Ignorance is Not Bliss: What Everyone Needs to Know About Our Lifestyle and Greenhouse Gases Emissions

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

By Francesca Luberti, C+S ’15

Even those who are not interested in climate change and in the well-being of the environment usually know that using inefficient light bulbs rather than efficient ones, eating meat rather than vegetables and traveling by car rather than by public transportation result in higher greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. What they probably do not know is that if you live in a Western country, many of the simple daily actions you do are a major source of emissions. What if I told you that the Western lifestyle is highly unsustainable?

Interviewing Alexander Frantzen. Credit: Kuntian Yu for City Atlas

Interviewing Alexander Frantzen. Credit: Kuntian Yu for City Atlas

Through my summer internship at City Atlas, I have had the chance to learn about sustainability organizations, interview people who are contributing to the resilience of New York and read books about climate change. As an intern for the City Atlas website, my job is to write articles that contribute to information sharing about sustainability initiatives among New Yorkers.

In addition, my own understanding of climate issues has also increased with every person I met and every new concept I encountered. Despite already being knowledgeable about climate change through the M.A. Climate and Society program, it is only after this summer internship that I now fully comprehend the relationship between GHG emissions and our daily actions.

One thing that seemed to come up at every interview and in every book that I read is that the Western lifestyle is not compatible with the rate at which natural resources regenerate, and thus is unsustainable. Our economy is based on a lie, because assuming that constant growth and infinite accumulation of material possessions is possible is incorrect. The way in which our society is organized inevitably results in environmental degradation.

Our community and our way of thinking make us depend on finite resources like fossil fuels that are poisoning the planet and causing climate change. As the book “Climate Changed: A Personal Journey through the Science” by Philippe Squarzoni points out, “whatever alternative energy sources or technologies are being considered, there are no replacements for oil, coal, and natural gas that would allow us to maintain our current level of energy consumption.”

Squarzoni explains that we tend to imitate the successful individuals in our society — the leaders and the elites — and these people are often wasteful, spend a lot and have many material goods. We are often compelled to buy the latest smartphone model to feel like we are keeping up with technological progress and innovation. We live in a society where our worth is often measured by how many things we can buy, so higher demand is always accompanied by higher production that then results in higher energy consumption and higher emissions. The equation is simple, but it is subtle and not evident for many of us to recognize on a daily basis.

The Energy We Need website, created and developed by Alexander Frantzen, whom I interviewed, clearly shows you how to calculate your lifestyle footprint and how your individual actions impact energy consumption and GHG emissions. The calculator shows in great detail how your daily activities, material possessions and other aspects of your life contribute to your energy consumption. It includes everything, from how many light bulbs you have in your house to how many electronic gadgets you own, and how many hours per day you use them.

Frantzen proposes to incentivize sustainable solutions by creating a global carbon market that rewards nations, companies, and individuals for reducing their CO2 emissions. Specifically, he suggests pricing CO2 at $100 per metric ton and distributing that amount for each ton abated or sequestered by nations, companies and individuals that have five major prongs of action to deploy: lifestyle adjustments, efficiency improvements, renewables, dry land restoration and forest preservation. He envisions what he and others call the “Great Transition,” a complete overhaul of our global fossil fuel based energy system and associated socioeconomic adjustments, necessary to preserve human history and our current standard of living.

Another key individual that I interviewed this summer is Marshall Saunders, the founder of Citizens’ Climate Lobby. The organization aims at lobbying the government to act on climate change. They propose something slightly different than Frantzen: a carbon fee and dividend policy. The policy suggests charging for carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions that go into the atmosphere and re-distributing the money to households. The group had a study done to estimate whether farmers would be adversely affected by the policy and charged higher fees compared to city dwellers, for example because they tend to use cars more than public transportation and because their houses are less energy efficient. It turns out that farmers buy less stuff and have less material possessions putting them about on par with city dwellers.

Alternatively, in his book Squarzoni states that we can reduce emissions to a sustainable level if we change our mentality and we build a society that focuses more on offering basic needs than on consumerism. These changes are difficult to attain and require political strength and collective action. However, they all need to start from the same simple and elemental point: knowledge dissemination.

When it comes to climate change and GHG emissions, ignorance is not bliss, but rather it is the greatest enemy we need to fight. As Frantzen told me when we spoke, the best thing about his website is that it “adds clarity by making CO2 emissions understandable.” After a summer at City Atlas, I finally have that clarity and I see how a consumerist lifestyle results in GHG emissions. Everyone should be made aware of that, so that they can also have clarity and intelligently choose what to do. Spreading knowledge about how daily actions impact the planet is a fundamental step we need to take when attempting to solve the climate crisis, because we cannot solve a problem if the majority of us do not truly understand what the problem is.

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