While public pressure mounts on universities and pension funds to divest from oil companies because of their role in causing global warming, consumers that buy gas from the oil companies are getting a free pass. As long as a person isn’t driving a large SUV or Hummer, his or her gasoline usage is considered beyond reproach. No moral stigma is attached to filling the gas tank up on a weekly basis, even though those 15 gallons of gas are releasing about 300 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere.
There are four main reasons why personal gas consumption is not negatively judged—the subtle nature of carbon pollution, the necessity of a car for modern life, the ubiquity and scale of the problem, and the fact that most of us are afraid of being branded as hypocrites with respect to our own carbon usage.
First, while it is true that no foul, smoky stench comes from the tailpipe, obvious for all to see and smell, we are growing increasingly aware of the horrendous effects of CO2 pollution. If we are judging oil and coal companies based on their CO2 emissions, we should be able to judge ourselves and our friends based on ours.
Second, because modern life is structured around the automobile, many people believe that they cannot reasonably live their busy lives without a gasoline-powered car, and that their carbon usage is a necessity, not a choice. Dropping the kids off at school, getting to work, taking the kids to soccer practice, buying food, and returning home in the least amount of time aren’t tasks well-suited to the bus or bicycle. For people who require a car, a plug-in electric car such as the Chevy Volt or Ford Energi, coupled with solar panels on the roof, provides an ultra low-carbon alternative to conventionally-powered cars. For persons with the means to do so, not buying one of these cars when replacing an old car is an abdication of responsibility, and one which results in more excess carbon usage than buying a Hummer or SUV. A person simply shouldn’t feel good about coming home from the dealer with a new gasoline powered car, when he or she could come home with a plug-in car that will emit more than 100,000 fewer pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere over its life
Third, many believe that because no one can person materially affect the total amount of carbon emitted, no one is individually responsible for their pollution. This is an argument rejected in many other contexts. We vote not because our individual vote is decisive, but because our vote, combined with millions of others, is part of our responsibility in a democratic system. Similarly, as members of the global ecosystem, our actions are important, because collectively they guide the future of our ecosystem.
Finally, how can we stigmatize carbon emissions when we all emit lots of carbon ourselves? We get there by (1) making a strong effort every year to reduce our carbon usage, understanding that we won’t get there at once; and (2) by confronting ourselves and others with the truth about our situation with respect to CO2.
Moral suasion and sanction for individual carbon use is complementary to global and national-level climate advocacy. As consumers feel the tug of conscience when they use carbon, they will feel more urgency in asking the government to do more to limit their carbon usage. Limiting carbon is an individual responsibility as much as a social, global responsibility.