Globalization, Global Warming, and the Null Effect of Personal Responsibility

A recent article in the New York Times, “The Sins of Angelinos,” by Hector Tobar, got me thinking about personal responsibility. In his article Tobar takes the blame, as a representative citizen of Southern California, for the ongoing drought in California and for global warming in general. He writes, “As a native of Los Angeles, I am significantly more responsible for global warming than your average resident of planet Earth. We pioneered an energy-guzzling lifestyle for the masses and taught the world to follow our lead. Now a parched, endless summer is our punishment.” He then goes on to describe some of the typical So Cal things that have led to global warming: “the cars, the sprawl, the pumping of water,” the “energy-hungry homes.” And to compound the sin, California exported its lifestyle around the world in its movies and television shows, creating a desire for imitation that has, he implies, led other nations to try to emulate that lifestyle. The article is an exemplary exercise in taking responsibility.

But not everyone who read the article agreed with its thesis, as revealed in many of the comments posted by Times readers. One comment pointed out that on a per capita basis, Californians use far less energy that most other states. For comparison, according to the United States Energy Information Administration, in 2012 the per capita energy consumption in California was 201 million BTUs, while in Wyoming it was a (seemingly whopping) 949 million BTUs. At first glance, these figures suggest that Californians are admirably thrifty in their energy use while Wyomingites are particularly wasteful.

Certainly California has in recent decades gained a reputation for being the land of eco-conscious vegan Prius owners (it has the second highest rate of Prius ownership in the country). The Sierra Club was founded and has its headquarters in California (San Francisco). But it also has some big water guzzling industries, particularly the large corporate farms in the Central Valley, which are irrigated by diverted rivers as well as ground water, a fact which is causing controversies over allocation in the current extended drought. And Southern California is basically one long thirsty urban strip extending from Los Angeles to San Diego. As Tobar points out, Californians were not always eco-conscious, and many of their current problems are the result of past profligacy.

Nevertheless, people there seem to be trying, as their comparatively low per capita usage of BTUs seems to indicate. Would that it were so easy. The fact is that California off-loads much of its energy use and material consumption to other regions. Remember that astonishingly high figure of 949 million BTUs per capita for Wyoming? That state has a population of only 584,153, the lowest population of any state, whereas California has 38,802,500, the highest of all the states. What is Wyoming doing with all those BTUs?

Shipping most of them to California (and other states) in the form of electricity, which is generated in Wyoming but sold out of state. In total energy use, California far outstrips tiny Wyoming. A driver may pat himself on the back for driving a Prius plug-in or all-electric car, but the electricity to charge the batteries comes from a fossil-fueled generating plant somewhere. Los Angeles pollutes the air of Wyoming. The United States has drastically reduced air pollution from manufacturing in large part because we have out-sourced manufacturing to other countries such as China, where air pollution has become a major problem.

Every consumer good we import carries with it an energy cost, not in dollars but in environmental damage. What was once our problem has been globalized, along with what were once our jobs. The sense of personal responsibility for the environment, and the feeling of righteousness each of us has when we recycle our bottles or install energy efficient appliances in our kitchens, are illusions so long as the real costs are removed at a distance. The costs are still being paid.

And so long as the populations of California, of the United States, and of the world continue to grow and as other countries continue to demand their own version of the California lifestyle, the effect on global warming of any one individual’s efforts to reduce, even to zero, his or her “carbon footprint” will be null. Per capita BTUs in California may be only 201 million, but with a population of 38, 802,500, California’s total energy consumption is 7,799,302,500 million BTUs. What would be the total if we included the BTUs required to manufacture the consumer goods imported and sold to Californians? The numbers are literally incomprehensible. What will happen when the people of China (1,357,000,000) and India (1,252,000,000) approach the level of energy consumption per capita of California?

This is not to say that individuals should not act responsibly, but it is saying that any real solutions are achievable only on the large scale, and that only national governments acting in international concert can have any hope of stopping global climate change. “National Interest” (i.e., national selfishness) has already impeded the necessary action, perhaps to the point of it now being too late.

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