Big FootDecember 8, 2009
Fox News and other media outlets (like CNN, ABC, and CBS) have predictably pulled one of the most intimidating pop-guns in television news’s dwindling misdirection arsenal: the enormous carbon footprint generated by Copenhagen. It’s a clever ruse, aimed not to audit the supposed auditors, but to demonstrate the internal hypocrisy of an allegedly self-righteous community of bark eaters and dirt lickers. But it is only that — a ruse.
Among other things, the mathematics doesn’t work out. If you really want to calculate the carbon footprint of this particular conference, then it would be important to factor out inevitable emissions. According to Fox, organizers “will also reportedly lay 900 kilometers of computer cable and 50,000 square miles of carpet, along with more than 200,000 meals to be served and 200,000 cups of coffee” — as if those cups of coffee and meals would go uneaten in a world without Copenhagen. True, those meals would not be eaten by those selfsame conference participants, but some other meals would be eaten. Apart from the transportation costs, many of the other carbon emissions are a wash.
That’s not even the problem with this angle.
The problem is that this conception of the good environmentalist as someone who lives in a teepee and eats bean sprouts is little more than a flimsy caricature. Sure, being good to the earth requires some modification to behavior. Sure, it would be better from a carbon emissions standpoint to ride one’s bike to Copenhagen rather than to take a jet here. Sure, if it were possible to recreate in full, three-dimensional, virtual reality a conference center equipped with the face-to-face capabilities of 34,000 people all interested in climate change, all uniquely intersecting at COP15, it would be much better to run the conference through the intertubes. But it’s not.
I am currently sitting on a couch surrounded by several party delegates from Uruguay, a cluster of Turkish environmental activists, and some VIPs of an affiliation I cannot discern because the writing on their name badges is so tiny.
What then to make of the footprint?
Well, it’s big, to be sure. But since the UNFCCC is itself actively engaged in the identification of the footprint, and also in efforts to reduce the footprint, it is clear that the organizers are self-conscious about its impacts. And yet, many people here still feel the need to convene the conference. How could they do such a thing?
There is nothing about environmentalism that proposes that one must forgo all of the trappings of modern civilization, or that commerce and governance must stop, much as the cartoonists at Fox would have you believe. Rather, the central mandate of any environmental ethics, and particularly of a civilization that takes climate change seriously, requires primarily that we think through and justify our actions before engaging in them. Sometimes this will involve finding better ways of doing what we need to do; other times, it may involve sucking it up and paying the price. COP is an important event because it brings together so many people with a huge range of backgrounds, points of focus, and areas of influence. It couldn’t be done any other way.
Now if you’ll excuse me, a news reporter has pulled up a chair to ask me about my area of specialization. I doubt that would happen in Sim Earth.