Thursday, January 3, 2019

Climate Change: Being the Smart Change

Disclaimer:  I am now retired, and am therefore no longer an expert on anything.  This blog post presents only my opinions, and anything in it should not be relied on.
Increasingly, personal efforts to combat climate change by changing one’s lifestyle are in the news.  “Being the Change”, Peter Kalmus’ 2017 book, is probably the most detailed book about the subject, but others ranging from Canada’s David Suzuki to are also weighing in.  If we just restrict the suggestions to those impacting the carbon emissions caused by one individual’s actions, suggestions include:
·         Reducing or eliminating air travel;

·         A vegetarian or almost-meat-free diet;

·         Growing one’s own food in particular ways, or just buying local, and composting;

·         Living car-free or using transportation fueled by renewable-energy-based sources (e.g., a solar/wind-based grid);

·         Implementing large gains in home efficiency, including all-LED lighting, recent advances in such areas as vacuum cleaners and washer/dryers, insulating, and unplugging appliances;

·         Supplying home electricity and heat via solar panels or utility-supplied renewable energy;

·         If you really want to get drastic, moving to a place that is likely to have the least impact on carbon emissions over the next 60 years, such as a place away from a seacoast and marshland, not in an arboreal forest or one prone to wildfires, and probably in a city or large town.
The one that comes up frequently as having by far the “biggest bang for the buck” is air travel.  But is it, really?

Flying the Uncompetitive Skies

If the effect of your stopping flying one time is that the airlines make, say, 1/30th of a flight in fewer flights (assuming an average of 30 people per flight), then, according to Kalmus and others, the answer is a resounding yes.  Kalmus estimated that he personally was causing 10 times the amount of carbon emissions that he could achieve by implementing all the major personal carbon-reduction measures that he could bring about.  Under my assumption about the effects of stopping air travel, his cessation of air travel meant he was only causing 2 times the amount of emissions that he could achieve.  In other words, almost 90% of his personal carbon-emissions savings came about simply by quitting air travel.
The flaw in this reasoning comes when we examine the actual effect if you, the reader, stopped air travel altogether.  If you did so, and you’d been flying 30 times a year, would the airlines respond by flying one less flight?  No.  They are typically overbooked, and the loss of you as a customer would be overwhelmed over the course of a year by yearly increases in demand.  Granted, if a few more like you did so, then there might have been less of an increase in the number of flights in that year, but as long as demand from non-abstainers is increasing faster than the number of air-travel dropouts, you are not accomplishing any reductions in global carbon emissions at all – and that’s the bottom line.
Let’s try analyzing this according to economic theory and real-world implications of that theory.  Suppose that, all over the world, one-half of the individual consumers of air travel on one day suddenly stopped flying.  When the dust settled, would we see one-half the number of flights, and hence one-half the number of carbon emissions?  Clearly, demand from non-obstainers is not going to double in the next year after the market crash.
And yet, the impact is likely to be far less than we expect.  There are two key economic principles involved, it seems to me.  First, the global air-travel market is made up of hundreds of regional and national markets.  Each of these is typically effectively a monopoly or duopoly.  And so, they are charging higher prices and taking fewer customers than they could.  When the market is cut in half, they can cut prices (and they have a lot of room to do so).  Meanwhile, demand from non-abstainers rises, because in the regional markets that are the bulk of air travel (think:  New York to Washington DC) there is high cross-elasticity of demand (the second economic principle).  Lower prices means that consumer demand switches from trains to planes.
Practically speaking, of course, such a change would not happen at once.  And that means that non-abstainer demand increases more nearly match rates of abstention, so when the dust settles we may well see a 20% rather than an almost 90% decrease in carbon emissions from personal abstentions.  This is simply one of those cases where accomplishing carbon-emissions reductions by government regulation is realistically the only effective alternative.

Being the Smart Change

So, does this mean that I think the person seeking to “be the change” should give up on giving up air travel?  By no means.  Personal choices do have some effects on markets, and the more individuals do this, the more it goes viral and becomes an unstoppable trend.  I suggest two things:
1.       Go ahead and cut air travel, at least the air travel you really don’t care that much about.  But mentally, don’t think that you’ve had as great an effect as you would from all the other tactics, like energy savings or uses of renewable energy, you carry out.

2.       In choosing what to cut out, consider cutting out long-distance and overseas travel first.  Yeah, I hate to say this.  But the economics says that this is one area where airline companies’ price-cutting power and ability to attract new demand is least, and therefore it is most likely that scheduled flights (not to mention charter flights) will indeed be cut sharply with decreases in demand.  


Let me call two books related to climate change that I am reading to your attention.  Rising, by Elizabeth Rush, adds the loss of marshlands with rapid sea-level rise as one more key, potentially irreversible net source of carbon emissions.  Plus, it has a superb writing style.  In Search of the Canary Tree, by Lauren Oakes, lets you inside the mind and experiences of an environmental scientist as she chronicles the ongoing destruction of yet another vital tree, and also considers to what extent we are capable of long-term adaptation to climate change.  So far, I find it riveting, although I have quirky tastes.
p.s. I have been away from this blog for a few weeks and will not be paying as much attention for a few weeks more, partly because I am posting a series of old writings about JRR Tolkien over at Daily Kos (, check the diaries).  Those who care, be warned!