a way to save the planet that doesn’t require moving backwards.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Global Climate Change
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. KM says:

    But I think we’re going to have to figure out a way to save the planet that doesn’t require moving backwards.

    And that’s not going to happen, either. Sadly because of your former excellent point. We can’t make people give up their comfortable, wasteful ways without some level of unconstitutional government compulsion. We’re gonna ride this horse right into the ground. We’ve have nearly half a century since the 70’s warnings and what have we done? Next to nothing and that’s with no real urgency to push us. We’re not going to do anything till the last drop of oil’s gone and by then it will be too damn late.

    We’re going to be like the smoker who ignores all the warnings, don’t go to the doctor because pfft they’re *fine*, dismiss all the coughing and pains because it’s not *cancer* damnit, believes they have all the time in the world to deal with this…. only to freak the $@^* out at the inevitable diagnosis of terminal Stage 4 lung cancer and demand you *DO* something. At any point in this chain of events, a change of behavior would have been life-saving but hey, how dare you ask them to quit?! Isn’t it enough they can’t smoke wherever they want, they’re limited in where they can buy their stuff, unfairly raises their insurance rates just because they’re a “risk” and it costs them a fortune?! What more do you want from them, to just…. change? Stop? That’s not gonna happen!! Cancer be damned, they’re gonna light up. But they don’t want to die so better get with the saving while they smoke through their stoma, amirite?

    Human’s are idiots. We want it easy and to not give up what comforts we have. We’re not interested in sinking money into tech that’s not giving immediate payouts but will have long-term benefits because that money can be going towards a different vice. We’re not willing to give up small luxuries now to avoid losing major basics later. You can either learn to live without it now or later – one is a gradual weaning away of the thing and the other is abrupt cold turkey.

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  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Good luck to your children who will be trying to live on Mars, James.

    Seriously, if we don’t make the necessary sacrifices our children/grandchildren/great grandchildren will be making sacrifices we can’t imagine. Throwing up our hands and saying “people are too selfish to change.” is political malpractice.

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  3. Teve says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    Good luck to your children who will be trying to live on Mars, James.

    My favorite toppings for baked potatoes are chives, butter, and perchlorate.

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  4. Jen says:

    We haven’t done anything and won’t. The people who understand the trajectory we are on–really, truly understand it–are largely ignored.

    The global population continues to grow, which brings along with it a demand for food. On a planet with a changing climate, we are going to seem more droughts, more flooding, more fires. The refugee crisis water scarcity is going to trigger will make current refugee crises pale in comparison.

    People are unwilling to make even the most minor of sacrifices, like bringing their own bags to the grocery store. The planet will survive, but I think homo sapiens is nearing the end of its run.

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  5. Neil J Hudelson says:

    We don’t have to do anything.

    Eventually our behaviors will lead to a mass die-off, and the problem will correct itself.

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  6. CSK says:

    One big problem is the utter hypocrisy of celebrities who hector us on how we need to sacrifice to arrest climate change. Take Leonardo DiCaprio. The guy’s all over the place lecturing us on how we need to scale back on our lifestyles–but sends a private plane from California to Australia to fetch a make-up artist to do his eyebrows for the Academy Awards. Seriously? There’s no one competent in Hollywood? Do eyebrows outweigh carbon footprint?

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  7. Teve says:

    We’re not willing to give up small luxuries now to avoid losing major basics later.

    Humans aren’t remotely interested in making changes large enough to make this whole thing sustainable. Forest fires, hundreds of millions of climate refugees, crop failures, we’re not going to avoid any of that. Shit, you can’t talk Americans into using a paper straw for their Stroopwaffel McFlurry before they throw it into the ocean, because it’s not as gooooooooood…. and that would be on the order of a tenth of 1% of the change needed.

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  8. Stormy Dragon says:

    @CSK:

    Yeah, there seems to me to be a ladder pulling aspect to this, where the elites want to use climate change as an excuse to entrench their elite status while forcing the little people back into serfdom

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  9. gVOR08 says:

    Remember the Zero Population Growth movement of the 60s? The sensible idea that perhaps we shouldn’t swamp the world with people. Except for the Chinese, we did nothing. I used to see triumphant articles to the effect of, ‘Aren’t we happy we didn’t go along with that ZPG silliness.’ Well, the results of inaction are before us.

    I fear we’ll follow the same path. There are large, massively funded, lobby’s in favor of digging up every last ounce of carbon and burning it. Lobbying for saving the world we have??

    The world will run out of coal and oil. Our grandchildren will be forced to deal with it. They will be a smaller population, with poorer living conditions, with a history of failed migration and war, and with fewer resources. It seems moderately obvious that in the interests of our own grandchildren it would be better to solve it now, and every day we dither it gets harder. The world wants to move forward, the American public want to move forward. The only thing stopping us is the Koch owned Republican Party.

    I long ago learned a valuable lesson in project management. If you can’t form a complete plan, start moving in the right direction. With any luck, things will start to fall in place. And at least you’re not making things worse. Vote blue, no matter who.

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  10. Teve says:

    Where are we on fish species collapse? 35%? 40%

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  11. Modulo Myself says:

    Humans are monsters, no doubt, but it’s telling that when people propose stuff that’s completely reasonable–like limiting flying to once a year–the reaction is the exact same as when Al Gore flies to Davos to talk about climate change. People do terrible things because of the status quo. They commit war crimes and tolerate exploitation. We’re screwed–humans, fish, coral reefs, insects but not the planet–but there are existential choices to be made. Buying a Ford pickup so you can commute to your desk job or going to Orlando or Charlotte for a business trip are in a way less defensible than going along with segregation or slavery. The fact that Americans can’t even contemplate these decisions is insane.

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  12. Stormy Dragon says:

    @gVOR08:

    Remember the Zero Population Growth movement of the 60s? The sensible idea that perhaps we shouldn’t swamp the world with people. Except for the Chinese, we did nothing. I used to see triumphant articles to the effect of, ‘Aren’t we happy we didn’t go along with that ZPG silliness.’ Well, the results of inaction are before us.

    Ironic example given that most of Europe has population growth rates lower than China now.

    But admit it: you don’t really care if what China did actually works. You just fantasize about having a China-style authoritarian state to force your personal preferences on everyone else.

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  13. CSK says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Yes. I read an article recently that implied, quite strongly, that tourism should be limited to the rich for environmental reasons. The hoi-polloi may be dumb, but they’re not that dumb.

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  14. JohnMcC says:

    Pretty worthless economic system if it can’t adapt to the actual cost of some environmental change that it itself caused.

    The future civilization, if any, will have to do better.

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  15. Teve says:
  16. gVOR08 says:

    @Stormy Dragon: For my statement to be factual I needed to mention the exception. No other motive for mentioning China. But thank you for repeating a mindless conservative talking point. I might have missed the other thousand times I’ve heard it.

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  17. grumpy realist says:

    We could probably swap out a lot of our present transportation systems for others that are slower but greener. Replace some airplanes with Heavy Lift Zeppelins. Go back to clipper ships for international freight. Stop shipping veggies from Peru in off-season and grow them locally in hydroponic chambers instead.

    There’s stuff that we can do, but am afraid that we’ll only start looking in that direction after collapse and we learn the hard way that the Earth is a finite system.

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  18. reid says:

    Well don’t we sound like a bunch of babies. Not that I’m disagreeing with you.

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  19. Stormy Dragon says:

    @gVOR08:

    I get it: facts that don’t fit your story are FAKE NEWS, because the story is more important than reality.

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  20. Jeff says:

    The fact of the matter is that the singular biggest thing anyone can do for the environment is *very* simple:

    Dont have kids. If you *must* have one, have *one*.

    We could reduce the human population by 99.99% and still have more humans than existed during ancient times- human civilization would continue, and the earth would be saved.

    Along the lines of “Thanos wasn’t wrong”, check out Brett Battles’ PROJECT EDEN series. Horrific, and absolutely wrong in their wanton murder,… but the overall goal was noble.

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  21. Jen says:

    I encourage everyone to give this CNN quiz a spin.

    I did a LOT worse than I would have expected. The biggest eye-opener for me was food waste.

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  22. Jay L Gischer says:

    I think a carbon tax would have a big impact. We don’t dictate that people give up X or Y or whatever, just that they think about the impact of their choices when it comes to their own expenses. Most of the cities in my neighborhood have instituted a law that grocery stores must charge $.10 for a grocery bag. This encourages people to bring reusable bags, but doesn’t prevent anyone from dropping by the grocery store on a whim and getting a bag.

    This kind of policy seems like a good way forward. Not dictating, but making costs transparent, and de-externalizing externalities.

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  23. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    This kind of policy seems like a good way forward. Not dictating, but making costs transparent, and de-externalizing externalities.

    In a sane world, this would be the Republican approach to climate change instead of “NAHNAHNAHNAH I CAN’T HEAR YOU NAHNAHNAH”

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  24. Jay L Gischer says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    In a sane world, this would be the Republican approach to climate change instead of “NAHNAHNAHNAH I CAN’T HEAR YOU NAHNAHNAH”

    So much this. I’m liberal, but I’m not so liberal that I wouldn’t support efforts like I described above, even if it came from a Republican administration. But that now seems super unlikely to happen. Because the prior Republican president had strong, strong ties to the oil industry, and this one wants to Bring Back Coal.

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  25. grumpy realist says:

    @Jay L Gischer: I find it ironic that the same individuals who claim to be “pro-life” are also 99% likely to be gung-ho about coal mining, considering that mercury from coal mining is one of the nastier causes of birth defects.

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  26. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @grumpy realist: Yeah, but what are a few birth defects compared to making money? You gotta draw the line somewhere.

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  27. Gustopher says:

    @gVOR08:

    Remember the Zero Population Growth movement of the 60s? The sensible idea that perhaps we shouldn’t swamp the world with people. Except for the Chinese, we did nothing.

    The Japanese eroticized tentacle monsters, and used their other anime to popularize the notion that the ideal Japanese woman was a green haired white woman with enormous eyes, so actual Japanese women could live up to that ideal, and had their population crash.

    Between the Japanese and Chinese approaches, the Japanese version seems kinder.

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  28. Gustopher says:

    That means the cities would not be able to achieve reductions necessary for the world to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, which the scientific community says is necessary to preserve a livable planet. In fact, they would use up their budget for that target in the next 14 years.

    We are going to blow past 1.5. 2 degrees Celsius is plausible, but devastating. 3-4 is more likely, if we actually do anything.

    Fun fact: half of all carbon emissions in human history have happened in the last 30 years. Also, Al Gore is fat.

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  29. SC_Birdflyte says:

    I just read an article in SLATE which states that overnight trains are making a comeback in some parts of Europe (they’re almost extinct in W. Europe). Electrified rail lines, with power coming from renewable sources, is a possible starting point. Not that I expect anything to happen . . .

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  30. Gustopher says:

    How all of this squares with preserving a planet suitable for human habitation remains to be seen. But I think we’re going to have to figure out a way to save the planet that doesn’t require moving backwards.

    We could just redefine the term “human,” and just stop worrying about those other Morlocks or whatever. A couple of big walls, patrolled by armed guards, maybe some domes in the end, but probably not for a while.

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  31. Gustopher says:

    Meanwhile, our government and the national media focuses on rearranging deck chairs on the titanic. Admittedly, in this case the deck chairs are children and we are debating whether they should be put in cages or not.

    I hope whatever evolves after us figures out that whole caging children thing.

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  32. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Neil J Hudelson: Truth.

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  33. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: I really want to know WHAT IN THE FUCK the 2 people who objected to my comment found objectionable. Really. Tell me. Grow some balls mf’ers.

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  34. mike shupp says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    Wasn’t me, dude.

    Waste of time, though, worrying about how people respond to comments here. There’s no real good way to show facial expression or tone of voice in internet comments, even with liberal use of emojis, so it’s often difficult to see whether a remark should be read as sarcasm or sheer stupidity. Usually, one’s interpretations of ambiguous comments is shaped more by own preconceptions than what a commenter intended.

    Welcome to the pleasures of authordom!

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  35. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @mike shupp: I’m not worried, I’d just really like to know what specifically they objected to, as in “I want to know what the fuck is wrong with your head.”

    ETA: Now 3 people. The 3rd probably got more upset by my asking for an explanation than anything I said in my original comment.

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  36. Teve says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: there are several dozen intelligent commenters here, and maybe five or six common trolls. So anything under 6 downvotes I wouldn’t worry about at all.

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  37. DrDaveT says:

    How all of this squares with preserving a planet suitable for human habitation remains to be seen. But I think we’re going to have to figure out a way to save the planet that doesn’t require moving backwards.

    It doesn’t square, and “we’re going to have to figure out how to exceed the speed of light” is a bad strategy.

    The closest thing I’ve seen to an approach that leverages market forces at a sufficient scale is But Will the Planet Notice, by economist Gernot Wagner. I’m not sure that even the internalize-the-externalities (including carbon tariffs where necessary) approach that he advocates would be enough anymore, though, given what you can learn from The Uninhabitable Earth (David Wallace-Wells) about the latest climate modeling implications.

    I’m sorry that our current behavior is going to kill a billion of our great-grandchildren, but it’s pretty much a done deal now. No intervention sufficient to avoid that will be remotely politically feasible.

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  38. Ken_L says:

    @KM: Actually the smoking/lung cancer analogy is not quite apt. It’s more a case of smoking like a chimney while sneering at advice that the passive smoke is killing your grandchildren, and dying with a smug look on your face, blissfully unaware of the misery and expense you’ve caused your family in later years as they start spitting up blood.

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  39. Jeff says:

    @KM: To be fair, the warnings from the 70s said we’d already be dead by now…

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  40. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @DrDaveT: “We’ve taken all this poor world can give, and we ain’t put back nothin’.” [emphasis added]

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  41. Guarneri says:

    “.. individual action must occur collectively. Put more bluntly, it will require personal sacrifice from our entire society. We will have to fly less, drive less, Uber less. We will have to eat less red meat, drink less dairy, waste less food, and generally buy less crap that we don’t need.”

    Everyone is an environmentalist until they personally have to actually do something about it rather than tell others what they have to do. But its all for naught. We could self immolate and the Chinese would overwhelm all of our actions in short order.

    But give Ms Atkin a loin cloth and rat trap and let her have a go at it. I hear uncooked rat tastes like chicken……..

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