Wednesday, December 05, 2007

An easy, if illogical, appeal

There's a big global-warming conference getting underway in Bali, with 10,000 attendees from around the world.

Whatever you think of the conference subject -- or the likely results, if any -- I'm getting tired of one easy-but-ignorant criticism routinely aimed at such conferences. To wit:

Critics say they are contributing to the very problem they aim to solve.

"Nobody denies this is an important event, but huge numbers of people are going, and their emissions are probably going to be greater than a small African country," said Chris Goodall, author of the book "How to Live a Low-Carbon Life."

It's an interesting datum, made more interesting in that it's coming from someone who clearly thinks global-warming is real and serious. But as far as ethics or policy, such a criticism is mindless.

The implication is that the attendees are hypocrites, because they're preaching global-warming alarm while jetting around the world.

But such a stance is nonsense. If we were to accept the premise, then people concerned about global warming could never hold global discussions because of the emissions involved in putting such meetings together. Apparently, the effort to combat global warming is supposed to be fought by people meeting locally in outdoor venues reached only by bicycle or on foot. Or handled entirely by telephone and e-mail.

Which is utter bilge, of course.

For one thing, the amount of emissions involved are relatively small -- as the story notes, the 12-day conference is expected to produce about as much carbon as the city of Marseilles produces in one day. That one-time bump in emissions isn't even a rounding error in the scheme of things.

For another, few if any of the people involved are advocating a return to caveman days. These aren't zero-emission fanatics, who think that taking a ski vacation in Colorado is an unforgiveable crime against the planet. There's a reason it's called emissions "reduction," not "elimination"; emissions are an unavoidable part of human activity. So expecting delegates to be entirely carbon-neutral in every aspect of their lives is silly.

It's much like a dieter, who is trying to reduce -- but not eliminate -- his caloric intake. Do you call him hypocritical if he stays within his caloric goal but eats a sugar cookie? No. Doing so relies on a crabbed definition of dieting that completely ignores the big picture.

The way to look at emissions reductions is from a cost-benefit angle. If the conference adds 1 percent to this year's emissions, but results in agreements that cut long-term emissions by 5 percent, it clearly is an emission-friendly endeavor.

Naturally, the real picture is more complex than that, because emissions-reduction is a slow, slow process. It's more like this conference, plus the next one and the next one and the next one, will, over a period of years, lay the groundwork for the next Kyoto-like agreement, expected in 2012. But the logic is the same.

One can question whether the effort is worth it, or is likely to produce anything of value. And there are legitimate criticisms of this conference in particular -- why Bali, for instance, instead of a more accessible location? Though that answer is not simple, either, because there are issues not only of emissions but also relative wealth: it's economically more feasible to have wealthy Westerners fly to Bali than to have poor Asian countries send people to Europe, even if the latter is better for the carbon balance sheet. And, of course, there are political reasons to hold meetings of global importance all over the globe in question.

But it's simply silly to expect the effort itself to be carbon-neutral from the get-go.

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