What’s the Proper Role of Individuals and Institutions in Addressing Climate Change?

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This may seem like a trivial question with an obvious answer.  But what really is the proper role for individuals and institutions in addressing climate change?  An immediate and natural response may be that everyone should do their part.  Let’s see what that really means.

Decisions affecting carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, for example, are made primarily by companies and consumers.  This includes decisions by companies about how to produce electricity, as well as thousands of other goods and services; and decisions by consumers regarding what to buy, how to transport themselves, and how to keep their homes warm, cool, and light.

However, despite the fact that these decisions are made by firms and individuals, government action is clearly key, because climate change is an externality, and it is rarely, if ever, in the self-interest of firms or individuals to take unilateral actions.  That’s why the climate problem exists, in the first place.  Voluntary initiatives – no matter how well-intended – will not only be insufficient, but insignificant relative to the magnitude of the problem.

So, the question becomes how to shift decisions by firms and individuals in a climate-friendly direction, such as toward emissions reductions.  Whether conventional standards or market-based instruments are used, meaningful government regulation will be required.

But where does this leave the role and responsibility of individuals and institutions?  Let me use as an example my employer, a university.  A couple of years ago, I met with students advocating for a reduced “carbon foot-print” for the school.  Here is what I told them.

“I was asked by a major oil company to advise on the design of an internal, voluntary tradable permit systems for CO2 emissions.  My response to the company was ‘fine, but the emissions from your production processes — largely refineries — are trivial compared with the emissions from the use of your products (combustion of fossil fuels).  If you really want to do something meaningful about climate change, the focus should be on the use of your products, not your internal production process.’  (My response would have been different had they been a cement producer.)  The oil company proceeded with its internal measures, which – as I anticipated – had trivial, if any impacts on the environment (and they subsequently used the existence of their voluntary program as an argument against government attempts to put in place a meaningful climate policy).”

My view of a university’s responsibilities in the environmental realm is similar.  Our direct impact on the natural environment — such as in terms of CO2 emissions from our heating plants — is absolutely trivial compared with the impacts on the environment (including climate change) of our products:  knowledge produced through research, informed students produced through our teaching, and outreach to the policy world carried out by faculty.

So, I suggested to the students that if they were really concerned with how the university affects climate change, then their greatest attention should be given to priorities and performance in the realms of teaching, research, and outreach.

Of course, it is also true that work on the “greening of the university” can in some cases play a relevant role in research and teaching.  And, more broadly — and more importantly — the university’s actions in regard to its “carbon footprint” can have symbolic value.  And symbolic actions — even when they mean little in terms of real, direct impacts — can have effects in the larger political world.  This is particularly true in the case of a prominent university, such as my own.

But, overall, my institution’s greatest opportunity — indeed, its greatest responsibility — with regard to addressing global climate change is and will be through its research, teaching, and outreach to the policy community.

Why not focus equally on reducing the university’s carbon foot-print while also working to increase and improve relevant research, teaching, and outreach?  The answer brings up a phrase that will be familiar to readers of this blog – opportunity cost.  Faculty, staff, and students all have limited time; indeed, as in many other professional settings, time is the scarcest of scarce resources.  Giving more attention to one issue inevitably means – for some people – giving less time to another.

So my advice to the students was to advocate for more faculty appointments in the environmental realm and to press for more and better courses.  After all, it was student demand at my institution that resulted in the creation of the college’s highly successful concentration (major) in environmental science and public policy.

My bottom line?  Try to focus on actions that can make a real difference, as opposed to actions that may feel good or look good but have relatively little real-world impact, particularly when those feel-good/look-good actions have opportunity costs, that is, divert us from focusing on actions that would make a significant difference.  Climate change is a real and pressing problem.  Strong government actions will be required, as well as enlightened political leadership at the national and international levels.


Epilogue:  After I posted the above essay, I was reminded of an incident that took place many years ago (before I came to Harvard for graduate school, in fact) when I was working full-time for the Environmental Defense Fund in Berkeley, California, under the inspired leadership of the late (and truly great) Tom Graff, the long-time guru of progressive California water policy.  EDF was very engaged at the time in promoting better water policies in California, including the use of trading mechanisms and appropriate pricing schemes for scarce water supplies.  A prominent national newspaper which was not friendly to EDF’s work sent a reporter to EDF’s office to profile the group’s efforts on water policy in the State.  A staff member found the reporter in the office bathroom examining whether EDF had voluntarily installed various kinds of water conservation devices.  Our reaction at the time was that whether or not EDF had voluntarily installed water conservation devices was simply and purely an (intentional) distraction from the important work the group was carrying out.   After several decades, my view of that incident has not changed.

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11 Responses to What’s the Proper Role of Individuals and Institutions in Addressing Climate Change?

  1. A Harvard student replies!

    This feels like a challenge…

    Because we agree that government action is key, our school’s green group, Kennedy School Climate Action, does a lot on bringing the issue of climate change to all the great and powerful speakers we have here – challenging Newt Gingrich, for example, and the various visiting Presidents.

    (For a sample of one way we tried cutting through the media last term, look at http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&rlz=1C1CHFX_enUS368US368&q=%22climate+change+hero%22+harvard+indonesia&aq=f&aqi=&aql=&oq=).

    But we also work hard to cut the carbon footprint of the school, and here’s why.

    First, because that’s how we reach people. Just as I don’t get a date by telling girls I plan to marry them, I don’t get people signing up for action on climate change by asking straight up for them to refocus their studies on it. We ask them to take a small step that’s easy and brings an immediate win, and makes it easier to ask the next one.

    That’s why you would have seen us in the Forum today selling re-usable steel coffee mugs: sure, first up, the 220 we sold mean 220 paper cups a day not going to landfill – but more importantly, we have 220 students who in a small way have strengthened their self-image as people who act on climate change, and will fill the classrooms with our green slogan. But it’s also why, for example, we are organising a seminar with our colleagues from the military, to show why the issues they care about are deeply linked to climate change – and they should think about it in their studies.

    And so second: I’m not sure if the concept of opportunity cost is as relevant for campaign organising as it is for business decisions. Prof Marshall Ganz, over in the Hauser Center, teaches us that while economic efficiency is about delivery with the minimum number of people, campaign organising is about delivering with the maximum number because commitment comes from involvement. Some people are just interested in the footprint issues, and by working on both political campaigns AND the carbon footprint, we are not diverting resources but creating new ones.

    That’s one reason we spent last week going through HKS trash bags, putting a figure on how much of our waste could be recycled.

    And finally – I worry about sell-out by pass-the-parcel!

    It’s true that as students, we could say: the real difference won’t be made by our small steps, but the faculty’s big ideas. But it’s also true that in Britain, for example, people often say: the big difference won’t be made by a small country like ours, but America and China where their carbon footprints are huge and still growing. So everyone passes off responsibility to the bigger fish, and we all fry.

    Sorry this is such a long post. We’d be interested in your thoughts!

    Dominic Maxwell
    MPP Candidate 2011
    Co-Chair, Kennedy School Climate Action

  2. David says:

    Here is another quirk to the tension between institutions and individuals. Once you have a cap-and-trade system in place (like in Europe) many individual actions will not even have a small effect anymore. Take electricity: Power generation is covered by the European cap-and-trade system. At the same time, LOTS of smaller players in Europe want to do their part in helping fight climate change and switch electricity provider and buy more expensive power from providers that promise electricity from renewables. Their sacrifice though is not matched by any emission reduction, all that happens is that their previous dirty utility company will need less permits, so someone else can use those permits and in the end the quantity of emission stays exactly the same.

    One could dismiss this as small cases, but my sense is that this is actually very wide spread. Lots of cities have programs to switch their local electricity supply over to renewables, many universities do similiar stuff and special green electricity plans are big hits with consumers.

    Overall, I just find this a sad story. There are lots of agents that want to do good. Not having studied the issue they stand no chance of understanding that in a region with a cap-and-trade regime doing good is less straightforward and that their actions do nothing to further their goals.

  3. Thanks for these two thoughtful comments. I regret to say that the volume of responses (and e-mails) I receive through the various web sites where these blog posts now appear make it impossible for me to continue my previous practice of writing individual responses to comments.

    I sincerely hope that this will not keep anyone from posting comments, all of which I “accept” for web publication, whether or not I agree, as long as there are no personal attacks, use of bad language, etc.


  4. Bex says:

    The difference here isn’t on what to do, but on what it takes to do it. RNS clearly lays out why we need government regulation and the large-impact policy changes of states and nations to have real impact on climate change. But Dominic is the one who rightly focuses on what it takes to move government, and that’s organizing. At the local level, campaigns for climate change that may not have larger overall impact on emissions do have the effect of bringing individuals and groups together in common purpose, and they educate everyone about the need to get help (in the form of regulation, often) from those in policy-setting roles. We need a lot of those local efforts (in towns, at universities, etc.) to succeed so that we create the kind of public demand that is necessary to get State and Federal legislatures to impose regulations on a hugely wealthy and powerful interest. Getting folks involved in personal responsibility for the carbon footprint is a big part of creating a citizenry that then demands action of its government.

  5. Erica Etelson says:

    Very important issue to grapple with, but I have a somewhat different take–though I spend a lot of time as an activist trying to pressure govt and corporate entities to implement carbon-reduction policies and practices, I also spend quite a bit of energy keeping my personal footprint to a minimum (or a minimum by American standards anyway).

    I feel that if we don’t self-regulate our consumption of fossil fuels and other wasteful habits, we’re feeding and enabling the very carbon-spewing/polluting industries we’re trying to restrict. If I turn on the A/C in my house, I’m handing money over to a coal company who will use that money to pay lobbyists to kill any climate change legislation (actually, I have solar panels but you get my point). The coal lobbyists will say, “Look at how high the demand for coal is–we need to burn more coal to meet demand b/c not very many people are taking steps to conserve or produce renewable electricity.” And that coal company would have a point.

    If I buy an iPod, I’m contributing to the enormous power of an unsustainable company that is contributing to our growing electronic waste problem. There are a hundred more examples where those came from.

    There’s also the matter of hypocrisy–Al Gore is vulnerable to criticism b/c of his lavish lifestyle and $20,000 heating bills. We who think deeply about climate change know that it’s not about Al Gore, but others are quick to use his hypocrisy as an excuse for inaction–in fact, I think many people, politicians included, are always more than happy to have another excuse to do nothing, as RNS’ experience with the newspaper reporter who focused on EDF’s toilets suggests.. The thinking goes somthing like this: If my neighbors and friends and advocates for curbing climate change are all living large and refusing to make personal sacrifices, then climate change must not really be such a big concern, and I’ll carry on with my wasteful and apathetic lifestyle.

    In other words, I think lifestyle changes and political activism go hand in hand, and each empowers the other to be stronger, more consistent and more resilient against attack. If I’m shlepping my groceries home on a bike trailer, you better believe I’m going to fight for a floor under the price of gasoline. It’s kind of like putting the “tragedy of the commons” concept into reverse–instead of doing nothing b/c everyone else is doing nothing, I’ll do more in order to maximize the impact of what I’ve already done.

    As for opportunity costs, this is real, I understand. But many changes, once integrated into a lower-impact lifestyle, don’t actually take more time, just an ounce of thoughtfulness (eg. cloth bags to the grocery, reusable coffee cups, riding the bus–unless you live in SF, in which case, riding the bus will become your full-time job).

  6. J4zonian says:

    It’s hard to win an argument when you start out stating assumptions that destroy it. Stavins seems to arrive at a reasonable conclusion but it’s unclear how he gets there, since one of his first sentences contradicts the basic premise of that conclusion.

    “Decisions affecting carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, for example, are made primarily by companies and consumers. ”

    This simply rolls over and accepts the primacy of privatization and the commodification of everything. What about citizens?

    In his Divinity School Address Emerson talked about how we’d be better off thinking of “Man [sic] Farming” rather than “Farmer”. We’ve simplified that, getting rid of all other functions and desires and aspirations and abilities and realms other than “Consumer”, “Employee” and “Robber Baron” (and the last essentially a hyper-consumer with the power that that bestows). While not a religious person, and hoping we could include other beings than just humans, I think we’d be better off thinking of “souls”. Reports of shipwrecks, for example, used to talk about the number of souls lost…

    How many souls have we lost by transforming them into producing and consuming machine parts? Let’s stop accepting conservative framing of people and government.

  7. Erica Etelson says:

    I’d like to add that, like it or not, corporations act like the 4th (and arguably the most powerful) branch of government now. In a sense, we “vote” for corporations by buying their goods and withhold our support by boycotting them. If we just keep on buying unusustainably produced stuff, the manufacture of which contributes to global warming, then we are in essence voting for powerhouses that will cook the planet. The more I think about it, the less it makes sense to pass the buck and continue living unsustainable lifestyles–pressuring industry to clean up its act is no less important than pressuring politicians to enact stricter environmental laws.

  8. MILAN MITIC says:

    Australia is the dryest continet for about 40 000 years.
    Find out why and what can be done about it.


    Using huge 12m tides for erosion assisted excavation of land channels and maintenance after
    Huge tidal erosion can revive paleo old dormant mighty rivers, creeks and lakes.


    Erosion trigger channel + huge tides = huge erosion of land tidal channels = low cost excavation with erosion = land desalination = more clouds = more rain = cooler climate = huge carbon sink

    Ask the farmer that got trouble with erosion because of rain

    what erosion would huge 12m tides do.

    Ask the scientist how big will evaporation be in bone – dry scorching hot desert if tidal system of canal and channels is made by erosion assisted excavation.

    1. evaporation from saline tidal water, canals, channels, tidal lakes, tidal marshes
    2. transpiration from mangroves and other sea water tolerating plants
    3. transpiration from rain forest around, ( tidal evaporation 1 and 2 = more rain = rainforest 3)

    Ask the engineer if it can be done.

    Ask the economist would project be economical
    if less: cyclones,floods, droughts, bushfires,

    much more hydro energy

    Greener deserts, more clouds,
    more water in rivers lakes and soil
    Cooler Australian climate.

    for more see: http://www.royalcommission.vic.gov.au/Submissions/SubmissionDocuments/SUBM-002-010-0001_R.pdf


  9. Hearing says:

    I think that it’s going to come down to the market being the deciding factor. There will have to be monetary incentives for companies to make the necessary changes.

  10. MILAN MITIC says:

    for detailed version

  11. Juan J. Lopez-Villarejo says:

    Overall, I agree with the post. Time and energy are finite, let’s go for the most impact.
    I do not agree with the “research, teaching, and outreach” only. I think that in Harvard there is a lot of power and political influence that should be leveraged towards governmental action.

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