Carbon Footprint

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On one level, a carbon footprint is a mundane technical definition - i.e.., an attempt to take account of the environmental impact of an individual, organization, event, or product over a given time period (typically a year) by measuring units of carbon dioxide, which stands in for all greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming, including carbon, methane, and nitrous oxide.

On another level, the notion of a carbon footprint is far more than a mere technical definition - functioning in a powerful way to instantiate one particular (progressive) view of environmental stewardship, while subtly pressing those who hold a different view to align.  

Proponents of the carbon footprint concept believe that it can help individuals and organizations become more aware of the impacts of their choices on the world around them. From this vantage point, it is a simple, accessible, down-to-earth way to examine our energy consumption, pollution, and waste. If everyone works to reduce their carbon footprint, say its proponents, we can reduce pollution, protect the environment, stabilize the climate, and save lives. From this perspective, watching one's carbon footprint is a crucial aspect of being a good steward of the earth and a good human being.

By contrast, some opponents of the carbon footprint concept argue that climate change is too complex of a phenomenon to be simplified into a single number - raising doubt about whether a person or organization’s contribution to pollution can be quantified. These people point to the fact that carbon-footprint “calculators” can produce wildly different results based on the questions they ask and the assumptions they make. Given these types of concerns, they worry that the carbon footprint concept is ultimately an empty, meaningless exercise that will produce no long-lasting change.

In addition, a lack of transparency in how carbon footprints are calculated leads some people to suspect the motives of those who create them. Some worry that a new tax, supported by a new bureaucracy, could create inefficiencies that rival the problems caused by energy use.

Still other people object to the concept of carbon footprints not because of simplicity or inefficiency, but because of questions about the reality or scientific basisof man-made climate change. Citing different scientific opinions (about, for instance, the imperfect assumptions in climate models and the wide margins of error in climate measurements), these people say that it is impossible to be sure what exactly is happening right now, what will happen in the future, and what society should do about it, if anything. To these people, the carbon footprint concept is a part of an over-reactive response that borders on paranoia about the environment.

QUESTIONS TO PLAY WITH:

- It’s the year 2149, and climate change has unleashed unimaginable devastation. What do you think of carbon footprints now?

- It’s the year 2149, and the whole climate-change scare is used as a perfect example of what happens when people put too much faith in scientific models. What do you think of carbon footprints now?

- If carbon footprints aren’t the right answer to pollution, what is?

Contributors: 

Cynthia Kurtz

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