By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – There is no doubt that we face a catastrophic climate crisis—and we are only now starting to see the magnitude of the impact of that crisis on our world.
For a long time, when the federal government and world governments refused to act, I believe we had to model proper carbon reduction at the local level. Moving away from fossil fuels, going to more energy efficient homes, driving less—all of that are things we should be doing.
It is important to practice what you preach, otherwise you end up looking like the governor going to a restaurant with a large group of people with no masks—it just looks bad.
But at some level, the critics are right about this stuff. In the scheme of climate change, we are not going to turn things around on the margins. It is going to take deep work and that can only happen at the multi-national level, not the local level.
Modeling proper practices—disparagingly called at times “virtue signaling”—is actually important on a lot of levels, but sometimes it becomes counter-productive.
It turns out you can be locally wise and globally foolish at the same time, and that’s where I think we have to be much more careful.
We are likely going to see this argument return when DiSC-2022 comes on the ballot.
We saw all of this back in 2020.
The opponents attacked the project for increasing traffic, creating congestion and, yes, increasing the carbon footprint.
In the opposition ballot argument, the opponents wrote: “Directly resulting from this debilitating traffic, these greenhouse gas emissions will destroy our City’s Climate Emergency Resolution mandating carbon neutrality by 2040. The projected unmitigated emissions from DISC alone will increase the City’s annual emissions by 8% or over 83 million pounds/year!”
They added: “Although the Developer promises DISC will be carbon neutral, this can only be achieved by buying cheap offsite carbon credits that do nothing to reduce the City’s real carbon footprint. It is unfair to burden our children and grandchildren with this legacy of harmful greenhouse gases for the sake of Developer profits.”
It sounds like an impressive argument against the project. Even projects that strive to obtain carbon neutrality are vulnerable to it, because you are often purchasing off-site offsets in order to cancel out your carbon impact.
But is this helpful? You could argue that any project that adds population to a given area will be increasing their carbon footprint unless they manage to somehow make their carbon footprint to be actually zero. The problem is—from a global standpoint it really doesn’t matter what a community’s carbon footprint is. At least not in this way.
If I move 1000 people into Davis and therefore increase our traffic and energy use, I’m really not impacting the global scales at all. Why? Because I’m not creating more people, I’m simply moving pieces on the chessboard.
Basically, the world is a zero-sum game. If I add 1000 people to Davis, that means I take 1000 people from everywhere else.
One of the problems with climate change is that all impacts are marginal anyway. If I create a new development that is more efficient than the average development in the world, I lower the carbon footprint of the world but only in a tiny miniscule fashion. And the inverse is also true.
That’s a huge problem for attempting to solve the climate crisis—you end up with a collective action paradox, to borrow from game theoretics. In short, we have a free rider problem where I am always incentivized to shirk my climate responsibility because my individual impact on climate change is usually going to be negligible but the costs of compliance might be high.
But there are also unique problems in that I could increase a community’s climate impact even though I decrease the overall global impact. That’s the real question about DiSC-2022—it’s not if it adds to Davis’ annual emissions by 83 million pounds/year, cut in half for the decreased size, but rather whether it is more efficient than a comparable park of its size elsewhere.
Hard to fit that concept on the back of a campaign flyer, but it illustrates that the problem is much more complicated than it might seem on the surface.
Ultimately the answer to this is where I have been leaning for some time—we have to solve this at the national and multi-national level, not the local level. We have wasted so much time with pointless debating over climate change, and human causes of climate change, that we are at the point where we actually have to take drastic rather than marginal actions.
We actually could have done this a lot easier last year, except the previous administration was part of the problem. When the economy was shut down, and carbon emissions and pollution were way down is when we should have put plans into place to start transitioning to a new economy.
Not all is lost of course, because we learned a lot about how to reduce emissions, how to utilize technology to continue our economy, and how to buffer the overall economy in the wake of huge and massive changes.
The bad news is that we have also seen just how reluctant people are to making changes to their lives, even when their own survival is at risk.