How Are You Fighting Global Warming? A Freakonomics Quorum

Whenever the subject of global warming comes up on this blog, readers have plenty to say.

There are a lot of things to think about, of course, including the effectiveness (or lack thereof?) of carbon taxes; the environmental impact of a global food market; even whether it’s greener to drive than walk.

For the average person, the issue probably seems maddeningly tangled, large, and abstract. So we thought we’d strip things down here and ask a very simple set of pertinent questions of a variety of people — some of them well-known and others less so — each of whom thinks about the subject in a very personal way. Here are the questions we put to them:

What (if anything) do you do now to fight global warming that you didn’t do two years ago?

What behavior would you would find impossible (or difficult) to change?

How concerned are you about global warming?

Here are their responses. Feel free to share yours as well.

INSERT DESCRIPTIONYoram Bauman

Yoram Bauman, an environmental economist at the University of Washington who has performed at venues ranging from Oxford to New York Improv as a “stand-up economist.”

What (if anything) do you do now to fight global warming that you didn’t do two years ago?

Top of the list: One year ago my girlfriend and I started shacking up together. (Yes she told me to say that, and in all honesty it probably is the most important thing we’ve done.) Just for the record though, I think she’s going too far in arguing that she should get carbon offsets for taking birth control pills.

Beyond that, well, I’ve worked hard to put material into my comedy routine about climate change and how we need to use a tax shift or other market forces to find solutions.

Talking about tax shifting and other policy measures is important because Americans prefer to focus on individual action: “Let’s go out and get it done!” Unfortunately, individual action by itself is not going to get us where we need to go this time around. We need something even more powerful, and that’s where market forces come into it.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that changing your light bulbs to compact fluorescents isn’t worthwhile. I’ve done that too, but on a personal level a bigger effort for me has been reducing the number of plane trips I make for comedy gigs. (As a very rough rule of thumb, flying produces the same carbon emissions per passenger as driving the same distance solo in a 30 mpg vehicle.)

As for how I’ve reduced my air travel — well … um … mostly I did it by raising my fees. I know that sounds like quite a sacrifice — ah, to be an economist comedian — but you can’t raise your fees indefinitely without losing both customers and revenue. That’s tough because it’s hard to disappoint fans and it’s also hard to turn down large piles of easy money.

What behavior would you would find impossible (or difficult) to change?

This is a dumb question — with so much low-hanging fruit around, why ask about what’s at the top of the tree? But since you asked: I can limit my air travel, but the bottom line is that stand-up comedy is not exactly something you can do by video conference. I know this because I once suggested a video conference performance to some groups at MIT that wanted to hire me. If anybody would have gone for this you’d think it would have been MIT, but I never heard back from them.

Also, I love hot showers. But look, let’s be realistic: If Americans have to give up on air travel and hot showers in order to save the world, then the world is just not going to get saved.

Yes we can cut down on our air travel and yes we can use low-flow shower heads, but if the world is going to get saved we’re going to need to develop energy sources that are cheap, renewable, and non-polluting — and the best way to do that is by using a tax shift to harness market forces to protect the environment.

How concerned are you about global warming?

Pretty concerned, for two reasons. One is that there’s a small chance that global warming will turn out to be really bad for people in America. Harvard economist Martin Weitzman has written that there’s a 3 percent chance that global temperatures this century will rise by 6 degrees C (11 F) or more, calling it a “terra incognita of what any honest [economist] would have to admit is a planet Earth reconfigured as science fiction.” Now you might say that a 3 percent chance isn’t much, but it’s awfully scary to me.

(I should note here that chances are much greater than 3 percent that climate change will be really bad for people in places like Bangladesh, because they’re poorer and more vulnerable and hence more likely to be overwhelmed.

The good news is that poor countries are likely to become richer over the coming decades; the bad news is that as they become richer they will have increased demand for things like air travel and hot showers, making it all the more important to — guess what? — use a tax shift to develop energy sources that are cheap, renewable, and non-polluting.)

A second reason Americans should be concerned is more of a meta reason: The level of climate change discourse in the U.S. is much lower than it ought to be, and there’s way too much skepticism of the scientific consensus about climate change. I’m particularly disturbed by the skepticism demonstrated by otherwise intelligent libertarians and conservatives. Apparently there really are people who believe in social Darwinism but don’t believe in Darwin‘s theory of evolution.

INSERT DESCRIPTIONEd Begley

Ed Begley Jr., chairman of the Environmental Media Association and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, currently the co-star of the series Living With Ed, and author of the book, Living Like Ed.

What (if anything) do you do now to fight global warming that you didn’t do two years ago?

Recently, I just finished a large re-insulating project in my home. I really wanted to see if, by using more modern energy auditing technology, I could raise the energy efficiency of my home even further.

By using a combination of infra-red cameras and pressure measuring equipment, we were able to identify additional heat and air leaks in my home, seal them up, and create an even more efficient building envelope. I’m now experiencing month to month drops (depending on climate conditions) of 30 percent to 50 percent in both my electricity and natural gas usage.

Saving energy and saving money — I can’t think of two better reasons to do this. Another thing I’m doing now is riding my bike again. Two years ago I got so busy with TV and the theater that I stopped riding my bike. Now, I have a new hybrid electric bike from IZip called The Express and I’m riding it multiple days per week as transportation, as well as for fitness and for traffic reduction here in smoggy and congested L.A. I’m really committed to riding a bike again and I hope I’m leading by example and more people will follow.

What behavior would you would find impossible (or difficult) to change?

I won’t use the word “impossible,” but it is difficult to convince my wife to conserve power and resources with the same zeal that I do.

How concerned are you about global warming?

I’m quite concerned, mainly because of the tremendous amount of data that is currently available in peer review studies.

Many people with Ph.D. after their names feel that this is a real problem, so I’m inclined to think they are correct. I always encourage people to do their own research — there is so much data available now. But I also tell people that even if they aren’t completely convinced by this scientific data, why would you put a patient with a fever in a sauna? And, what’s wrong with putting money in your pocket, reducing our dependency on Mid-East oil, and cleaning up pollution in cities like Los Angeles, Houston, and Bakersfield?

INSERT DESCRIPTIONSmith in a Tyvec suit and respirator.

Polly Smith, field chemist in Astoria, Queens.

What (if anything) do you do now to fight global warming that you didn’t do two years ago?

I no longer own a car: living in New York City, I have no real need for my own vehicle. The subway and PATH systems get me just about anywhere I need to go. I feel this helps both our environment and our health — reducing the amount of carbon monoxide emissions into our environment. If I ever do need a car again I will definitely look into getting a hybrid car — especially with the rising gas prices!

I look into more biodegradable/recyclable everyday products: cleaning products, organic foods, recycled paper products, etc. Along with this, both at home and at work I try to recycle as much as I can. Especially at work, we are trying to move away from paper and towards electronic copies of documents. It can be difficult at times, but I do believe it is the right thing to do.

What behavior would you would find impossible (or difficult) to change?

Even though I don’t have a car of my own — until we are able to move completely to fuel cell/electric cars, it would be close to impossible to survive without cars.

We live in a world where we are so connected to people far away: I have family and friends on either side of the world and across the U.S.A. — without cars and planes I would rarely or never get to see these people. Thus, to throw out fuel-powered machines which emit harmful gases such as carbon monoxide would be something extremely difficult to change with technology being at the point it is now.

How concerned are you about global warming?

Having a degree in chemistry has exposed me to a range of different theories in regards to global warming: some say we are definitely going through a warming, others say we are going through a global cooling — I’m concerned about our environment, as I believe we have damaged it greatly, so I do try to reduce my impact on the earth by reducing my own carbon footprint.

Roy Spencer, author of Climate Confusion and the U.S. Science Team leader for the Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer flying on NASA’s Aqua satellite.

What (if anything) do you do now to fight global warming that you didn’t do two years ago?

Since I believe that global warming is largely natural, and not man made, I don’t do anything to “fight” global warming since that would be futile.

But to the extent that we will need to eventually move away from carbon based fuels, I am helping to spur the investment in new energy technologies by consuming as much as possible today. Increased consumption builds wealth and that wealth will be needed to fund the R&D into alternative energy technologies. And the second thing I do? Encourage others to do the same.

What behavior would you would find impossible (or difficult) to change?

It would be exceedingly difficult for me to go without: air conditioning in the summer, heating in the winter, a good filet of beef on occasion, gasoline to go wherever I want, and everything else that we use in life that requires energy … which, last I knew, includes everything.

But since doing and using all of these things will encourage new investments in energy technology (see above), I’m happy to report that I don’t need to give up anything!

How concerned are you about global warming?

I don’t think we need to be concerned about global warming as a process, but we do need to be concerned about our response to the belief that global warming is our fault.

We need to be concerned about helping the poor to lift themselves out of poverty so that they can deal with whatever climate change that does occur. After all, as history has shown, the climate will change with or without us, and the poorest countries of the world are the most susceptible to hurricanes, typhoons, cyclones, tornadoes, floods, and everything else that Mother Nature so lovingly doles out.

We are now starving poor people because we have diverted food (corn) to be used as liquid fuel (ethanol). Punishing the use of energy with the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act is exactly the opposite of what we need to do. While I’m in the minority on this issue, the tide is beginning to turn, and I can only hope that we will eventually stop sacrificing the world’s poor at the altar of radical environmentalism.

INSERT DESCRIPTIONRudy Maisto

Rudy Maisto, captain of the Lady L, a charter sport fishing boat in Brooklyn.

What (if anything) do you do now to fight global warming that you didn’t do two years ago?

I haven’t changed anything, and to tell you the truth, in a sense I feel that global warming is not 100 percent true because a lot of the things that are happening happened before. Put it this way: How does anybody know 100 percent what the problem is and what will cure it?

I go along with the flow, but I’m not someone that’s fanatic about it. I change things like aerosols to sprays and keep up with emissions on the boat and car … This is what they’re saying needs to be done.

In fishing things go through cycles — so does everything else. I also have a snow plow business … In the 1980′s we went through a spurt with not much snow. In 1994 and 1992 we had record years of snow. 1996 was astronomical … but 2006 to 2008 were not so good. This is why I say: cycles.

Back in the 1960′s we had major droughts … it’s one extreme or another.

What behavior would you would find impossible (or difficult) to change?

I’ve tried contacting the Army Corps of Engineers to get rid of a lot of floating debris in the water, but it’s more or less senseless. Once in a blue moon you see a skimmer boat.

It’s crazy first of all, because [debris] is a hazard to navigation … and all the docks floating in the water, telephone poles, and plastic bags are bad for the environment.

How concerned are you about global warming?

I am concerned because everything that I do is more or less environmental and depends on weather. A few years ago we had tons of storms and charters got canceled. … But last year they predicted New York would get hit with the worst hurricane they ever had and it would get hit with more after that. Did you see them?

I’m not 100 percent convinced but I’m not unconvinced. … It’s something to think about.

INSERT DESCRIPTIONJohn Micklethwait

John Micklethwait, editor-in-chief of The Economist.

What (if anything) do you do now to fight global warming that you didn’t do two years ago?

It is only honest to confess that my carbon footprint has increased dramatically since 2006. Since I became editor, just over two years ago, I travel far more than I did (this is being written on a plane somewhere between Singapore and Sydney).

Even in London I bicycle far less: there always seems to be something to read. At home, we are supposedly just about to replace our old Renault Scenic with a Prius hybrid (though, to be honest, that decision could also be justified on grounds of style, comfort, or speed). More has changed at The Economist, where we are currently investigating the possibility of going carbon neutral.

However, even if we take that massive step I would still argue that our main contribution to fighting global warming comes through what we write and advocate. Global warming is going to be solved not by individual but by collective action, and we have done our bit to encourage that along by, for instance, advocating a carbon tax.

What behavior would you would find impossible (or difficult) to change?

I think flying is the most difficult to replace. Teleconferencing has gotten far better: recently we had a virtual meeting with Cisco with three people from California facing three of us in London on screens which made the meeting eerily lifelike. But on-the-ground reporting is essential for good journalism — that is why we have kept on increasing the number of foreign bureaus. I need to go to these places too — sailing and swimming are not really options.

How concerned are you about global warming?

I think about climate change in the same way that I worry about my house catching fire. Even if I am not 100 percent sure that it is going to happen, its ramifications are awful enough for me to justify spending a lot of “insurance” money now to stop it.

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  1. AaronS says:

    I fight it by keeping my house as cold as possible…and then opening the front door to release this cold air into the wild…doing my little part to cool down global warming.

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  2. Toni says:

    Yoram’s girlfriend is obviously the smartest one here. The best thing to do to help the planet, environmentally and economically, is to STOP HAVING KIDS.

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  3. helen says:

    Great column! Too long :) Must bookmark this for fuller review for ideas later.

    what I’m doing:
    reducing consumption of consumer items: buying used, buying less, using longer
    reducing consumption of meat (3-5x per week down to 1 or 0 times per week)
    reducing miles driven around town (and choosing to live in a place where walking or taking the bus to get errands taken care of is possible)
    reducing miles driven to work (by working at home)

    what I need to improve on:
    reducing energy spent on heating our home
    reducing energy wasted by lights left on, computers left on, etc.

    sadly, the low-hanging fruit of conservation (turn off the lights!!) seems to be the biggest challenge for our family. The major lifestyle shifts — walk, don’t drive, eat less meat, etc — were relatively easy.

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  4. Frank Schmitt says:

    In regard to hot showers, wastewater heat recovery devices are available that preheat the water entering your water heater with the water draining from the shower.

    Right now they promise about a 10 percent savings on water heating costs, but there’s no reason in principle that that figure couldn’t be improved with careful design.

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  5. Steven says:

    I’m a vegetarian.

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  6. Cliff says:

    Nothing.

    Sure I have compact flourescent bulbs, buy energy star appliances and drive a Prius, but I do that cause it makes good financial sense not from any concern for the environment.

    Many of the plans being pursued really bother me cause they will raise the price of energy across the board. Thus even though I have many products designed to save energy, I abhor global warming legislation, because it will increase my costs and I think it’s wrong.

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  7. MPD says:

    Who says we need to fight global warming (assuming that it’s happening – but I’m not getting in that fight now)? We know that the earth has gone through many warming and cooling cycles in it’s history. (The high-plains desert that I’m typing this from used to be a tropical rain forest millions of years ago). I’d assume that economists of all people would know that it’s hard (often impossible) to define optimal. So who can say that 1)there’s an optimal climate for the earth, and 2)that the current climate is optimal and that “global climate change” is a bad thing.

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  8. the Gooch says:

    Why stop at not having kids. The best way to reduce your environmental footprint is to eliminate yourself. If you’re a true believer, it’s the only path.

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