2011-09-16 01:03:03Do Individual Acts Help Save the Planet? -- NY Times Letters to the Editor
John Hartz
John Hartz

Do Individual Acts Help Save the Planet?

Do Individual Acts Help Save the Planet?

To the Editor:

Re “Going Green but Getting Nowhere,” by Gernot Wagner (Op-Ed, Sept. 8):

Bringing your own bag to the supermarket may not do much to reduce carbon emissions, but it’s an easy act that keeps people involved in a movement that desperately needs support.

Mr. Wagner writes that the changes necessary to avert climate change are so large that they are “beyond the reach of individual action.” One individual’s actions, like voting, protesting, boycotting or donating a small amount to charity, won’t solve big problems. But an individual’s consumption decisions can influence those of others, and collectively individuals can lay the groundwork for social movements that will enable major policy shifts and help adapt our energy-intensive lifestyles to a changing planet.

More important, despite Mr. Wagner’s cold-hearted economic analysis, reducing one’s pollution footprint is simply the right thing to do.

Washington, Sept. 8, 2011

To the Editor:

Global warming is one problem with thousands of causes and thousands of solutions.

Activists once believed we had to “get the ball rolling” with personal actions before we could gain public support for the tougher political solutions. Industry and politicians read the mood correctly and hopped aboard the “individual action” train. It was the perfect public relations solution: an endless diversion from real transformative change. And there is always a ribbon to cut, a new scheme to announce or an award to hand out.

But most important, it would be business as usual with no changes to the bottom line for the fossil fuel industry.

Individual action is important, but it requires a regulatory framework to drive real change. Those of us outside the United States look to the sole remaining superpower to do something “super” that’s in its own best interest and rest of the world’s, too.

All Americans have to lose is dependence on foreign oil, trillions in health care costs and a lot of unnecessary climate-related suffering.

Executive Director
Sierra Club Canada
Ottawa, Sept. 9, 2011

To the Editor:

Gernot Wagner makes a valid point: individual actions alone will not solve our environmental problems. But I disagree with two of his assertions.

First, he says that every ton of carbon dioxide causes around $20 in damages. This surprisingly low estimate is based on a single study by government agencies that ignored the most serious threats from climate change. In a reanalysis of that study for the E3 Network, a colleague and I found that including the most important climate risks could raise the damages to almost $900 per ton of carbon dioxide.

Second, Mr. Wagner writes: “Markets are truly free only when everyone pays the full price for his or her actions. Anything else is socialism.” It’s true that markets are not efficient unless everyone pays full price for his or her own pollution. But there are many ways to be inefficient without being socialist, as our pollution-intensive economy demonstrates daily.

Somerville, Mass., Sept. 8, 2011

The writer is a senior economist at the Stockholm Environment Institute-U.S. Center at Tufts University.

To the Editor:

Gernot Wagner scoffs at those of us who bring our own bags to the store and “reduce, reuse and recycle,” arguing that these efforts will make less than a dent in the growing threat of global climate change. True enough. He says the only real solution is broad-based legislation, such as cap and trade. Fine.

But Mr. Wagner also concedes that cap and trade “has been declared dead in Washington.” So what would he have us do while we wait for Congress to see the light through the haze of carbon emissions? After all, we still have to buy groceries. Is it so impossible to reuse bags and also petition Congress?

Brooklyn, Sept. 8, 2011