April 25th, 2013
An American abstinence pledge from 1845

An American abstinence pledge from 1845


Barack Obama (2009) :

President Obama is offering a U.S. target for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the range of 17% below 2005 levels by 2020…. In light of the President’s goal for an 83% reduction in GHG emissions by 2050, the pending legislation also includes a reduction in GHG emissions to 30% below 2005 levels by 2025 and to 42% below 2005 levels by 2030.

Similar pledges from the EU and China.

They could learn something from the hard-nosed capitalists.

  • Google : If you add in our renewable energy and offsets, our [carbon] footprint is zero.
  • Ikea (pdf page 12) : By the end of FY 20 [2020] the IKEA group will produce as much renewable energy as we consume in our operations.
  • WalMart : We’ve set three aspirational sustainability goals: … to be supplied 100% by renewable energy.
  • News Corp. (pdf, page 3) : We will .. become carbon neutral.
  • Marks & Spencer (pdf, page 23): Three objectives and 33 commitments: … Reduce our operational carbon emissions by 35% and make our operations carbon neutral.

Notice the difference? Politicians talk in percentage reductions. Businesses, if they take climate disruption seriously at all, set a goal of sustainability – zero net emissions, or 100% renewable energy. (They come to much the same thing except for agriculture and forestry, unsurprisingly not represented in my sample.) They are right.

Of course businesses have it easier. They can define the boundaries of their goal more or less generously; the supply chain is usually included only aspirationally. Ikea limits its goal to the operations of its stores, but within that it takes vigorous action. Energy-guzzling companies in cement and aluminium lie low. A government can’t cherry-pick the easy bits and has to include the whole economy in its targets.

Even so. There is no try here; forget about honourable failure. The human species has to go carbon-neutral or make its world uninhabitable, and we don’t have long to do it – perhaps thirty years if we get started now. James Hansen may well be right that we have to go carbon-negative on a large scale, and get back to a safe concentration of 350 ppm of CO2. So carbon neutrality is a minimum goal. Once we get closer, we will know whether it’s going to be enough.

A zero carbon goal has the immense advantage of being right. It’s also simple and comprehensible, and can motivate in a way that percentage fudges cannot. And it identifies the enemy. Fossil fuels must stay in the ground, the industries that extract them must die. As with slavery, compromise is impossible in the medium run.

So any political leaders who are serious about saving the planet and their countrymen from climate disaster have to take the zero-carbon pledge (footnote). Have any done so?

A very few countries have adopted a zero carbon goal or 100% renewable energy:

  • Bhutan – maintain current carbon neutrality thanks to hydro and forests ,
  • Costa Rica – carbon neutral by 2021, existing electricity 99% renewable
  • Denmark – 100% renewable energy by 2050
  • Netherlands – “fully sustainable” energy supply by 2050, no roadmap yet.
  • Norway – carbon neutral by 2050, including offsets
  • Maldives – carbon neutral by 2020 , if it isn’t drowned first
  • Tuvalu – same target, same qualification
  • Vatican City – carbon-neutral already through forestry offset.

In spite of zero-carbon rhetoric in New Zealand – “the first sustainable nation on earth”, actual targets are less ambitious.
The Canadian province of British Columbia has ambitious targets and policies just short of carbon neutrality.  There are no doubt other good sub-state initiatives by cities and provinces.

For a more systematic take on action by country, see Climate Tracker.org.

drunkard_street_editado-1My proposal to progressives is this: press our politicians to take The Pledge. Are you for saving the climate or against it? Are you drunk on CO2 or sober?

President Obama is still a pyroholic. He still thinks this is about his yet-to-be born grandchildren (life expectancy to say 2110), not his living daughters (life expectancy to >2085) or his and Michelle’s old age (life expectancy to >2043). And he will make one good step, like his (doomed) budget proposal to end fossil fuel tax breaks and make the renewable PTCs permanent, and then takes a step back with another “all of the above” speech. [Update/correction: Obama's actual phrase in his second Inaugural was "our children and future generations", so my grandchildren charge is unfair. However, taken together the words imply the risk lies in the fairly distant future, not already today.]

Endnote: slavery and temperance

As a political issue, stopping climate disruption is like ending slavery in its importance and its absolute, indivisible character. Let’s pray that we can avoid violence. Remember that in the the world outside the USA – the British Empire, Hispanoamerica, Brazil – slavery died with fairly little bloodshed, though not entirely peacefully. The climate revolution will at least require some civil disobedience to change policy, and normal coercion by law afterwards.

In another way the analogy is wrong. Slavery could not be ended by individual action, such as Washington’s freeing his slaves in his will. Northerners did not own slaves in the first place. But we all use energy, and can use less of it and shift to renewable sources. In that respect, it’s much close to the temperance movement, which had both a private component of individual commitment and action – the original Pledge – and a political one to impose change on society.

Of course, that political movement was misguided, inspired by priggish moralism, and over-ambitious. The individual one was exaggerated and ineffective in form. I’m not a teetotaller, still less a prohibitionist. I hesitate to use the language of a failed movement to give colour to a different and better cause. But Prohibition is beyond living memory for almost all Americans (a ten-year-old when it ended would be 90 today), and never happened elsewhere [Update: corrected, see rachelrachel's comment below], so on balance I think one good slogan can be recycled. What do readers think?


Writing this post leaves me as its author with a serious problem. What is my duty as a private citizen to act towards carbon neutrality? I will have to think some more on this and post again.

19 Responses to “Taking the fire pledge”

  1. Dennis says:

    What is my duty as a private citizen to act towards carbon neutrality?

    Indeed. I’m considering buying a new car, and fuel efficiency is certainly one of my criteria. But utility is also an important criterion. I am a homeowner: being able to haul stuff around (like yard waste, or the new dishwasher I need) is important. My fair city no longer picks up yard waste that won’t fit in the 96 gallon bin they provide. I have to either haul it away myself or pay someone to haul it away.

    From a utility perspective, a big pickup like a Tundra is appealing. From a fuel efficiency standpoint, it is appalling. How do I balance those things?

    • Anonymous says:

      You think outside the box. Find a neighbor with a truck you can borrow, or someone with a truck you can hire. Because the difference in fuel economy for the rest of your trips will more than pay for the cost of a temporary truck. And that’s even before you start on the climate issue.

      I speak as a homeowner with a two-car garage: in one bay sits the prius, in the other the clapped-out Jeep that we need a dozen times a year to haul things, and another dozen times a year when the city hasn’t yet plowed the street that goes up the hill. When we moved in and were hauling appliances and lumber and tools and joint compound every other week, the big car was crucial; now the extra cost of gas and the cost of repairs are pretty much running even with what it would cost to rent/hire/borrow when needed. In the 5 years since we got a high-mileage primary car, the Jeep has been driven 5000 miles total.

      For suburban areas, I’m almost surprised that some entrepeneur hasn’t started ZipTrucks or something like it. In addition to the climate and cost savings for operation, imagine the avoided carbon cost of millions of trucks that wouldn’t need to be built.

    • James Wimberley says:

      “Oh Lord, make me chaste, but not yet.” If you reckon – as I do – that it makes private sense to wait a little before EVs and EV hybrids get cheaper and longer-ranged, then why buy a new IC pickup now? Get a second-hand one and save to switch in a few years.

      The gadfly P.J O’Rourke has a nice piece arguing that the point of buying a saloon or coupé is not to be able to haul around lots of messy stuff. “I’m sorry, neighbour, I’d love to help, but your dishwasher won’t fit in my Tesla/Porsche.” Call Goodwill or rent a van.

    • H says:

      Me, I just bought a Prius to replace my fancy dancy Euro sports car after looking at lots of alternatives. I figure I’m saving thousands on gas. And, perhaps even being somewhat responsible. Besides which the Prius is fun (and with more than enough room in the back for hauling-could even get a dishwasher back there).

      As to hauling yard waste and dishwashers around. I let Sears deliver the dishwasher in their great big truck. I understand other sellers offer the same service for free or for about one quarter of the one time cost of filling a Tundra tank.

      For yard waste (which is not really waste, but mostly composing gold that you would have to pay for at the garden center–and which if composted doesn’t have to be hauled at all) the City picks it up once a week in a 90 gallon container. When there is a (very rare) need for a bigger take away of garden stuff I use the neighbors’ bins by permission or just hold a little back for next week. Once, in the last twenty years or so, I got a chipper in to make some onsite mulch.

      Most of folks I know who drive big pickups do so for non-practical reasons.

      If you really, really need one once in a while, well, there’s always a truck rental place. Last time I needed a truck I rented one for about forty bucks.

      Plus the folks at the local cafe now think I am cool for driving an “electric” car.

      • NCG says:

        The thing about Priuses is that they occupy a nice little social space. They are still considered exotic enough to have cachet. And they are not so tiny as to (I would imagine…) dissuade many straight single men from wanting to buy one, like those Smartypants cars or Minis. (Hey, I don’t make the rules.)

        Whereas, on the other end of the spectrum, I think it is the SUV people who are really the problem. People who drive pickups at least are usually helpful types. They bought the thing with at least the *idea* that they would use it to haul things, or help friends move. SUV owners seem to buy them so they won’t feel puny compared to the other SUV drivers. I don’t see any good reason for them to exist.

        Either way, the truck rental option is a good one. I’ve done it. I rented an F-150 a long time ago, to move some stuff. It was kind of fun. I would never want to try to park something that large on a regular basis though. Yikes.

        I think this is a good post. Let’s go for it!!! All we have to do is decide we want to do it.

    • Russell L. Carter says:

      Profligate, I know, but we have a Tundra (“The Family Tractor”) and a Prius. The Tundra is 12 yo and has 80k miles, almost all of that in the early years when gas was cheap, I was rafting throughout the west, and making lots of far flung trips with kayaks. Now it mostly sits, or hauls things. Including, of course, friend’s stuff.

      The Prius gets the commute and the long hauls these days. Did you know that it can comfortably sustain 90 mph while maintaining 40+ mpg, for hundreds of miles? It wants good tires though.

      A thing about the Prius though, the hatchback holds a lot more stuff than it looks like it should. We’ve several times ended up at Home Depot, accidentally in the Prius, and it accepted an amazing amount of stuff, including 8′ boards.

      Also, of course, you can rent trailers for a day. A Prius most certainly could haul something a short distance. Just go sensibly slow. Most yard people haul stuff away “for free”. Our municipality has once a year cleanups where they’ll take most common junk/waste, even if there are some annoying things they don’t.

      Ah, I see Paul has very similar advice. Also, the stuff about snow. The Tundra with chains is invincible, and the Prius in the same situation is worthless.

  2. Brett Bellmore says:

    “In another way the analogy is wrong. Slavery could not be ended by individual action, such as Washington’s freeing his slaves in his will.”

    This seems somewhat wrong-headed to me. Global warming, if it is a real problem, (As opposed to a real phenomenon, which on some level it is, or else Earth would be an ice ball.) is a global problem in the face of which individual actions are meaningless. Each individual’s actions effect every other individual to an infintesimal degree.

    Slavery was, in each individual instance, a separate evil, and each individual instance of that evil was perfectly susceptable to individual action. If somebody freed you, you weren’t a slave anymore, rather than every slave becoming one part in a million less enslaved. Individual action was scarcely futile at all.

    Simply incomparable.

    • James Wimberley says:

      I should have written “slavery could not in practice be ended by individual action.” If Jefferson and all other slaveowners had followed Washington’s example, it would have ended slavery. There was no prospect of any such conversion, so it took a civil war.

      What one can criticise in Washington was that his action was an isolated and discreet act of benevolence. What I’m endorsing is a movement, in which individual action is seen as an example to others, and a complement to political action to persuade, force or bribe the unwilling and helpless – like you – to join in.

      • CharlesWT says:

        Slave owners inclined to free their slaves may have been caught in a bit of catch-22. In that freed slaves could be viewed as unclaimed or abandon property that could be kidnapped back into slavery.

      • Brett Bellmore says:

        “political action to persuade, force or bribe the unwilling and helpless – like you – to join in.”

        I think it would be a mistake of colossal proportions to assume the unwilling are also helpless, and would react well to force.

        Slavery and global warming are fundamentally different sorts of issues. Slavery is, without exception, an evil. There’s no optimum level of slavery above zero.

        Global warming is a real phenomenon. It’s why we’re not living on the Ice Planet Hoth. Taken to extremes, you get Venus, which is also not a nice place. We’re somewhere inbetween those two extremes, and it’s nicer, which amounts to mathematically proving that there is at least one, (And perhaps more than one!) optimal level of global warming, which is more than zero. But which does not amount to proving what that optimum might be.

        Global warming activists put a lot of weight into proving that global warming is a real phenomenon. They, in my experience, seem to put a lot less effort into proving that the optimum amount of it is less than we’re experiencing at present, or likely to experience any time soon. But that’s where all the moral rubber hits the road, isn’t it?

        Basically, you’re treating an argument over where to set the thermostat as though it were an argument over slavery. And it sounds like, on that basis, you’re psyching yourself up to get ugly. Don’t be surprised if people get ugly right back at you.

        • byomtov says:

          No Brett. It’s not an argument about where to set the thermostat. (Not that raising it doesn’t matter.)

          There are huge numbers of people on the right who simply refuse to believe that there is actual warming going on. They are easy to find. Just look in comments sections, where they routinely claim the scientific measurements are fraudulent, or at best just wrong. There is a tremendous amount of plain willful denial.

          You know this.

          • Brett Bellmore says:

            It’s an argument about where to set the thermostat, even if I grit my teeth so hard they threaten to shatter every time I hear Rush expound on this particular subject.

          • anon says:

            There are huge numbers of people on the right who simply refuse to believe that there is actual warming going on.

            You mean like 90% of the GOP? Not sure if you saw this video:
            Climate Deniers in Congress (http://youtu.be/biUc0D6_UPA)

        • James Wimberley says:

          What’s ugly about “normal coercion by law”? The step would be radical – effectively banning fire, burning things, would break with all human history. It’s you imagining green thugs coming to smash the Hummers. If that happens, it will be outside the law.

  3. anonymous says:

    President Obama is still a pyroholic. He still thinks this is about his yet-to-be born grandchildren (life expectancy to say 2110), not his living daughters (life expectancy to >2085) or his and Michelle’s old age (life expectancy to >2043).

    If he thinks that way he is stupid. And he has never struck me as stupid. The US leadership and military are well-informed on the various “climate war” timelines.

    What is my duty as a private citizen to act towards carbon neutrality?

    Eat less meat. Drive less. Walk or cycle more. Buy thru Amazon. Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Plant trees. Invest in trees by eating nuts and fruit. Refit your house with the latest Cree LED bulbs. If solar hot water is feasible do it, etc.
    I do all these things. It transcends mere “duty” though. It is about being a sentient human being as distinguished from an obese animal with insatiable desires and selfish libertarian values. Think of it as a hierarchy of being. At the top are true ecologists who bike their talk. At the bottom are SUV libertarians giving no thought to the future of other creatures. Try to ascend, and leave those muckworms behind.

    Basically, you’re treating an argument over where to set the thermostat as though it were an argument over slavery.

    To quote Kleiman: “As I tried to explain to Tina Fey, you need to keep your satire within the bounds of plausibility, or it stops being funny.”

    • James Wimberley says:

      I misremembered Obama’s second Inaugural, in which he said:
      “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.” Which is still a horizon of 70 years.
      I’ll correct the post when I have time.

  4. rachelrachel says:

    “But Prohibition is beyond living memory for almost all Americans (a ten-year-old when it ended would be 90 today), and never happened elsewhere,”

    According to Wikipedia, Prohibition is currently in effect in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Brunei, Iran, Kuwait, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen, parts of India and the UAE, and (for Muslims only) Pakistan.

    Also, Prohibition was the policy of various Western Countries for (mostly rather short) stretches in the 20th century. Besides the United States, countries that prohibited alcohol included Canada, Iceland, Norway, Finland, and the Faroe Islands.


    Although in the US, national Prohibition was ended in 1933, some states continued the practice and today all states permit sales of alcoholic beverages. The last state to repeal Prohibition at the local level was Mississippi, which went wet in 1966.


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