The End of Energy Obesity

After last week’s dramatic episode of rallies and UN speeches, I sense the climate change narrative has shifted (again). And it’s shifted into uncomfortable territory – culpability for our planet’s malaise is crossing into the domain of personal lifestyle. Your lifestyle.

I think the turning point was late last year in Poland. That’s when and where Sir David Attenborough opened the proceedings at the COP24 conference, the international conclave of climate change specialists. Excerpting from his speech, he told the audience that the “world’s people” are “…willing to make sacrifices in their daily lives,” and that “…they recognize that they too must play their part,” in arresting climate change.

Interpretation: You will think twice about driving your kids to hockey in an SUV; forget about flying to Disneyland for a family vacation; become a vegan and move into nothing larger than a studio apartment.

I’m not being facetious nor am I disparaging Attenborough. Run the numbers and you’ll see that achieving the deep emission reductions scoped out in the Paris Agreement—or the more aggressive net-zero targets pledged by more than 70 countries—will require mandatory sacrifices in everyone’s daily lives.

In economics parlance we’re now talking about the “demand side” of the equation. Hitherto, focusing attention on fossil fuel suppliers was the one-sided strategy. Unfortunately, simplistic narratives like “the end of oil is nigh,” led the populace to believe they didn’t have to be part of the climate change solution.

The world is neither simple nor one-dimensional—”it takes two to tango” as they say. Supply and demand can’t be separated in economics.

So, now the spotlight is shining on consumers. People like you and me, in addition to industrial emitters, are also responsible for making final decisions about energy use. Turning an ignition key, flicking a light switch, firing up a comfy gas fireplace, turning up a thermostat, buying a plane ticket, taking a cruise, buying a new vehicle are all personal decisions about emitting greenhouse gases.

Heck, even the Royal Family has to change their behavior. Environmental spokespersons Prince Harry and the Duchess of Sussex were recently shamed for taking a private jet to Elton’s John’s chateaux in France. Yes, things are getting uncomfortable for the aristocracy. But what about the rest of us plebeians?

Enter Greta Thunberg, an articulate Swedish teenager and climate activist. Appropriately, she shunned a trans-Atlantic flight and traveled to New York by sailboat to rally hearts and minds on climate change action. Now a global icon, she has stoked the minds of youthful millions. Their goal: To get policy makers around the world to implement really tough medicine to cut emissions.

Controversial to say the least, Ms. Thunberg has been an unfortunate lighting-rod for nasty criticism. Personally, I’m not bothered. Her symbolic voyage across the Atlantic is finally exposing the deeply entrenched comfort we all derive from fossil fuels. Implicitly, she’s demonstrating how incredibly hard it is to shake our addiction to a ubiquitous commodity like oil (although I think this connection has yet sink into the minds of many who support her position).

The new message is clear: Policy action must go well beyond transitioning industry. Peoples of the world, pushed by government, must also personally contribute—through deeds and dollars—to solving the problem.

But is the public ready for such rapid change? Under a “climate emergency” we’re told we only have ten years. Yet under any realistic scenario this is not enough time to reduce emissions without cutting back on consumption.

So, are we, the “world’s people” really “willing” to give up things like flights to our favourite vacation spots as Attenborough obliquely posits? Are hundreds-of-millions of newly minted middle-class people in Asia willing stay at home now that they have crossed a threshold of wealth to give them their first taste of mobility and holidays in the sun?

I don’t think I need to show the trend data. Traveling the planet; driving obese vehicles; buying useless, over-packaged goods that are delivered to our door—these are comforts that billions of people around the world want in increasing excess.

English writer Aldous Huxley, author of notable works like Brave New World, wrote an obscure essay in 1927 simply called Comfort, a treatise on the benefits of energy use (like hot baths). He wrote, “The more comfort is brought into the world, the more it is likely to be valued. To those who have known comfort, discomfort is a real torture.”

Millions of Thunberg followers are calling for change. But taking a few hours off work, holding a placard and chanting at politicians is the easy part. Going the next step and enduring personal discomfort for the greater good is the big leap that’s needed to walk the talk.

Yes, a new narrative has emerged. Ala Huxley, we’ll see how much “real torture” comfy consumers will be willing to tolerate to reduce emissions. Technology and business interests can only do so much, so fast. To go faster, the rest will be up to the world’s people and politicians who must decide how to govern their citizens’ lives and wallets.

The realization is finally setting in that the business of energy is everyone’s business. We can thank Greta Thunberg for changing the narrative and exposing that important reality.