Is Climate Progress “low carbon” and does it matter?

Doubters who are new to the site often question whether I am green, presumably trying to show me up as a hypocrite, as someone who doesn’t practice what I preach. Here’s a typical recent comment:

People who really are worried about AGW [anthropogenic global warming] should go beyond indulgences (sorry, offsets) – that is – they should buy offsets, but also make some real sacrifices – painful ones, like cut down their air-traveling, cut down their electricity consumption, and their consumerism, in general.

Dr. Romm – would you care to tell us what you’ve been doing along these lines ? Would you like to mention the “sincere attempts to reduce your carbon footprint” that you have made, and their results ? Would you care to publish your carbon footprint, and the multidecadal trend in it (up or down) ?

I tend to think the question is largely irrelevant. I worry about AGW a great deal, but I don’t advocate individual sacrifice, since it won’t solve the problem — nor is it necessary. For instance, you don’t need to cut down on your electricity consumption if you purchase renewable power (although efficiency will be good for your pocketbook).

We need collective action at a national level and then at a global level. That is the focus of this blog. I don’t preach sacrifice so I don’t practice it. That’s one reason I’m not as big an advocate of offsets as some.

Still, Problogger says you should tell readers about where you are coming from. So — without implying others need to do the same — here is a list of the things I have done to lower my carbon footprint:

  • a 1.2 kW solar photovoltaic system
  • a solar hot water system
  • a hot water recovery system
  • compact fluorescent bulbs for virtually all lighting
  • an array of Energy Star appliances, including a horizontal-axis washer
  • flat panel computer screens and TVs
  • a two-zone central air system with high efficiency AC units
  • three ceiling fans
  • four skylights
  • a retractable awning [my personal favorite]
  • Energy Star white paint for the sunroom
  • extensive attic insulation
  • all windows Energy Star (double-glazed argon-filled)
  • one car, a 2004 Prius
  • I telecommute.
  • I don’t fly much.

I confess I have cut down on flying mainly because it has become so unpleasant that I realized blogging is a much better use of my time than speaking to small groups in distant places. The house is a rehab, which limits some of what I can do, but then again, it avoided the energy in a new construction

It is very safe to say that the footprint trend is quite down, almost certainly by more than 50%, since in the 1990s I commuted to an office (DOE) in a Saturn — and my job required a fair amount of flying. The biggest thing I haven’t got around to doing yet is to purchase 100% renewable power for the electricity my PV system doesn’t provide. It’s on the top of the to-do list, followed closely by radiator covers!

Again, in the grand scheme of things, my actions don’t matter, but not a single one of them required sacrifice, and other than telecommuting (and perhaps the PV system), they are all things the vast majority of people could easily do.

Jacob, thanks for asking!

18 Responses to Is Climate Progress “low carbon” and does it matter?

  1. Greenbandit says:

    Your actions do matter, even in the grand scheme of things. In a Capitalist society, the choices of an individual consumer always matter.

  2. Brian CB says:

    Plus, you renovated an existing house, Joe. As a historic preservation architect, I find this factor, structure reuse, not emphasized enough.

  3. Joe says:

    Yes, and it is an attached house connected on the south wall, making it much easier to heat and, especially, cool.

  4. jcwinnie says:

    I looked at the list. Some of the things I do and some I am not in the position to do.

    Any single change probably could be attacked in some way.

    Perhaps, it also could be useful to examine trends, e.g., am I using less than I was three year ago? Is my energy supply cleaner? Are more of my decisions based upon life cycle analyses? etc.

    Another assessment, if you think of all Americans as oil addicts, is how willing I am to change if someone points out a change that makes sense? When someone attacked some of the choices that Mr. Gore had made, he changed some.

    The point was that he demonstrated that he was open-minded about the criticism, that each of us has opportunities for improvement.

    BTW: I eschew the term, Global Warming, as much as I can ever since reading an observation that the phrase minimizes the consequences we are facing. It is a form of denial, because warming is used generally in a positive or benign way, e.g., “I warmed to the idea.” “She has a warm heart.” “Doing that gave me a warm feeling.”

    There certainly is opportunity for contention with such a position, since James Hansen is warning of drastic climate change from small increments. With thermostats at hand, we tend to lack appreciation for how small increases on a global scale spell disaster.

  5. For those of us who do not have the option of buying renewable energy directly from our power companies or generating our own, there are renewable energy certificates. I wrote a blog entry about options in Maryland but the certificates work the same for all states

    Lots of people criticize collective individual actions to reduce energy consumption from the perspective of managing CO2e emissions but I frankly don’t understand the logic of the argument and would love to hear what you mean.

  6. Paul K says:

    Looks like you’re “doing the right thing” in terms of reducing your carbon footprint. I think there is a difference between unrealistic sacrifice and positive individual action. Your emphasis on efficiency to reduce CO2 makes economic and social sense.
    You wrote: “We need collective action at a national level and then at a global level.” Well, you put enough individuals together and, hey, you’ve got a collective. If everyone in my neighborhood made the individual choice to install rooftop PV panels, we would be an electric power collective. I interpret your use of collective as a synonym for government and appreciate that your focus is on law and public policy. Those of us who enjoy your blog can certainly find other sources to answer the what can I do in my own life questions.

  7. Paulina says:


    I’m assuming that you, at least at some level, are hoping to gently provoke your readers into thinking about why individual action *does* matter, and which kinds of individual action matter most.

    First off, though: you are right about the sacrifice part. It really doesn’t matter if you have “sacrificed” anything, as if sacrifice were somehow a hazing ritual or purging you had to go through before anyone would listen to you on climate. You are right that the sacrifice meme is a red herring, and a really smelly one at that. “Taking action = sacrifice = bad for me” –not very useful, except for those who want to prevent people from taking action.

    (Which is not to say that everyone who mentions sacrifice in this context is attempting to lead us astray, confuse matters, or prevent action.)

    But there are other important memes, too.

    It doesn’t matter what I do (about my energy choices) = There’s nothing I can do about our energy future.

    This is not a logical equality, but it’s how regular reasoning sometimes works. This is obviously not a useful meme or framing device.

    Our individual actions (our energy choices, community efforts, etc.) do of course matter, just like our votes (you know, if they’re counted). And so does what we say about our actions, especially if we have a platform.

    Yes, we need large-scale solutions. But many of these require political will. And the will comes from seeing that the solutions are not only good things but are *needed* good things. There’s something of a catch-22 here, because in order to provide the political will, we need to understand the urgency; and in order to understand the urgency, we need to be able to see solutions (or some of us will just stick our heads in the sand) –but large-scale solutions will only be possible once we have the political will. (This is adapted from Jon Krosnick, any errors are mine.)

    Individual action, by raising awareness, building a movement, can help resolve this catch-22. Sure, well-meaning efforts can be misguided (shouldn’t you, by the way, recommend choosing screen by power consumed, not by whether it is flat?), uninformed, and sometimes counterproductive. But unless you have evidence to the contrary, I’m going to assume that the overall effect of advocating and taking individual action to consume in a more carbon efficient way (in addition to working for political change!) has a net positive effect on generating the political will we need.

    One final thought. You say: “For instance, you don’t need to cut down on your electricity consumption if you purchase renewable power (although efficiency will be good for your pocketbook).” But efficiency measures do not make up Pacala/Socolow wedges just for fun. (Nor are they intended to be interpreted as sacrifice wedges.) We need to limit energy consumption by efficiency and conservation measures *and* we need to support and develop renewable energy. And I’m sure you agree with that, too.

    Thanks so much for doing this blog, by the way. It’s a *great* help on many issues!


  8. john says:


    There is nothing “wrong” with individual actions. They are, to quote Cheney, virtuous. But they are not sufficient. The scale of the cuts we must make in GHG emissions, and the pace with which we must make them, is too massive to depend upon the good intentions of individuals collectively achieving them. Too many people will opt for hummers, McMansions, and consumption a-go-go until the consequences of their actions are right in their face. And with global warming, that will be too late.

    There is another, more perniscious problem with the “you can change the world” message. Many companies and conservatives use it as a clarion call to avoid exactly the kind of regulation that’s needed. Oh sure, it’s empowering to think “you can make the difference.” But YOU can’t. Only WE can. And as long as BP, Monsanto and Chevron et. al. successfully hawk individual action and ingenuity as a cure-all (implicitly suggesting that’s all that’s needed) in order to avoid the kind of massive societal changes that is in fact needed, then the “you can make a difference” mantra becomes a part of the problem, not a solution.

  9. John McCormick says:

    Joe and Paulina,

    The emotionally uplifting talk about personal actions being important is really only that; uplifting but not related to the massive challenge ahead for our children and grandchildren. Being a father of two children, I can admit they are clueless and appear personally unaffected by the news and views shared among AGW believers and analysts. If they realized the magnitude and timeline of the global mitigation investment needed to merely slow the growth of CO2 concentration, they would tell we grownups to shut up about the light bulbs, ethanol, low-flow shower heads and carbon (penance) credits. So, I will say it for them. Enough with the personal choice stuff.

    US electric power sector (we customers) emitted 2.4 billion tons of CO2 in 2005 — that is 293 cubic miles of gas -EACH YEAR AND GROWING -destined for PERMANENT (one would presume) burial. China’s power sector might actually double US CO2 output and has limited geologic disposal sites and Japan has virtually no disposal sites since it is sitting atop the Pacific ring of fire.

    To capture and pump the CO2 to its PERMANENT disposal site takes energy from the power plant — between 15 and 30 percent and that is in addition to the electric power needed to operate conventional pollution control equipment, run the plant’s pumps, etc. Cutting a plant’s electric output by a third or half and particularly in summer to capture and dispose the CO2 is NOT GOING TO HAPPEN.

    A new plant will require building a 130 to 150 percent plant to assure the electric demand will be met by the new power station. Or, maybe our individual lifestyle changes will actually work and……….but that overlooks the basic fact that whatever size plant is built 30 to 50 percent more coal will be burned than needed if CO2 was not being captured. Is this beginning to make some sense or am I impinging on the comfort zone of the caring.

    When we adults get real about what it is going to take to give our children a running start on damping the CO2 concentrations we will all then realize the cost will be enormous and it will not be spent on wind towers and bicycles. The world does not operate on casual power. It needs base load, 24-7 and very concentrated. Engineers make those decisions not us environmentalists.

    AGW is not an environmental problem. The environment is the victim. It is engineering and economic challenge greater than human kind has ever had to take on and succeed. That will take bigger ideas than changing light bulbs and will include things we do not like to think about such as high temperature gas modular reactors.

    Carbon dioxide can become a resource and converted through some complex, chemically accepted and commercially used processes into diesel and jet fuel and other petrochemical products. It will take trillions of dollars and about a decade to get things rolling. That might not sit well with the lifestyle change advocates but it can be real world and our children will have to live in the real world one day while we have fun in ours today.

    Maybe everyone is eventually going to be a believer. Even then, no one will actually be in charge globally. My worst case scenario has capitalism crumbling and collapsing when Amazon drought becomes permanent, Arctic summer ice melt back near total and sea levels rise above the Battery Park subway entrance in NYC. I won’t be here then but that future bothers the heck out of me because caring people seem not to want to think about how to make that not happen while continuing to hold on to their vision of the world as they want it to be and refusing to accept the real world (industrial world) is operating on a here-and-now basis.

  10. Joe says:

    I appreciate all of the comments. My bottom line is that I do urge people to take individual action, not because the greenhouse gas reductions will make a big dent in the problem, but to see for themselves just how much emissions can be reduced without a return to the stone age, which Denyers claim is what we (progressives) are demanding. But we have dawdled for so long, ignoring scientific warnings for three decades, that the only meaningful solutions are national and international.

  11. Cliff says:

    Joe, you’re providing an essential service in a most graceful way. This is THE challenge of humankind, given that it’s the first era in our species history where we can all communicate about common a problem common to all of us. We’re either going to succeed in avoiding the worst case or we’re not, and what we do right now matters a lot more than what we do in the future.

    You and a few others, who represent the scientists doing the research, are telling us what needs to happen. What we need is guidance in the best ways to exert the political leverage to make the priority actions become realities. Our political system is chronically gridlocked. Even the most obvious priorities fall into neglect. Look at the sincere promises made after Katrina and where things stand there after 2 years. We can’t get ourselves out of the Iraq quagmire.

    Top of the list – how do we stop the burning of coal? If that doesn’t happen, then we’ll need to learn quickly how to become a species of rapid adaptors.

  12. John McCormick says:

    Cliff, [how do we stop the burning of coal?] We do not. That is the answer.

    Read the latest UNFCCC report “Analysis of existing and planned investment and financial flows relevant to the development of effective and appropriate international response to climate change” issued last week and available at:

    In particular, read Section 4 and either blow it off or accept it as the future.

    The ‘we’ you refer to are more than 3 billion people soon to be six billion struggling to get a small portion of what we have. The sooner WE greedy and careless nations swallow that bitater truth, the sooner will we and they begin to invest the trillions in realistic energy project that are designed, in part, to capture the CO2 to be used as a resource, not as a reject.

    Park the wishful thinking and see the world as it really is and not the one we wish for. The species of “rapid adaptors” can be a very constructive new role for the wealthy if we are brave enough to do the really heavy lifting to provide the next generation adequate energy supplies.

  13. Paulina says:

    John (i.e., “john”) —

    Your point about greenwashing and the like is very important.

    Complacency is encouraged on purpose in many different ways. It is also, certainly, encouraged by mistake by well-meaning people who appear to offer a solution that in fact goes nowhere. They may be diverting activist energy from more productive paths, for instance. They may generate a sense that the problem is easy to solve; in fact, there is no real need for anyone to get worked up: it’s under control. Go about your business. Nothing to see here.

    They unwittingly undermine the understanding of the need for large-scale solutions. The result is the same whether the complacency is encouraged on purpose or not: a delay on large-scale action (such as a moratorium on new coal-fired plants that do not in fact capture and store their CO2 emissions; a price on carbon, etc.).

    *However*, I think the political will required for these large-scale actions (the implementations of the required policy instruments, for instance) hinges on climate change becoming a voting issue. And I think *that*, in turn, hinges on increased political activity among people in general. And, bear with me, *that* is where the personal action comes in, both the direct political action each individual can take but also the consumer choices. Because, and here’s the major claim, these consumer choices *contribute* to creating a movement, a culture, that encourages and demands the required political action (both the small-scale, which in turn affects the large-scale, and the large-scale political atmosphere directly).

    In this sense, I think individual action is very important. And it is in part for this reason that I think it is more counter-productive to call individual action meaningless than it is to encourage it. But there are risks associated with both.


  14. Jacob says:

    Dr Romm, thanks for your answer.
    “Again, in the grand scheme of things, my actions don’t matter, but not a single one of them required sacrifice”

    As you say, even if everybody did the easy things you have done, it would help very little toward a “solution”. No sacrifice, but no solution either.

    “We need collective action at a national level and then at a global level.”

    What you mean is: since it’s gonna hurt like hell, we need “collective action” i.e. coercion. Without it it ain’t gonna happen.

    “…just how much emissions can be reduced without a return to the stone age, which Denyers claim is what we (progressives) are demanding.”

    I think John McCormick (in above comments) is nearer the truth – the problem is of gigantic dimensions: “the sooner will we and they begin to invest the trillions in realistic energy project …”

    There are no realistic energy projects “out there” yet. There just aren’t. Maybe the investment of trillions will, after some time (god knows how much) create new, green energy solutions, and maybe, after spending all that money there will still be no solutions – money can’t change the laws of physics. Neither can government. After all coercion and spending is done, we might still be stranded with no workable “solution”.

    There is no way we can “invest trillions” and it will not hurt like hell.

    Your implication that the problem is solvable by “collective action at a national level and then at a global level”, and without much sacrifice is unrealistic. As a literate person, you should not underestimate the difficulties. There is no green energy readily available, we depend on solutions that are yet to be invented.

    It not just a matter of clobbering the deniers (which are vicious grandchild murderers anyway), gaining political power, and then the planet is saved. It’s much, much, more complicated.

  15. Joe says:

    Sure it requires trillions over the next century. Fortunately global GDP over the same time is hundreds of trillions. We do have the technology, as I lay out in my book. It won’t be easy, but it is straightforward.

  16. John Mashey says:

    Good material: I’ve ordered your book from Amazon.
    Your list was a good reminder that:
    a) There is no one magic silver bullet.

    b) Peristent effort pays off: California has managed to stay flat on electricity/person for decades, without wrecking the economy:

    c) Also, it is clear that the further we stretch oil, the further off we push unsequestered coal plants, and the faster we get to renewables, the less bad will be the economic effects from Peak Oil, due in 2015 +/- 5 (consensus predictions). I recommend David Strahan’s “The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man” (Amazon Canada or UK), or

  17. Jacob says:

    “California has managed to stay flat on electricity/person for decades, without wrecking the economy:”

    That was easy. They prohibitted any new oil refineries, power plants, or heavy industry in their beautiful state. Let other people in other states dirty their hands and backyards, to provide the fine people of California with abundant goods.
    And a fine lot of good did it do to the global environment too…

    Joe: “Sure it requires trillions over the next century. ”
    But I thought the tipping point is near, max 10-15 years away. What do you mean: “the next century” ?

  18. Jacob says:

    “Again, in the grand scheme of things, my actions don’t matter, but not a single one of them required sacrifice”

    We know that in the grand scheme of things, the actions of one single person don’t matter. But I wanted to check another premise: that there are easy and painless improvements, like thise you cited.

    You are a technical person, presumably at ease with numbers. Could you please calculate by what percenrage did your “green policies” reduce your carbon footprint. It’s not personal, it’s speaking of “you” as a typical family.

    The three main things are:
    1. PV panels.
    2. Insulating the attic.
    3. Driving a prius.

    Let’s forget for a moment of the price and economics.
    Could you please calculate by what percenrage you’r (or a typical) carbon footprint is reduced by these three items ?