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Carbon Footprints and Climate Cynicism

Train, Plane or Who Cares?

by NICK RAHAIM

Over the course of the past year I have flown from the Oakland to Seattle numerous times. On those trips I have always considered AmTrak’s Coast Starlight service as an option. The trip via tracks connecting Oakland to Seattle goes through beautiful landscapes in northern California and into the Cascades of Oregon and Washington. On those trips I also considered the carbon footprint of the options, which is more environmentally friendly, train or plane? But after those considerations I realized my thought was so 2008. The big question is who cares and why and they don’t.

The most obvious answer is the Great Recession and its continued assault on the global economy. It seems the economic power moguls, politicians, and in turn the media, are more interested in bringing the economy back to where it was, rather than forging ahead with a new economy that doesn’t inherently generate climate and market chaos.

Yet, on many terms the movement to combat climate change became a huge success, while as of right now it’s a huge failure. What started as only a scientific concern among climatologists, environmentalists and a niche group of politicians globally, exploded into arguably one of the biggest issue of the past decade, at least when terrorism and economic collapse weren’t making headlines. Yes, Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” with mainstream distribution gave the issue a national awareness it lacked before 2006. But Gore also helped solidify the ideological lines of the concern and domestically turned it into a Democrat and Republican debate. There was also the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina that gave the idea of a climate in flux a sense of immediacy. But the real tragedy of Katrina was political not environmental, the government got away with what amounts to ethnic cleansing by not allowing a third of the New Orleans black population to return to the city.

Prominent columnists and politicians jumped onto the bandwagon as corporations began marketing themselves at “Green.” People everywhere began talking about how to cap carbon emissions. The Kyoto Protocol of 1997 set the baseline for international discourse on the issue. For the signatory countries, dropping carbon emissions to pre-1990 levels by 2020 seemed like a good start even if the world’s largest polluters, the United States and China, refused to sign the treaty. Over the following decade nations around the world as well as global institutions exerted significant time and energy to combat what is a looming disaster.

There are myriad factors to why the movement to combat climate change—intersecting at the levels of policy, the media, and general opinion—has failed.

On the policy level, the idea of a carbon tax—while favored by The Economist, by The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and by, my favorite, Click and Clack of National Public Radio’s Car Talk, was sidelined in favored of a market based approach. The market based approach of cap and trade created a visceral reaction in many of who are at the base of the movement against climate change. The policies push in Copenhagen in 2009 would have created vast new markets and allowed high finance new and strong powers in regulating carbon emissions. The same corporations that are largely responsible for the economic mess we are in today.

While many begrudged the media for giving too much space-time to climate skeptics, the reality was for a few years the mass media fully accepted the idea of climate change. While it should be said the mass media only promotes issues if they’re accepted by corporate marking campaigns or if they sell papers or produce unique page views. And sell it did.

So when was the mass media’s exploitation of a real problem too much and how did it push many into skepticism, apathy and cynicism? Vanity Fair’s annual Green Issue might have been a factor with Madonna, George Clooney et al, on the covers in fashionable organic cotton clothes as well as the other haute couture rags that made green fashionable. If you want to kill a movement, just get Hollywood celebrities involved. More than that, it was the massive greenwashing campaign that took place throughout corporate America. In just a few years every energy company was fighting climate change with “Human Energy” or going “Beyond Petroleum.”

So this leaves, us with general opinion. In the US, at least, there were those who, on ideological grounds, would never consider climate change as a serious threat. But what about those who just three years ago ate up articles on their carbon footprints and which modes or transport were best? It seems as though the double front of the financialization of climate change policy and greenwashing in marketing/media have left many cynical. Carbon offsets seem to be indirect inefficient and in many cases, a farce. It has also become clear without large policy changes on the way the economy actually functions, climate activism on the point of consumption is simply masturbatory.

For those on the opposite side of the ideological spectrum, the Climate Gate scandal was most definitely a motivating factor in the American right’s dismissal of any domestic policy with teeth to fight climate change. Republican politicians who supported climate policy now have offered a carte blanche denial, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich to name two.

So what about the train or plane? The 800 miles from Oakland to Seattle takes two hours by plane and nearly 22 hours by train. My time is worth something, even if it is minimum wage. The price of is nearly the same, about $150 one-way for both train and plane. Like most people, time and price do mean something to me, and I do try to shop with a consciousness, vote with my dollars, if you will. But voting with dollars seems to mean little when dollars are so unequally distributed.

To my surprise, when using Carbon Fund’s carbon calculator I found traveling by air is the “greener” option. Air travel produces 0.13 tons of carbon dioxide rather than the .017 tons produced by train travel. For $1.28 I can atone for my carbon sins by buying an offset through Carbonfund.org. The organization claims the money will be used to fund renewable energy and reforestation projects, which I believe, but a good portion will also go to the NGO’s own survival.

So this leaves me with cynicism, a very nasty condition that promotes only apathy and disengagement. It seems to be this cynicism, cynicism created by all the factors mentioned above, that has jaded many of those for whom climate change is a large concern. It’s time to care again, and maybe engage the schizophrenic avenues currently available to combat climate chaos on a day-to-day basis, while still confronting the larger system that only perpetuates this crisis.

NICK RAHAIM currently works as a commercial crab and salmon fisherman working in Alaska. Before his fishing adventures, he worked as a city hall reporter for a Gannett-owned daily newspaper in Salinas, Calif. He can be reached through his website: outside-in.me.