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November 28, 2008

Lessons in Efficiency

Matt Yglesias, while approving of Barack Obama's "lead by example" approach to showcasing energy efficiency through upgrades in the White House, also pooh-poohs it. Much as I love Yglesias's work, I think he often represents a form of "realism" that undercuts forceful efforts to combat climate change. And it's worth a bit of pushback.

Yglesias does make a legitimate point about how class interacts with "acting green:"
If you look at how people live in the United States, the real green individual is the poor person who lives in a small apartment, rides the bus to work, and consumes beef relatively sparingly. That guy's environmental footprint is probably smaller in most ways than that of a prosperous person who goes out of his way to consume green products.

But that shouldn't delegitimize the effort in the least. To Yglesias, Obama's efforts smack of peddling to bourgeois guilt since what would really need to happen in order to make a difference is that everyone moves to a smaller house. But that misses the scale on which efficiency operates and the cumulative effect of improving even small dwellings.

We're not talking about changing a few lightbulbs here. Al Gore in his recent NYT op-ed points to the fact that "40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States come from buildings" - and that improved windows, insulation and lighting in existing homes could provide a huge impact on our carbon use with modest cost. To put it in perspective, that 40% is just slightly less than the share of emissions from our huge fleet of coal-burning power plants.

And as an aside I would point out that Yglesias is talking, of course, about the urban poor. And yes, the urban poor do have a smaller carbon footprint. But so do the urban rich. New York City residents in general have just about the smallest carbon footprint of anyone. It's in the nature of cities. Of course, he doesn't take into account the eating habits of the urban poor, which are not low-carbon as their diet is often lacking in fresh fruits and vegetables and often relies on cheap, highly processed foods, including a lot of fast food. The rural poor, on the other hand, are often driving long distances in the oldest, worst-polluting cars, live in low-quality housing, heat with the cheapest, dirtiest forms of fuel, and generally enjoy none of the benefits of the low-carbon lifestyle to which living in a city, in however desperate circumstances, accrues.

Matt, dude, how about a little more love for the low hanging fruit? Because what we're talking about here is just that. We need to do everything now for the climate and energy efficiency is the easiest and most "now" thing we can do. Yes, applaud urban living for its carbon efficiency. But the rest of us deserve to be saved, too.

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