How much would we have to adjust our lifestyle to stop global warming?

This question came up recently; characteristically, I have forgotten where. But it reappears on Quora with an answer by mt. As usual I find mt's answers thoughtful but, where applied to a domain that could be called "policy", wrong.

mt's answer

Is, condensed: the things people think will change a lot - how we get around, what we eat, where we vacation, would not change anywhere near as much as they think. But something else which most people think of as tangential must change drastically - how we think about the world, how we engage with it, what we take responsibility for, how we decide what is a good thing to do and what is not. These are nice thoughts. But IMO they are not realistic thoughts. I say this for reasons similar to my universally acclaimed That it is easier to agree on economics than morality; or the previous Architecture and morality. And my argument, deeply compressed, is that it is easier to improve technology than it is to improve people. Of course, you can try to do both; but while making tech better is nearly unambiguously good, making people better has a chequered history for the obvious reasons: whose version of "good" are we going to go with, a problem that stretches back as far as Plato and probably before.

What do you mean "we", white man?

Still a classic after all these years. By chance it was pretty much the first thing I saw on usenet, and as you'd hope some humourless person totally failed to understand it. Anyway the point is that of course a privileged minority can maintain a near arbitrary lifestyle. The entire world can't emit CO2 at USAnian per capita levels though. Over the coming <arbitrary time period, a few decades perhaps> more of the globally poor are going to become rather less poor, as exemplified most obviously by China.

My answer

If we're not going to have to change our lifestyles, then what was all the fuss about?

That isn't a full answer, so I suppose I should say more. Our lifestyles are going to change. Some of the changes are quasi-predictable - driverless cars, for example, though exactly what that will change them into is less obvious - and some of the changes will be unexpected. As a best guess, I think it likely that these only-tangentially-related-to-GW changes will be larger than the GW related ones. In particular, the rapid cheapening of solar PV is promising. In this sense, I am assuming non-apocalyptic futures. I think that is likely correct, but of course I can't prove it. People get terribly grumpy if you take away their shiny toys, either the ones they have got used to or the ones they were hoping to get used to, so rather than planning to do that it's better to plan to substitute.


Should we care about the world after 2100?
Manuel Ayau: Guatemala’s Liberal Searcher.
FT: The Big Green Bang: how renewable energy became unstoppable.
Whats wrong with the world - me, 2010.
* A harder line view, from CH, from 2007.


Russell Seitz / Bright Water said...

Electrical power alternatives, from nuclear to renewable are paramount, because absent technological progress , the constraint of human power consumption needed to limit fossil fuel CO2 to 1 PPM/year translates into a draconian regime of social engineering .

At the egalitarian limit- everybody gets the same fossil fuel ration to add to their share of the world's air, their entire fossil fuel ration for industrial , civil , domestic and agricultural heating electicity, process energy and transportation would be less than a kilogram of contained carbon.

There are societies that presently survive on such short rations , but Somalia, Afghanistan & Zambia are not much favored by refugees from climate change.

Everett F Sargent said...

Well at least you tried to answer the lifestyles question, not very well I might add, but at least you tried. Kind of like the Paris Agreement, not an answer mind you, but a target, a 2030 target of increased fossil fuel emissions.

So 3-4C by 2100, which I absolutely and incontrovertibly cannot live with, mainly because I won't live to the ripe old age of 147. Although my body will experience some rather serious AGW as it gets turned into a pile of ashes.

David B Benson said...

Plastics are going to do us all in long before AGW.

Millicent said...

Do I have to change my lifestyle?

The worst answer I get from carbon calculators is that I am responsible for total emissions of about 7 tons of CO2 per year (of which the govt. emits about half on my behalf). I don't drive (I have no explanation for why I am not forced to do this apparently indispensable activity, but I am grateful I don't have to sit in queues like everyone else). My energy bills are minimal (I have an almost unique ability when cold to put on extra clothes).

The low economic cost of my low carbon lifestyle enabled me to retire before I was 50 years old. And I am physically fit and active.

I don't see where the sacrifice is.

William Connolley said...

> low economic cost of my low carbon lifestyle

I perhaps should have added that if you've already made the changes, then you may not have to make more. At least, not personally. As you notice, the govt emits on your behalf. I once tried to do a rough calc of my CO2 emissions vs my old employers, and a lot came from them.

Phil Hays said...

How much will our great grandchildren need to adjust their lifestyle if we don't stop global warming?

William Connolley said...

Indeed, that comes under the "what do you mean "we", white man" point. The minority could be in time as well as in space. My answer isn't intended to constrain the future any more than the present.

Anonymous said...

"The low economic cost of my low carbon lifestyle enabled me to retire before I was 50 years old."
Those park benches are awfully inviting.
The hypocrisy and the lack of insight of most western commentators on this issue is amusing.
Firstly to talk about our lifestyle[s] and never to think of the lifestyles of all the other people in the world.
Secondly to demand change without wanting the true burden of that change.
Thirdly, having made it, to then turn around and say I am living the role when they are being totally subsidized in it.
Anyone who retires comfortably young has expended a lot of carbon to get there and relies on a lot of carbon to stay there.
Those investment flats for income demand bitumen [oil] roads and upkeep. fuel transport costs to keep those tenants alive to pay one the carbon cost free income [cough, cough].
Those super funds make their profits to pay the super from oh so much dependence on carbon.
I-pad check, central heating check, solar panels [buckets of CO2 to produce maintain and dispose of, check.
7 tons of CO2 a year from a biased carbon calculator. The real figure is 100 times greater, You are part of the USA.
Export dig up and use all that oil somewhere, not just your personal share.
There are lots of practical steps to make human energy use more efficient without mindlessly taking away from people.

Millicent said...

I have met this argument any times. At its core is the need to pretend that no individual can make any real difference so its OK to be planet destroying scumbag after all. The individuals making this argument are either planet destroying scumbags who want everybody else to do the same so they don't feel guilty, or else fossil fuel industry shills.

A biased carbon calculator? I've tried many: the one quoted was the one giving the worst results for me.

Park benches? I don't sleep on them. But this argument is just a variant on the more usual meme: there is no sensible position in between a high carbon lifestyle and going back to the stone age.

To talk of whose lifestyles? I'll talk about my lifestyle and what I can do because that is what I have power over. What I do does not suit the fossil fuel industry and I suspect that is what our anon friend objects to.

To demand change without wanting the true burden? What the heck is he talking about? My point - which seems to terrify him - is that there are many positive aspects to this change. The only people who suffer are those who make their money from fossil fuels.

William Connolley said...

> I have met this argument any times. At its core

Agreed. Though I think you shouldn't be so hard on the people making it. They are ordinary human beings who don't want to feel guilty themselves, and this is nothing strange or unusual. I yield to no-one in my contempt for denialists, but I think the Light needs to make more efforts to understand and work with the Grey.

Millicent said...

I'm afraid when I see gish gallop being used in preference to any real argument, I see only the dark.

Tom Fuller said...

One concept to consider when discussing lifestyle changes is the age at which they occur. Going green at 16 has more impact than guilty conversions at 66.

Quite possibly, going a lighter shade of green at 16 has more impact than a Damascene conversion at 66...

Don't know if anyone's done the math.

wereatheist said...

I've never owned a car, or a motorcycle. Don't even have a driver's licence.
My last air travel was in 2012, and it was the first after 2003, as well. I could possibly eat less meat, or even go fully vegan, but the benefits/pain ratio is probabely not good enough. One possible improvement would mean changing my electricity contract to something excluding lignite as a source. And joining the "Ende Gelände" movement, aiming to destroy the German lignite industry. Which has to die ASAP.

William said...

> If we're not going to have to change our lifestyles, then what was all the fuss about?

I achieving anything much depends upon people voluntarily changing lifestyles, we're stuffed. Some of us might and some will buy indulgences (offsets) but the majority will not.

Change has to be technological and must make carbon free options cheaper. People won't voluntarily buy worse options. A carbon tax would be a start, but regulation will have to be used too to force the pace.

angech said...

some will buy indulgences (offsets)
Some will pay penances.
The usual suspects?
People feeling guilty or worse knowing they are guilty.
Reversing the carbon cycle quickly and effectively demands going back to the stone age, Millicent.
There is no nice green option.
No soft landing.
Like a coke addict you have to go cold turkey. Back to the stone age from the stoned age.
You have to give up your I Pad and your car and your heated and air conditioned apartment.
Why should you live in luxury while billions of people in the world do not have and will never be able to afford your wilful and wanton destruction of the world?
Note the careful use of the words wilful and wanton.
They imply awareness which in turn implies guilt.
You want all the other Americans out there to turn off their lifestyle?
Show some leadership.

William Connolley said...

FWIW, Hansen's latest Some Basis for Optimism may be of interest. I quote: " Another basis for optimism is the rapid progress of Michael Shellenberger as an Independent candidate for California Governor. Except for Barack Obama and his wasted opportunities, nobody has been more frustrating than Jerry Brown. Californians are among the most environmentally conscious people in the world, so it is a shame that they have been saddled with a Limousine Liberal who gallivants around the world pretending to be an environmentalist. I quantify Jerry Brown’s effect on California’s greenhouse gas emissions in Sophie’s Planet."

William said...

> Reversing the carbon cycle quickly and effectively demands going back to the stone age...

No it doesn't, except in the propaganda of those who want no such reversal. Instead, it demands reducing emissions progressively using the latest technology, incentivizing technological change by changing price structures (carbon tax, including on imports) and by imposing regulation to speed things up. It is not likely to happen quickly until a big trading area (e.g. the EU) decides that it really wants to do it, which I don't think any has yet due probably to vested interests preventing it.

Millicent said...

I didn't know cave men had electric cars. The things you learn from climate change deniers.

Millicent said...

Mind you, once a proper chronology has been determined for palaeolithic wind turbines and solar panels, this will be very useful for the study of the period for which C14 dating is not available.