Sunday, April 10, 2011

How to Get People to Adopt a Low Carbon Lifestyle?

Well, our system remodel - projected to take 4 months but now at 10 months - is slowly grinding to a close. We keep finding odds and ends. The worst one was that someone at the general contractor bought an uninsulated  door for our new HRV chase, which got installed this week. I can't understand why they would think that after paying so much money and suffering through so much disruption to reinsulate our walls, we would be happy with an uninsulated metal door that punches a hole in the thermal envelope of the house. But other items are slowly progressing, and this week we should have the electrical work and baseboards done, which should be sufficient for the inspector to approve the job and for us to move back into the house. The rest of the items - like replacing the door - we can do after we've moved back in.

Anyway, what I really wanted to talk about this week was something else. I got email a few weeks ago about a home visit program run by the local environmental group, Acterra. The email said something about doing home visits to help people reduce the amount of carbon emissions due to energy use. Now that I have been through about 10 years of working on this problem in our own lifestyle, I thought I could help other people too based on our experience. So I signed up for the training.

I'm not sure what I expected but I knew I was in the wrong place when everybody there was either retired, a student, or unemployed. The program requires two home visits a month which are supposed to run for 2 1/2 hours but realistically, it means sacrificing a day a month for the work. Considering that I have a full time job and am usually out of town for a week a month on a business trip, this was a time commitment that I simply don't have. I also didn't find that the program was a good match for my interests and skills. It involves doing stuff I am not good at, like plumbing, and lots and lots of paperwork. So from a personal standpoint, the program doesn't seem like a good match for me.

The program does result in some carbon and water savings, but the per-household  savings are not large, on the order of "change out incandescents for CFLs", better than "unplug the cell phone charger" but not up there with "install solar PV on a power purchase program". The premise of the program seems to be that if people see savings on the order of a couple hundred dollars a year on their utility bills from various conservation measures, they'll become more likely to support larger policy changes to move society to a lower carbon, renewable energy future. There are a couple problems with this premise. First, the program is entirely voluntary, so the people who sign up for it are self-selecting. They are more likely to have environmental concerns to start with, so they probably would support policy changes to move to a low carbon society anyway. Second, the premise that cost savings should be the motivator for adopting energy efficiency and renewable energy is, in my opinion, misleading. There are some very low hanging fruits that are available, but they don't amount to much carbon savings. Once you've harvested those, you quickly come into the much higher branches of the tree, where harvesting the fruits costs money. We are not going to get to 80% carbon reduction by 2050 by saving money. This is one important point I've found out from our efforts over the last 10 years, which have, in fact, reduced our direct carbon footprint (house and car) by an estimated 80%, or will shortly. I can't do anything about my business travel, except quit my job, and we can't do much about purchases that have high embedded carbon content or that use lots of energy, except buy less. Since I enjoy my job, and we already don't spend a lot of money on stuff, we are working on the areas where we can.

To the extent that the environmental community has made this cost saving a major part of their message about carbon  reduction, they have been misleading the public. The amount of money required to build our current, high carbon infrastructure is enormous, and it will take that much, if not more, to replace it. Take, for example, the Interstate highway system. Before 1950, it didn't exist. Now it does. Some huge amount of money went into building it, that came out of a societal consensus about a particular transportation option. In my opinion, rather than trying to sell people on energy efficiency because they can save a few hundred bucks on their utility bill, they should be taking straight:
- That if they don't start using energy more efficiently, it will be impossible to power society with renewables, and we will have to continue using carbon-based energy and nuclear power.
- That if that happens, we will see, every 20 years or so as has been the case up until now, radioactive contamination of large areas of land like around Chernobyl and Fukushima due to reactor malfunctions. These land areas then will need to be sacrificed for thousands of years until the radioactivity decays.
- That the carbon emissions from coal, oil, and natural gas will result in climate changes that will make a large part of the middle latitudes tropical or a desert for at least a thousand years and maybe more, eliminating any agricultural use. The result will be widespread starvation and a population crash.
- That the transition to a low carbon future will require the same amount of investment that we've put into the high carbon infrastructure we have now, but the result will be a world their children can live in with some comfort and prosperity.
The environmental community needs to get in the Tea Party's face about this, and Koch brothers too.

Acterra is a great group, they have lots of excellent programs, including one for training environmental activists, and I fully support them. I also think this program is fine for what it does, though it unfortunately just isn't a very good match for my personal circumstances. It will be especially helpful for low income people, since a couple hundred dollars saved on their utility bill may mean the difference between really making it and not. And it might even help a few middle income people too. But it is not going to convince people who are denying reality about the dangers of carbon-based energy.

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