Foreign Policy Blogs

Galloping Consumption

According to CoalSpeak, The Official CoalRegion Dictionary, the above term refers to “tuberculosis, or some virulent strain of TB. Consumption was a common word for tuberculosis many years ago (“consuming’ the lung tissue). “Galloping’ refers to the speed at which the disease progresses.” Ironic, perhaps, that I’m using this term to illustrate one of the thornier problems associated with global warming , ironic because of its association with coal, and coal’s association with runaway global warming.

Jared Diamond, professor of Geography and author of the hugely popular Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, wrote a terrific op-ed for the “NY Times” early in January: “What’s Your Consumption Factor?” In it he noted that the developed world has consumption rates roughly 32 times that of the developing world. “If the whole developing world were suddenly to catch up, world rates would increase elevenfold. It would be as if the world population ballooned to 72 billion people (retaining present consumption rates),” Diamond wrote. It would be difficult to suppose that world resources, strained as we are today with a world population of 6.5 billion, could support those levels of consumption. Consider, while we’re at it, the output of GHG and the further destruction of ecosystems from industrial agriculture and fishing, overdevelopment, and conventional water and air pollution from such galloping consumption. Are we thus doomed? Diamond’s answer: “No, we could have a stable outcome in which all countries converge on consumption rates considerably below the current highest levels.” But then we would have to reduce our access to labor-saving devices (driven by electricity, for the most part), and infant mortality would go up, gains in nutrition worldwide would evaporate, and literacy rates would plummet. Right? Wrong. Diamond reminds us, if we had forgotten, that “living standards are not tightly coupled to consumption rates.”

The seminal Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, published in October of 2006 by the UK government, warns, in its Executive Summary, (and available in 22 languages other than English), of catastrophic economic consequences if climate change is not confronted fully, vigorously, and now. It also says: “Tackling climate change is the pro-growth [my emphasis] strategy for the longer term, and it can be done in a way that does not cap the aspirations for growth of rich or poor countries.”

Are you still with me? Now today an op-ed from the “Wall St. Journal” came in over the transom to me from the esteemed editor of this and my sister Foreign Policy Association blogs, Robert Nolan. (See the right margin for links to these many, diverse and interesting blogs.) Sins of Emission, by Oxford professor of energy policy Dieter Helm, notes that ” the U.S. and the EU together account for nearly half of world GDP. And it is consumption, not production, that matters. This means that if global warming is to be limited, the U.S. and Europe will have to take much more drastic action to reduce those emissions embedded in their own consumption. Their appropriate emissions-reduction targets will have to be based on the consumption of goods that cause those emissions in the first place.” I’ll buy that, as it were. But Helm makes what Diamond, the Stern Review, and many, many others conclude is a false assumption: “It will probably mean living standards will have to be cut if our consumption is going to be environmentally sustainable.”

Economic growth, according to a growing number of analysts, will be stimulated by how we confront climate change. I wrote, for instance, in February about a new analysis that said that our response to global warming can ” spur $7 Trillion in Clean Energy Investment by 2030.” (See Trillions for Renewables! here.)

Getting back to consumption: How do you get at it? One way was detailed by Yale professor Judith Chevalier in an another op-ed from the “NY Times” in December: a tax on carbon consumption. I wrote about this here and described it thus: “So, if you can’t get China or some other recalcitrant to restrain GHG emissions through some international protocol (to which the Bali meetings were supposed to point the way), then take it out of their exchequer by creating barriers to products created in high-GHG economies.” Professor Chevalier explains it more lucidly than that, but you get the idea.

Can we reduce our dangerous rates of consumption and maintain and improve our standards of living worldwide? You bet. Making Peace with the Planet will also make us happier. You can take that to the bank.



Bill Hewitt

Bill Hewitt has been an environmental activist and professional for nearly 25 years. He was deeply involved in the battle to curtail acid rain, and was also a Sierra Club leader in New York City. He spent 11 years in public affairs for the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation, and worked on environmental issues for two NYC mayoral campaigns and a presidential campaign. He is a writer and editor and is the principal of Hewitt Communications. He has an M.S. in international affairs, has taught political science at Pace University, and has graduate and continuing education classes on climate change, sustainability, and energy and the environment at The Center for Global Affairs at NYU. His book, "A Newer World - Politics, Money, Technology, and What’s Really Being Done to Solve the Climate Crisis," will be out from the University Press of New England in December.

Areas of Focus:
the policy, politics, science and economics of environmental protection, sustainability, energy and climate change