Monday, December 3, 2012

Rethinking Sustainable Development, Environmental Law Collaborative Essay #1: Transparency in Support of Sustainability

Including only those activities over which individuals have substantial and direct control, emissions from individuals and households constitute 30-40% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions; individuals are responsible for an even larger volume of emissions when indirect emissions, such as the energy required to manufacture and transport purchased goods, are included. The United States has, however, infamously approached international environmental negotiations adamant that “the American lifestyle is not up for negotiation.”  This attitude can persist in part because the environmental harms occasioned in support of U.S. lifestyles are often most acutely experienced elsewhere, in the countries that produce the inexpensive goods that we consume. We “let them eat pollution” so that we need not and, in the process, prop up unsustainable lifestyles, obscure the environmental harms these lifestyles occasion, and quiet potential objections through the economic benefits that flow to the developing world. 

At least in one sense, climate change does not so readily permit this sleight of hand. The climate harms occasioned by the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production and supply of goods cannot be relegated to the country of manufacture. Climate change thus presents an opportunity to force a reckoning with the unsustainable practices that underlie U.S. lifestyles. In another sense, however, greenhouse gas emissions are not readily visible and frequently driven indirectly by lifestyle; there is thus a danger that the connection between U.S. lifestyles, underlying unsustainable practices, and resulting climate harms will remain obscured, underscoring the importance for law and policy to promote transparency to reveal the greenhouse gas emissions attributable to individuals. Possibilities for creating such transparency include carbon footprint labeling of goods, smart meter technology, individual carbon footprint calculators, and reorienting domestic climate policy to better engage individuals. If achieved, this transparency could support a new openness to reimagining more sustainable lifestyles.

Ultimately, we must build communities, infrastructure, and systems that support sustainable lifestyles; proposals abound for how this can occur and some communities have made significant progress. It will, however, require significant will and commitment to give effect to the insights and specific policies of sustainability. Generating the commitment—personal, public, political—necessary to achieve and maintain this goal may, in the United States, first require a revelation about how current lifestyles occasion environmental harms, including through greenhouse gas emissions. One challenge for legal scholars, then, is how to use law and policy to reveal, or at least not obscure, the environmental harms occasioned by our lifestyles.

-- Katrina Fischer Kuh

Climate Change, Governance/Management, Law, Sustainability | Permalink

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I would come at it a bit differently. Our "American lifestyle" is a particularized form of the lifestyle of the developed world; and one that many developing economies aspire to share. It is based on free-market capitalism in the context of democratic government (though we admittedly deviate from the ideals of both in many ways).

So carbon labeling offers benefit to the extent it provides additional information that will lead to better (more efficient) purchase decisions--one's that rationally reflect the generally externalized costs of climate damage. That in turn requires that information about those impacts be part of the consumer understanding. Think about the number of afternoon talk shows and other channels that taught us how to read nutrition labels. This is all good, but the process is slow and creating understanding is expensive. Still, we should try, because it aligns with our ideal of free market capitalism.

The alternative, as Garrett Hardin pointed out so long ago, is mutual coercion mutually agreed upon--using the power of democratically-based government actions to drive reductions in carbon content. The social condemnation implicit in regulation against carbon emissions would greatly accelerate the efficacy of product labeling. A particularly effective approach is taxation, and it has the benefit of generating revenue that can fund transition-from-carbon activities that currently receive inadequate investment from the "free" market economy. Tax policy also signals social preference, an important foundation for effective labeling initiatives.

But the shaming effect of making customer aware that they are buying a high-carbon product also leads to a classic cognitive dissonance when measured against other, more established messages about wealth, success, and social status. With the vast majority of Americans of the United States, this dissonance is resolved by ignoring it, at least until the issue is elevated in importance beyond more pressing concerns: steady employment, adequate shelter, accessible transportation services, meaningful education, and others lower on the hierarchy of needs.

Posted by: Karl Rabago | Dec 8, 2012 4:38:33 AM

There are constant references in this blog to "unsustainable lifestyles." I don't know what that means, or alternatively if this is just a characterization of the "American lifestyle," then I don't know what the basis is for saying it is unsustainable. What specifically is unsustainable?

There appears to be a hope expressed that, if people really knew what their impact on the environment was, then people would change their lifestyle. I'm afraid I think this is hopeless naivete. Some will, but most won't. This is not to say that we can't do a lot to decrease our carbon footprint without changing in any meaningful way our "lifestyle." We can, and rather than trying to get everyone to return to the simple life, end consumerism, and stop commuting by automobile, if we focused on how to make more efficient the things that make up our "lifestyle," I believe we would have a greater impact for the good.

Two maybe irrelevant factoids.

1. Over the past year only the United States and Germany have decreased their carbon emissions. All those signatories to the Kyoto Protocol have increased theirs, and, of course, in particular developing economies.

2. In Ojai, California, an aging hippie community, the city council recently outlawed smartmeters in response to popular outrage at Southern California Electric for installing meters that would gather personal data on the persons in the home, meters that give off allegedly harmful electronic radiations, and which supposedly have been responsible for some home fires. It is reminiscent of Portland (Oregon) residents continually opposing fluoridation in the public water system because in China elevated natural fluorides have according to one study raised the incidence of cancer.

Posted by: Bill Funk | Dec 4, 2012 9:35:07 PM

Katy -- Although the effects of climate change are not necessarily felt in the countries where the emissions originate, isn't it true that marginalized communities will likely be the hardest hit. Even with increased transparency of impacts, what do you think the odds are of shifting/reinventing the acceptable "american lifestyle?"

Posted by: Jessie Owley | Dec 4, 2012 12:53:15 PM

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