Big Foot

December 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.



  1. I heard similar stories yesterday on my local news (ABC & CBS), as well as this morning on NPR. Of course, framing this as Fox-only plays well into existing frameworks (“Fox bad!”), so no need to go further.

    I think I’m doing a good job of understanding the true urgency of climate change by observing the urgency with which the most active and knowledgable folks treat it, and the example they set.

    I enjoyed what I perceived as your objective evaluation of skepticism for a time, and agreed with much, but you gradually went off the rails with your absolute refusal to understand any of the science. Your Nov 18 hit job on Steve M. offended me, not at an emotional level (his “Auditor” persona is designed to grate, after all), but at a logical one. It is logically offensive to compare proxy temperature reconstructions to electrocardiograms. It bespeaks a fundamental misunderstanding of the science, and that’s nothing to be smug about.

  2. Sorry to have offended you, Jim. The point about the electrocardiograms wasn’t that the science is the same, but to note the degree to which the narrative is implausibly seated in an appeal to the feedback of external amateurs. What you are being asked to believe is that somehow Steve McIntyre is singlehandedly undermining the reams and reams of scientific studies that support the climate position. It’s not that McIntyre can’t be right about the climate position. Maybe he is. But the issue is one of where non-scientists should put their stock: should they put it in the lone wolf who is taking on the establishment? Or should they go with the view that is endorsed by thousands of people who subscribe to the good (albeit flawed) scientific method.

    As for the ABC, CBS point, I actually saw the story that sparked my post on CNN. I then googled it, and for some reason, I couldn’t find a link to the CNN story. I was originally going to skewer them. Only the link to Fox news showed up… so I just went with that.

    I’ll correct it. I should add, however, that the nature of the stories can be quite different. Even the COP website lists their carbon footprint. In their case, however, they use it illustratively, as a means of pointing out the extent to which we are all complicit in the emission of greenhouse gases. Many less critical journalists are using it as a means of calling into question the legitimacy of environmental views.

    • Thanks for the reply, though certainly the “offense” was of an intellectual not personal nature (so I hope you’re not feeling as if you’d hacked someone off).

  3. OTOH, there is Kim Nyugen who has ridden a bicycle from Brisbane, Australia to Copenhagen. There doesn’t appear to be much in the news about him.

  4. Just heard this on the BBC, the opening sentence of a news report (if anything sympathetic: certainly not ironic/sarcastic) on the protesters at Copenhagen:

    ‘They came from all over the world to do their bit for global warming.’

    Indeed. And not many of them by bicycle.

    I buy Ben’s point about the travel footprints of the main negotiators at the official COP15 doomboree being justifiable. Their attendance is a more or less honest attempt to cut emissions on a scale that would (but won’t) dwarf any emissions from their travel. I’ll even allow that some of the NGOs can justify their presence there.

    But what excuse do the ‘climate protesters’ have? ‘Climate change is, like, really bad, man. I’m gonna fly there (or train there, or drive there) and throw bricks at the people trying to sort it out.’


    • Vinny,

      I’d suggest it is very likely most concerned NGOs as well as many thoughtful and serious protesters and even many negotiators from government and business have paid for carbon offsets to at least neutralize the carbon footprints of their travel and accommodations. You may, perhaps justifiably, scoff at the effectiveness of, perhaps, some of these offsets, but, at the very least, the intent is there.

      Regardless, such individual and institutional efforts for this brief interlude are dwarfed by the daily carbon footprints of the vast majority of people whose livelihood depends on the existing energy infrastructure. People who too often haven’t the wherewithal even to invest in what are ultimately cost saving efficiency measures without mandated subsidies and incentives. Who can much less afford such additional burdens on their limited income as voluntarily increasing their energy expenses.

      I would further suggest most protesters are ordinary people whose desire is merely to have their voices heard and their concern acknowledged within the halls of power. The characterization that they are all there merely to ‘throw bricks’ is at best cynical and at least disingenuous.

      • You’re right. I do scoff at carbon offsetting. I can’t think of a single offsetting scheme that does what it says on the tin. The more you look into them, the dodgier they are. All the tree schemes are more or less worthless, carbonwise. The subsidizing of rocket stoves is better but, as always with offsetting, the carbon benefit is overstated (and I suspect that that some of the stove schemes just hand a trading advantage to local entrepreneurs who are ‘in’ with NGOs, thereby driving other sellers out of business). Offsetting usually has other benefits for local people and for the environment but carbonwise they range from innocently counterproductive to dishonestly exaggerated. Not good.

        But the intention is good, you say. That’s all right, then.

        I don’t understand your second paragraph.

        The third? You can have your voice heard without growing a big carbon foot. (Can you hear me?)

        I concede the ‘throwing bricks’ thing. Only a thousand or so did that, and they were throwing bricks at the usual anti-globalization targets rather than COP15 itself.

      • Correction to save pointless puzzling: ‘…carbonwise it ranges …’

  5. I’ll bite, since I was there as a non-essential person. I think there’s really something to be said for the concentration of interests and interested parties in one policy topic to represent a wide range of perspectives re: the topic in question. There were protesters inside the Bella Center too.

    It’s probably true that they didn’t have a huge impact, but at the same time, it’s also true that they circulated amongst other groups. Alliances formed, discussions emerged organically out of being in the proximity, and a great deal of information was conveyed, both about climate science and about how climate policy is crafted.

    Anybody with an interest in those questions could easily have learned a ton from Copenhagen. There were several hundred college kids there, for instance. I have to believe that they learned more from their week or so in Copenhagen than they would in a single college course. Since they’re self-selecting as likely future professionals in this area, I think most of their trips can be justified.

    I certainly found the week to be one of the most redeeming professional experiences I’ve ever had…all in one week.

  6. I’m glad you enjoyed it and gained something beyond enjoyment from it.

    Did you happen to catch the ‘side event’ organized by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom? The League’s online literature suggests that it is opposed to nuclear power as a warming-mitigator because nuclear weapons are nuclear. (Some of what they write suggests that they think people are planning to use nuclear weapons against global warming but that’s probably enthusiasm obscuring clarity.) The League is also very surprised that nobody is making any kind of fuss about the carbon emissions of the military-industrial complex.

    I’d love to know if their presentations made any kind of sense.

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