July 29, 2009
Global Warming And Personal Responsibility

Put aside for the moment whether you personally think that atmospheric CO2 build-up constitutes a serious threat to the human race. If highly educated scientists who think global waming is a threat won't make sacrifices to cut their CO2 emissions what are the odds the world as a whole will act to reduce risks that do not materialize for decades?

AT A recent dinner at the University of Oxford, a senior researcher in atmospheric physics was telling me about his coming holiday in Thailand. I asked him whether he was concerned that his trip would make a contribution to climate change - we had, after all, just sat through a two-hour presentation on the topic. "Of course," he said blithely. "And I'm sure the government will make long-haul flights illegal at some point."

I had deliberately steered our conversation this way as part of an informal research project that I am conducting - one you are welcome to join. My participants so far include a senior adviser to a leading UK climate policy expert who flies regularly to South Africa ("my offsets help set a price in the carbon market"), a member of the British Antarctic Survey who makes several long-haul skiing trips a year ("my job is stressful"), a national media environment correspondent who took his family to Sri Lanka ("I can't see much hope") and a Greenpeace climate campaigner just back from scuba diving in the Pacific ("it was a great trip!").

A lot of eco-tourism strikes me as simply amazing. People are flying to distant places to see glaciers that might melt in part because people fly to distant places to see them before CO2 emitted by airplanes wipes out glaciers and flows areas.

From the tropics to the ice fields, doom is big business. Quark Expeditions, a leader in arctic travel, doubled capacity for its 2008 season of trips to the northern and southernmost reaches of the planet. Travel agents report clients are increasingly requesting trips to see the melting glaciers of Patagonia, the threatened coral of the Great Barrier Reef, and the eroding atolls of the Maldives, Mr. Shapiro said.

Imagine you really believe that airplane exhaust is going to destroy something. Are you going to jump on an airplane to see it before people like yourself destroy it?

I'm also reminded of Al Gore's eye-popping monthly utility bills. This sort of "do as I say, not as I do" is not persuasive.

Again, I'm not calling on you to take a side in the climate debate. But if the threat is real then I do not see human nature as conducive to solving it via billions of people deciding to restrain their fossil fuels consumption.

Solution? Maybe technological advances will happen that make cleaner energy cheaper than fossil fuels. Then there won't be much sacrifice involved in switching. Another possibility: Peak Oil. We won't be able to burn as much oil as we want to use for eco-tourism.

Update: A recent study by David Hardisty, M.Phil., and Elke Weber, Ph.D., of Columbia University illustrates how people apply discount rates to future environmental losses and gains that make support for long term benefits hard to build up.

The researchers conducted three studies with 65, 118 and 146 participants, respectively. They presented participants with a series of situations, forcing them to choose between different outcomes involving air quality, mass transit, garbage pile-up from a workers' strike, and monetary gain and loss (for example, paying a parking ticket in a smaller amount now or a larger amount later).

As examples of the various scenarios presented, participants picked:

  • 21 days of clean air now over 35 days of clean air next year;
  • a short-term fix for mass transit now, instead of a long-term fix later;
  • a $250 lottery win now over a $410 win a year later.

Previous studies found that people are not particularly rational about personal finance. For example, if they came into some cash while carrying two loans, they might completely pay off the smaller loan right away, even though they could instead start paying off the larger, higher-interest loan – a strategy that would reduce their overall interest.

In the new studies, across scenarios, participants downplayed future gains significantly more than future losses. Employing a formula used by economists, "with our particular scenarios and measurement techniques, [we] found annualized discount rates that averaged out to roughly 34 percent for monetary and environmental gains and 9 percent for losses," Hardisty said.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2009 July 29 12:11 AM  Climate Policy

karadril said at July 29, 2009 5:12 AM:

Sure, you can say these people are being hypocritical. But I think the number of people who act solely for the good of mankind is rather slim.
Not being able to go on a holiday can be seen as a cost, while the benefit (not increasing the CO2 levels by a very small amount) is small to the person making the choice (although the rest of the world profits from it as well). Rules have to be made for everyone if you really want to change the matter (apart from investing in better technology).

James Bowery said at July 29, 2009 5:19 AM:

I'm also reminded of Al Gore's eye-popping monthly utility bills. This sort of "do as I say, not as I do" is not persuasive.

Al Gore has a response: "That's like saying a businessman who spends money is obviously a hypocrite when he says he is trying to make money. Every ton of CO2 I emit is invested in stopping world CO2 emission with a very high rate of reduction. Show me how to increase that rate of reduction and I'll do it but you'd better know my 'business' pretty well because I've been at this for many years."

Scott said at July 29, 2009 6:22 AM:

Asking less-developed countries to reduce carbon output is useless, and their carbon output will swamp the West.

Peter Huber talks about why we need to focus on re-sinking carbon here.


Vince said at July 29, 2009 6:44 AM:

I thought this post would hold something a lot better than criticisms of eco-tourism. Like maybe some psychological research on why people don't feel personally responsible for contributing to environmental destruction and how we could change that.

Oh, while I'm here, would you consider putting the whole text of the article in the RSS feed? You're the only blog I read that doesn't already do that, and I typically drop blogs that don't. It creates the impression that the only reason I'm clicking on the article is to look at site advertising. If you have to, put ads in the RSS feed. They're much more likely to get looked at there, anyway.

Ned said at July 29, 2009 7:57 AM:

Al Gore's analogy is laughably bad. How does living in a huge house with a heated swimming pool that uses about ten times more electricity than the average home help him reduce CO2 emissions? Wouldn't a smaller house do just as well? Why does he need all that space - is he holding mass meetings there? And when Al zips around the world to warn us all about the perils of our extravagant lifestyles, couldn't he fly commercial? Does he have to use a fuel-sucking private jet? Or when Al flies off to Norway to accept his Nobel Prize, does he have to take so much luggage that it has to be sent from the airport to his hotel in a Mercedes SUV? Couldn't he get by with two bags like the rest of us?

Al Gore has made a ton of money and gotten a lot of attention with his global warming hysteria. Naturally he wants to live like a very wealthy person - the glaring contradictions don't seem to bother him. Besides, like every good liberal, the concept of hypocrisy has no validity for him.

I'll always have a warm spot in my heart for the people of Tennessee, who rejected their native son in the 2000 presidential election and thereby kept him from winning. He was the first major party presidential candidate since the wonderful George McGovern to fail to carry his home state. Bad as Bush II was (and I think he was very bad), the last thing we need is this clown becoming president.

By the way, here's a recent link to a real environmental scientist who says AGW is a secular religion of the international urban elite:


I'm with him - Ill believe that AGW is a problem when people who say it's a problem start acting like it's a problem.

JAY said at July 29, 2009 8:00 AM:

Maybe a lot of these people don't really believe in global warming. They just find it is a valuable position to endorse publicly. There are certainly lots of hypocrites in this world.

James Bowery said at July 29, 2009 9:07 AM:

BTW: My quote was a paraphrase of what I would consider his best defense -- not an actual quote.

James Bowery said at July 29, 2009 9:46 AM:

JAY, the phenomenon was succinctly captured by Prof. Andrew Frasier in the phrase "moral vanity" -- although some moral vanity is more self-serving than others. In an "ideal" world you are able to establish moral values that, when followed, benefit you and yours and then let the moral vanity of the idiots do your dirty work for you.

Nico said at July 29, 2009 9:51 AM:

I agree with Ned, AGW is very close to phenomenons like the fear of nuclear war, or fear of terrorism, or the fear of UFOs, and more recently 'peak oil'. it's reasonable, potential threats that become generalized anxiety disorders. maybe it's a good thing, because it stimulates large scale responses, like defense or scientific and business innovation, but it also has downsides. while AGW appears to be a reasonable but not fully confirmed threat (just like Peak oil, and Nuclear war to a lesser extend), it's possible that we look back at it with a smile in a few decades/years.

here are some encouraging news about 'AGW' in the recent news/blogs that you can look up:

more efficient CO2-capture process
euro solar power project in northern africa
more efficient votovoltaic cells could boost solar power efficiency. tiny percentage of solar energy reaching the earth could fulfill our energy needs.
AGW is a religion?
MIT electric car rivals oil models

here are some encouraging news about peak oil:
craig venter teams up with exxon to bio-engineer a fuel-producing alguae.
Joule techs bio-engineers a micro-organism that can produce 20,000 gallons of biofuel per acre.

I realize that a lot of these news actually come from KurzweilAI.net, I recommend anyone to subscribe to that. it's my best recent blog find, along with future pundit :)

Nico said at July 29, 2009 10:02 AM:

well after reading thoroughly I don't agree with everything in Ned's comment. I do believe that AGW became something of a mild public hysteria though and could be compared to religion, in some aspects.

Lono said at July 29, 2009 10:11 AM:

People are Huge F-ing Hypocrits - News at 11!!

This is why Direct Democracies never have and never will be long term successful...

You all need to be ruled with and Iron Fist by a Benevolent (and ideally immortal) Tyrannt!

Don't worry that time is coming sooner than you think!!

phos said at July 29, 2009 10:26 AM:

What should the average carbon footprint per human be? Let everyone who believes that AGW is a real problem agree to keep their annual TOTAL carbon footprint at or below that number for 3 years. If they break the contract they donate the greater of $100,000 or 10% of their net worth to the Red Cross or a local food bank.

This of course would include the carbon footprint of all the products you buy, your share of any mass transit, etc.

If even 5% of the US population would agree to that I would be surprised. There are very few Ed Begley Jr.'s around.

Nick G said at July 29, 2009 10:26 AM:

Randall, I think this kind of analysis is misleading.

People don't want to be the only ones doing the sacrifice: they know that their individual contribution is tiny, and their personal sacrifice is very large to themselves. They want uniform rules so that everyone is sacrificing.

Sports give us some good analogies: no player is going to wear protective gear that gives them a disadvantage, but they are likely to be very much in favor of uniform rules that require all players to wear the gear.

We can hear this from the person who said they expected long-distance flight to become illegal: it sounds like he's in favor of it as a uniform rule.

f1b0nacc1 said at July 29, 2009 11:18 AM:

Nick G,

How convenient..."Lord make me pure...but not yet!" The fact of the matter is that these are the very people hectoring the rest of us to sacrifice, yet they reject the notion of even minor sacrifices to establish an example. We aren't talking about sacrificing one's children here, we are talking about forgoing a vacation or moving into a smaller home. Thse are the very same folks who refer to AGW as a moral issue, and suggest that those who don't shar their views are latter day Nazis or 'deniers' who are engaged in crimes against humanity. If they believe this, they are in the position of saying that because no possible crime free society is coming anytime soon, it is surely not unreasonable to let them pick your pocket when they feel like it.

I don't take much of the AGW hysteria seriously, but if I did, I would find this sort of convenient behavior outrageous in the extreme. Making excuses for it only serves to reinforce the suspicion that most of those engaged in AGW hysteria are there for ideological reasons, with any genuine concern about the climate a distinctly secondary issue.

Nick G said at July 29, 2009 11:40 AM:

f1b0nacc1, when you say "I don't take much of the AGW hysteria seriously" you lose all credibility.

A lot of people identify strongly with some group or another (democrats, republicans, etc), and just take all of the ideas apparently espoused by those groups as their own. When people do that, they start thinking in terms of Us and Them, exaggerating differences between the groups (i.e., making polarizing generalizations like "Thse are the very same folks who refer to AGW as a moral issue"), minimizing differences in ideas within the groups, and oversimplifying the debate, as you are.

It's time to think harder.

Nick G said at July 29, 2009 11:47 AM:

if the threat is real then I do not see human nature as conducive to solving it via billions of people deciding to restrain their fossil fuels consumption.

I agree. Individual actions can help a bit, but it's very clear that public policy ("rules of the game") is the big lever.

It's worth considering that air travel is a relatively small contributer to CO2, and that the marginal cost of CO2 reductions from other sources is very likely much larger. Air travel isn't really the place to start. This is a good example of why public policy is better than random, ill-considered individual action.

Nick G said at July 29, 2009 11:49 AM:

oops: "larger" should be "smaller" in the 1st sentence of the last paragraph.

Ned said at July 29, 2009 12:08 PM:

The point is this: If you talk the talk, you better walk the walk. Otherwise you're a hypocrite.

Here's a nice little story about a policeman in Alexandria, Virginia, who was leading an anti-drunk-driving campaign (from Reason Magazine):

Chief Baker coordinated a sobriety checkpoint for Alexandria in June, and alerted drivers in a press release about the stiff penalties faced for being charged with driving under the influence.


All very nice, until Chief Baker got nailed for...DUI! Maybe that hurt his credibility.

Randy Parkinson said at July 29, 2009 12:09 PM:

Greed and hypocrisy are commonplace in the green movement, and in politics and religion generally.

Y2K, 2012, Global Warming, Peak Oil, and other scary boogey monsters are great for manipulating the little people, the suckers.

Nick G said at July 29, 2009 1:20 PM:

If you talk the talk, you better walk the walk. Otherwise you're a hypocrite.

Sure. If a climate scientist says that everyone should take the individual initiative to stop flying, and the goes ahead and flies, he's a hypocrite.

But...is that the case? Did any of Randall's scientists actually say that? I suspect not. I think if you look at their public statements on What Should Be Done (if you can find any - many confine themselves to the science), I think you'll find that they recommend changes in public policy, and when they talk about individuals they mention relatively minor personal changes like CFLs and electronic thermostats: things that actually save people money, or are minor sacrifices.

Greed and hypocrisy are commonplace in the green movement

Again, you're lumping together everyone who deals with climate change. Is the average climatologist out there being an activist? Mostly not. Scientists....activists..mostly different. Sure, there's the occasional Hansen, but they're mostly different groups.

Nick G said at July 29, 2009 2:17 PM:


I've been thinking about your police chief example, and I have to say, there is something to it. If a police chief were to advocate for a law against drunk driving, and then were to commit the currently legal act of drunk driving, we wouldn't think much of him.

So, I'd say I'd have to say that I'd agree that climate scientists probably are being at least a little hypocritical. Part of it is probably external influences, like pressure to go to meetings for professional reasons, and family desire for vacations. And, partly....they're human.

But...so what? Does that really say anything about climate science? Of course not. It does say something about the difficulty of dealing with climate change. I'm not all that optimistic, and I would agree with Randall - we really need to develop cheaper low-CO2 tech.

Maura said at July 29, 2009 2:31 PM:

Educated scientists hypocrites? The energy and power sector creates and sustains millions of jobs. One of America’s biggest challenges today is finding efficient and affordable solutions to energy and power. A diverse solution is fundamental to our security as a nation and the expansion of economic opportunity. Advocate for the construction and operation of renewable energy and learn about the Friends of the US Chamber http://www.friendsoftheuschamber.com/issues/index.cfm?ID=305 .

Addison said at July 29, 2009 2:34 PM:

The fact of the matter is that we humans are going to produce as much oil as it can, and burn every last drop of it. If you drive a Prius doesn't matter a wit. What you don't burn, someone else will.

The only way to reduce global carbon emissions is to reduce the carbon released into the atmosphere from the oil we burn. Planting trees without burying them doesn't do it.

The Prius is the socialist version of a burka. A nonsensical religious symbol demonstrating the driver's piety. The driver could do a million times more for the carbon situation by taking the extra $10,000 for the car, and using the money to bury a bunch of wood.

The reduction in carbon emissions will only come from peak oil.

Fortunately, it looks like we're close!

kurt9 said at July 29, 2009 3:48 PM:

You should know that Al Gore bought himself a $4 million condo on San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf. Now that does not sound like someone who takes seriously the threat of rising sea levels, does it. Maybe, just maybe, this whole global warming thing is just a charade. Or a gravy train. I worked in the gravy train of Southern California's defense industry in the late 80's. NASA is another example of a gravy train. I think climate science is similar such gravy train, which would certainly explain the cavalier attitudes of its practitioners.

All government funded research is done for the purpose of getting more government money. Think of it like Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy.

chris said at July 29, 2009 4:06 PM:

It's simple. Global Warming is not a threat. For Al Gore it's a money-making scam. For Obama it's a vote-getting scam. For nutjob hippies it's just the latest stupid religion. For upper-class white liberals it's moral preening.

There, problem solved. Stupid people (enviros) believe stupid things. Evil people (Obama, Gore) take advantage of stupid people to get money and power.

This works for all superstitions.

OneDay said at July 29, 2009 5:33 PM:

Is AGW a 'tragedy of the commons', TC, scenario, or just another crisis manufactured by government and disguised as a TC scenario to take advantage of the same emotions that keep socialism alive? Would proponents act differently if they knew that it was one case versus the other? Would it be testable?

John said at July 29, 2009 8:40 PM:

So the scientists-not-hypocrites crowd says the scientists are completely consistent -- they are willing to change their behavior if and only if everyone is coerced. But the fact is without China and India cutting their emissions, the U.S. cutting emissions will have no pivotal effect. The main argument for cap-and-trade is that, well yeah, it's not going to make a dent, but it is a first step, and other countries will follow suit. So why isn't this a good enough argument for GW advocates to make an example and stop spending their high incomes on large footprint consumption?

f1b0nacc1 said at July 30, 2009 8:55 AM:


So let me see if I have this straight...if I do not accept AGW orthodoxy (lets leave that debate aside for a moment), then I have no credibility pointing out the obvious hypocrisy (or worse) engaged in by those who wish to restrict everyone else's lifestyle but avoid applying the same standards to their own? As I said earlier, how very convenient... Seems that one must meet your ideological litmus test before engaging in debate...what a timesaver!

Fact is, these morally-preening blowhards advocate regulating everyone else's life, but when it comes to setting an example, they seem to be remarkably loathe to do so. Weren't we told that passing cap and trade (despite the fact that both the Chinese and Indians have said repeatedly that they would have nothing to do with any binding limits on emissions) was a good idea because it would encourage them to follow our lead? Watching AGW alarmists globetrotting (using high-carbon jets) when teleconferencing could do the job just as effectively always amuses me, almost as much as viewing solemn groups of politicos meeting in exotic locales to discuss the dangers of AGW and how the little people must make sacrifices. How does my skepticism of AGW hysteria airbrush that obvious hypocrisy?

Something tells me if a fundamentalist preacher was caught with a hooker, nobody (least of all you, Nick) would be suggesting that he wasn't a hypcrite because universal chaistity wasn't yet in place. As I said earlier, it is harder and harder to believe that AGW isn't simply a means for imposing government controls by force that would never be able to achieve consent through democratic scrutiny. Surely those calling most strongly for controls don't seem to believe that those limits should apply to them...

Nick G said at July 30, 2009 9:30 AM:

if I do not accept AGW orthodoxy (lets leave that debate aside for a moment), then I have no credibility

Well, first, you're taking this personally, using strong emotional language, making personal attacks on climatologists, not distinguishing between scientists and activists, and echoing familiar talking points of those who deny climate change.

All of those suggest that you're not a clear-eyed person who's doing their own, careful, independent thinking.

wcw said at July 30, 2009 10:23 AM:

Wow, what a fine flame war.

Briefly: hypocrisy is not interesting, and even if it were, this is not hypocrisy. Individual virtue is not a solution to collective-action problems. The way we solve collective-action problems is collectively. The fair question about hypocrisy is something like, have you organized to help stop AGW, have you voted for people who have committed to stopping AGW, and such. Any question about individual behavior is prima facie misdirection, and calls into question the motives of the questioner.

Why in the world did you pass along this, not to put too fine a point on it, idiotic question?

Billy Oblivion said at July 30, 2009 10:59 AM:

"Watching AGW alarmists globetrotting (using high-carbon jets) when teleconferencing could do the job just as effectively always amuses me..."

Teleconferencing isn't as effective.

You can't hook up over a phone line.


Randall Parker said at July 30, 2009 5:56 PM:


People who fail to live up to standards they promote for others are interesting. They attract huge amounts of attention (e.g. Jim Bakker and the PTL Club who attracted huge attention culminating with that great skit on Saturday Night Live with the Church Lady). People look to leaders for examples of lives led morally. Leaders posture in various ways to show that they are examples. Living by example really matters and it matters powerfully.

Curiously, when a TV preacher gets caught not living up to his moral standards nobody defends him. By contrast, lots of people defend Al Gore's lifestyle.


I agree the oil is going to get burnt. The carbon emissions restriction debate amounts to a debate over just who will burn it. The US and Europe could cut back drastically. Then south and East Asia will burn more.

I happen to favor a shift away from fossil fuels by the US for other reasons anyway. So I do not mind burning less and as a consequence Chinese and Indians burning more. But that's because I see benefits such as less local pollution, less vulnerability to Peak Oil, and better trade balance. Fossil fuels have big external costs.


Yes, clearly, people who lead more virtuous lives set more powerful examples and are more persuasive. People who live less virtuous lives have decided that persuasiveness is not their only concern.

Clarium said at July 31, 2009 6:58 AM:

Randall, I think WCW is talking about collective action problems. I do not think that a preacher who is a homosexual (e.g. Ted Haggard) would be the equivalent of climate scientist asking for travel restrictions (which he will NOT be exempt from if they are in place; he is just exploiting the current environment without travel restrictions. I guess it would be hypocritical if he wasn't exempt from them afterwards.) In the context of Catholicism, isn't "mortal sin" an individual problem that primarily affects a individuals? One can argue that "mortal sin" might encourage other people to commit "mortal sins," but if one commits a "mortal sin" then they would be denied the beatific vision. So usually religious issues of morality have only personal consequences.

Randall, I would be concerned if China and India could use more fossil fuel and the US has more restrictions from doing so. I am concerned this would give China and India an advantage to leverage their cheap labor.

Financially, another obstacle for more environmental laws is that populist forces would not benefit from them because they would suffer in some way and the perceived personal benefit is smaller since they have larger discount rates (since they are financially insecure and focus on the present.)

Docmerlin said at August 1, 2009 11:02 PM:

Sigh, the point of the AGW politicization is to control people's behavior. Hence your scientist saying government will ban long haul travel soon.
The whole point is to be able to say who can and can't do what, so politically connected people will still be able to do anything they want, but those who aren't will have to fund the rent seeking activities of the politically connected.

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