Magical Thinking On Climate Change

In my previous article — Leonardo DiCaprio’s Huge Carbon Footprint — I discussed the seeming inconsistency of Leonardo DiCaprio’s climate change activism and his excessive fossil fuel consumption. My argument was that with his own large carbon footprint, DiCaprio is undermining his message and making himself an easy target for critics.

My argument wasn’t specifically that he is a hypocrite, although that has indeed been the argument of many. But others have argued that DiCaprio isn’t a hypocrite at all, because he isn’t actually asking anyone to sacrifice. This is the position articulated well by David Roberts at Vox in Rich climate activist Leonardo DiCaprio lives a carbon-intensive lifestyle, and that’s (mostly) fine. I generally find a lot of truth in what David writes, even when I disagree with him. But here I kind of think David misses the point.

Roberts acknowledges the appeal of the critiques against DiCaprio, noting that there are even plenty of liberals and environmentalists who are quick to criticize climate activists with high-carbon lifestyles. He believes there are two arguments that DiCaprio’s critics make, and then he sets out to debunk them. My intention today is to challenge his debunking.

Roberts identifies the first argument against DiCaprio as “Climate advocates who don’t reduce their emissions are hypocrites.” He argues that even many climate activists believe that reducing personal carbon emissions is pointless in the grand scheme of things, because one person’s carbon emissions are meaningless with respect to the big picture. They believe that only coordinated action by governments are going to rein in carbon emissions, and until that happens they will continue to utilize the options available until cleaner options are available.

I see this argument a lot, but I think there are two flaws with it. Or at least one inconsistency and one flaw. I have previously argued that in the big picture, the Keystone XL pipeline debate was meaningless. In fact, I showed mathematically the even the worst case scenarios wouldn’t have a measurable impact on the world’s temperature. David and I had some exchanges over my Keystone XL articles, where he essentially argued that stopping Keystone XL wasn’t pointless because it could start a movement. In that case, the issue wasn’t the emissions of Keystone XL, but an extrapolation into something nebulous. People were passionate about stopping Keystone XL, and that passion could lead to more actions that might have a measurable impact.

So what’s the difference here? Nobody is arguing that DiCaprio’s emissions alone are going to make a big difference. It is about motivating others and leveraging his stance into many more people who are willing to cut back on their consumption. In that case, he may inspire many people to conserve, and they may inspire others. Just like the argument over Keystone XL. That’s the inconsistency.

The flaw in this sort of thinking is the assumption that cleaner options will be available that do not require sacrifice. This is what I call “magical thinking.” It presumes that the reason our fossil fuel consumption is so high is that fossil fuel companies have shoved it down our throats. This is is where we may have a fundamental disagreement, because I don’t believe that. I think our fossil fuel consumption is high — and continues to grow — because fossil fuels offer the most convenient and economical options for consumers. The reason oil companies haven’t developed low-carbon liquid fuel alternatives on a grand scale is that they would be far more expensive.

I do believe that economical lower-carbon alternatives exist for coal, but it’s hard to argue that better options exist for crude oil. The reason our consumption of crude oil is so high is that people all over the world choose it overwhelmingly over any other option. Just like DiCaprio himself does. It is choices like he made, multiplied by billions of people all aspiring to a higher quality of life using the cheapest energy options available, that has led to our present level of oil consumption. Oil dominates transport in even the “greenest” nations on earth. It dominates in countries with rich renewable energy resources and no oil resources. For instance, per capita oil consumption in Iceland (with huge geothermal resources) is almost as high as in the U.S.

This is why oil consumption has risen by 30 million barrels per day (bpd) in the past 30 years. It is indeed quite possible that there will never be another option that is as cheap and convenient as oil. Thus, any low-carbon path forward for liquid fuels may involve sacrifice of some kind. That could involve far less consumption, or much higher prices. What it won’t involve is carbon-free options at the equivalent of $2/gallon gasoline. Thus, DiCaprio may desire a solar-power private jet or yacht, but even if those sorts of options were available they would come at a very high price. They are not solutions for the masses.

Roberts characterization of the second argument against DiCaprio is “Public figures ought to do more climate signaling.” He then details many of the things DiCaprio has done in the battle against climate change. I agree with all of that. DiCaprio has done a lot. But I would characterize my own argument differently: “Public figures who advocate for action on climate change should set a good example lest they undermine their message.” Does DiCaprio set a good example? Mostly. Does his conspicuous consumption undo all that? Roberts says there is no evidence of that. Of course it doesn’t undo all of it, but it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t partially undermine that message. And if one believes the crisis is dire, why undermine it at all?

Think of it this way. If I argue that meat consumption is killing the planet, and that laws need to be put in place to give us nutritional vegan replacements, what do you think of me when you see me eating a juicy steak? I could argue that my one steak doesn’t make or break anything, and that I didn’t specifically advocate for people to voluntarily give up eating meat. But I am clearly undermining my message. Whether I am technically a hypocrite in this case isn’t really the issue. I would be far more effective when making that argument to say “See, I will show how it’s done.”

The closest Roberts gets to a criticism of DiCaprio is “Signaling restraint is a gesture of social solidarity” and “maybe DiCaprio ought to rein it in with the yachts and personal jets.” On this point we can agree. But I obviously feel stronger about DiCaprio’s need to set an example in order to be the most effective advocate.

I often think about this problem in terms of “If everyone consumed at my personal rate of consumption, would we be better or worse off?” Inevitably, when I write an article like this, some will ask “Well what example have you shown?” I can say that my own fossil fuel footprint is about 75% below the average in the U.S. (but still well beyond the consumption of the average Indian). I lived for years without a car, taking a bike to work. At every opportunity I have tailored my lifestyle to use less energy. Sometimes that does require sacrifice. But sometimes I still get on airplane. I do consume fossil fuels. I just believe I should try to set an example.

Now I certainly don’t have the platform DiCaprio has in order to bring a message of lower fossil fuel consumption to the masses, but I am confident I could give him some pointers about setting an example that would make his message more effective. If you set the example, I think people are more willing to follow you. People like leaders who walk the talk. One a final note, sometimes it’s a lot harder to walk the talk than you think. In that case, you may very well learn a lot more about the problem you are trying to solve if you find it difficult to set an example. But by making the attempt you may gain a better insight into why the problem really exists.

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