Not Many of Us Can Worry about the Environment without Hypocrisy

By Mike Koetting April 25, 2023

Earth Day was Saturday and, as always, it’s an occasion for considering the state of the world. Literally, not figuratively.

The most recent UN report shows it’s getting worse. I’ll bet few of us are surprised.

We all know the trajectory is more or less exactly what scientists have been predicting for years and we assume not a whole lot has happened that would change that. Which, when you think about it, is kind of weird. There’s this thing happening that the best scientists tell us has a high likelihood of causing material damage and we pretty much take it for granted that there is no response remotely commensurate with the problem. Why should that be?

I submit it is because we have become habituated to—indeed secretly demand—a mega-level of hypocrisy on environmental issues.

There Are No Easy Solutions

The main reason for environmental-hypocrisy is that only the tiniest sliver of us is comfortable with what the solution demands. Given current and immediately available technology, most people correctly assume that real changes will be necessary to meet any set of goals. What we would need to do to get to carbon neutral is pretty much unthinkable. Even more modest steps are a tough sell. Switching to electric cars, while desirable and useful, is only a small first step. In his sobering book, How the World Really Works, Vaclav Smil shows that switching to all EVs would reduce carbon emissions materially, but not as much as typically assumed and is not close to the entire answer, even when it comes to cars. There are still carbon costs from production of cars and the creation and delivery of the electricity and from the ancillary costs of roads and parking facilities—and, eventually, from disposing of them.

And cars are only one problem. Warming and cooling our houses contributes tons of carbon, as does our entire food system—which wastes stunning amounts and is in many other ways environmentally foolish. Beef consumption alone accounts for about 7% of all global emissions, but a disproportionately smaller share of nutrition. Beef is the conspicuous consumption of protein. Even my favorite vegetarian options of almonds and cashews are not affordably sustainable because of conflicting demands on water. And this is without considering the impacts of fertilizers in terms of carbon contributions (from creation, shipping and applying) and contributions to ocean acidification. But without them, the world’s food supply would collapse until we completely redo the way the world thinks about food. Not many people in a country that goes half ballistic at the suggestion that we may need to switch from gas to electric stoves really want to meet environmental goals.

In short, while some people are more to blame for lack of honesty about environmental challenges than others, it is also true that most of us are okay with “Don’t ask, don’t tell”.

I don’t believe it is hopeless. There are areas of progress; intermittent government, market and private initiatives will make a difference. We will not be limited to the technologies we currently possess; inventions will continue to make a difference, in some cases, big differences. But any honest review of the bidding suggests that the gap between what is needed and what Americans—all Americans, not just the MAGA-spere–are actually willing to do is enormous. At the very least, we wink at the hypocrisy.

Conundrum for Leaders

The performance of society’s leaders is both cause and symptom. I am not here talking about the campaigns of deflection, deception and delay that have been a consistent effort by various corporations and conservative think-tanks doing their bidding for the last fifty years. Nor the outright obstructionism exercised by many politicians with callous disregard for longer-term consequences. Heinous as they are, I’ll leave pillorying them to another day. Today, I am focusing on the inability of even well-intentioned leaders to acknowledge the extent of the issue, propose sufficient steps, and realistically report on progress.

Some experts believed the agreement of holding to a 1.5C rise at the Paris conference was too modest in terms of preventing longer-term damage. But the bigger problem is that there was never much real chance of meeting that goal. Predictably, we are blowing through it. Perhaps there is a world of theoretical models where everything could have lined-up perfectly and this goal could have been achieved. But in the real world, the odds were always vanishingly slim.

All the world’s economies are organized around carbon consumption. We haven’t changed that and there is no immediate technological alternative. And there certainly has been no world-wide political movement to reduce consumption. So, unless we expected a sudden willingness for countries to take economy-threatening risks to reduce their own carbon consumption, this outcome was inevitable.

The world leaders—at least those who cared—were in a tough spot. If their scientific advisors where honest, leaders were aware of the disconnect between likely outcomes and whatever goal they came up with. Still, they couldn’t put on this enormous summit with close to scientific unanimity that we are steaming to the Niagara Falls of the environment and then walk away saying “Ahh…it’s just too hard. Forget about it.” So they adopted the best goal they could and hoped it would somehow, maybe magically, happen.

One couldn’t imagine more robust fertilizer for hypocrisy. Americans are vaguely worried about the environmental future, perhaps the young ones a bit more. So they are glad to hear about planet-saving goals. But there is very little enthusiasm for letting our lives be impacted by steps to reach those goals, which, after all, are mostly about risks to people far away, geographically or temporally. So when it turns out these goals aren’t likely to be made, there is no major outcry. Most Americans are just as glad they won’t have to do the things that would actually be necessary to make them. What people want is environmental safety without major changes. And they don’t want leaders who will tell them this isn’t going to happen.

Responsibility Is Not Evenly Spread

I have suggested that, any outward concern about environmental issues notwithstanding, there is widespread ambivalence about how we actually want to proceed. But how exactly people get to that ambiguity—and what it means to them—varies to a large extent by circumstances.

Source: World Inequality Lab

Start with the huge disparity in how the impacts to get to carbon neutral would be felt. In North America, the top 10% of income earners were responsible for 73 tons of CO2e per capita in 2019, whereas citizens in the bottom 50% were responsible for 9.7 tons per capita. (In Europe, both the totals and the disparities were markedly lower: 29.2 tons compared to 5.1 tons per capita.) It’s not entirely fair to assume that the more carbon is incorporated into a person’s life, the more ambivalent they would be about making a big reduction. But it is not a bad bet. And it is also likely that people at the other end of the distribution would feel that anything they are being asked to give up is unfair in the light of the differential. And it is a lead pipe cinch that people at the bottom end of the distribution are particularly infuriated when they feel members of the elite are asking them to make proportionately larger sacrifices.

And whatever the national tensions around sacrifices that would be necessary to achieve environmental goals, they are a walk in the park compared to how people approach the issue globally. I don’t see how any discussion of addressing environmental issues can be anything but hypocrisy without a consideration of ameliorating existing global inequities. What conceivable moral justification is there for the developed countries, having gotten the world to the edge of crisis with their development, to argue against other countries achieving comparable standards of living. On the other hand, I am equally without clue how any kind of shorter-term global equity is politically possible. I can’t imagine a single country that will make material sacrifices to improve standards of living in some other country. Short-term mumbo jumbo and hope that we come up a longer term solution seem like the only available option.

And finally…

Today’s post has accused a lot of people of hypocrisy. Fairly so, I think. But I would also note it is very hard to avoid. These issues are extremely tough issues and the balance between technology, policy, fairness and expectations will be excruciatingly hard to achieve. Indeed, when I think about all the carbon advantages I enjoy, I sometimes wonder if my advocacy for addressing environmental issues would be quite so strident if I thought that someone was actually going to do what I recommended. As Luther warned, reason is a whore. Of course, it’s hard to imagine we’d be better off forsaking reason.

Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

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