Carbon Constraints and “The American Way of Life”


Brad Plumer makes the case that it’s not really true that curbing carbon emissions will require dramatic lifestyle changes and the end of consumer capitalism.

One thing that I think is worth observing in this regard is that although there’s a “typical American lifestyle” there’s also, in practice, enormous diversity in the lifestyles of Americans. I, for example, don’t own a car. Which is unusually in the United States. But it’s hardly unheard of. And if the number of carless households were to double, that would reduce carbon emissions substantially. But most people’s lifestyles would be exactly the same. And car ownership would still be typical. Similarly, right now a minority of Americans are vegetarians. And if the number of vegetarians were to double that, too, would reduce carbon emissions while leaving most people’s lifestyles unchanged. In another vein, if carbon pricing were to make business air travel radically less economical than it currently is that would be a major change in the lifestyle of people who currently do a lot of business travel by air. But that’s only a relatively small minority of the population.

These kinds of factors make it somewhat hard to discuss the question of whether or not “lifestyles” will change “a lot” or not. It’s a big country. There are a lot of lifestyles out there. My guess is that most people would find most things to be mostly very similar, but some people would find things to be very different. For example, at the margin carbon pricing will cause some families to have fewer children which is, depending on how you look at it, either a huge change in lifestyle or else no change at all.