Shades of green

Solutions to climate change beyond behavior reform must be researched and implemented

In his Feb. 11 column “Yes, in your backyard,” Andrew Wells asserts that the solutions to climate change must start with individuals — that we must all do our part to recycle, reduce our energy usage and think about conservation in our daily behavior. In so doing, Mr. Wells touts a line of argument that has been popular for almost a decade. Slogans urging us to “reduce, reuse, recycle” and admonitions to “do your part” have been a part of our vocabulary ever since climate change became a hot topic. Although this approach is admirable and optimistic about human nature, it will ultimately prove unsuccessful for two reasons. First, humans need incentives to change their behavior, and “the doom of the world” has proven an ineffective one; and second, it is easier to fund research that reduces the impact of our actions on the environment than it is to reform the behavior of billions of people.

A frank appraisal of challenges will address the issue of economic development. China is now the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, and though it has taken some initiatives to develop in a more eco-friendly manner, growth continues to be its main priority. It would take a major climate catastrophe to convince the Politburo to put significant headwind into GDP growth by taking on green policies that limit business or consumer behavior. Other developing areas such as Brazil, India and many regions of Africa, have also prioritized growth over sound climate policy. Many of them point their fingers at the Western world; how can we, who have grown rich by polluting the world, ask them to slow their climb out of poverty by adopting greener policies? For these countries, addressing climate change is a luxury. Their first priority, understandably, is rising out of the poverty that has defined their international status for so long.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have developed nations such as the United States, where the economic cost of implementing green policies is not as great. Indeed, there is a case to be made for simple policies — such as the cap-and-trade policy championed by President Barack Obama — that use market principles to achieve more energy-efficient outcomes. But in the U.S. we face a different problem: Decades of ingrained habits in the population make behavioral change very difficult. The Scandinavian mindset eco-friendly living requires simply will not catch on in the U.S., for multiple reasons: Our political ideologies restrict the amount of fiddling the government can do in our private lives, our large and geographically diverse country makes cars a highly attractive option for transportation, and, most importantly, we’ve spent decades living energy-wasteful lives. Though the government can offer certain incentives to change our behavior — for example, a higher tax on gasoline — it is simply too hard to encourage the sort of drastic change in behavior that would be necessary to make a significant impact on climate change.

Given these two problems, the only course of action seems to be that we must allow people to continue living their lives in roughly the same fashion while finding a way to mitigate the impact of these habits. Already, governments around the world are finding ways to do this.

Norway sells its trash to Sweden, which the latter country uses for fuel. Heavy development of wind energy in Denmark has supplemented the power grid, allowing for clean consumption of electricity. In general, the aggressive development of clean energy will help wean the U.S. off coal and oil, solving both looming budget problems and climate change problems in one fell swoop. Here in the U.S., hybrid cars are an excellent way to allow car-happy commuters to continue to drive while reducing the impact of this behavior on the environment.

Finally, there are millions of technologies being developed on this front — “green technology” is a particular fashionable and popular field, and will likely remain so for a while. But the U.S. hasn’t put the energy necessary into developing the full potential of green technology, in part because many are still wed to the idea that small-level changes in individuals’ behavior will solve the problems our planet faces. Although there are changes we can make that will help reduce the global climate change’s severity, our savior will ultimately be science, not tailoring individuals’ habits. To this end, we must find ways to do what we do now — and, in fact, do more than what we do now — in more efficient, less harmful ways. We must seek solutions that allow us to continue to live in roughly the same fashion with a fraction of the environmental cost. This goal is attainable; technologies exist today that can achieve this for us, and many more are being researched. What is required is the courage to admit it to ourselves.

Russell Bogue’s column appears Thursdays in The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at

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