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Volume 38, Issue 12 —


Sustainable Consumption Governance in the Amazon

by Lesley K. McAllister

Tropical deforestation is a major source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, estimated to contribute as much as 25% of global emissions. In Brazil, which is reported to be the fourth-largest GHG emitter, deforestation causes about 75% of all national emissions. Yet deforestation in Brazil and other countries with tropical forests has proven very difficult to control, in part because of the weakness of national legal and regulatory institutions for environmental protection. And while it is a major topic in climate change negotiations, the issue of reducing emissions from deforestation in developing countries has not yet been directly addressed within international law.

In Brazil and several other developing countries, deforestation is closely linked to agricultural exports. In the Amazon, the two most important drivers of deforestation have become cattle ranching and soybean cultivation, both increasingly export-driven. While this commodity-driven paradigm threatens to accelerate deforestation as producers expand their participation in international markets, it also provides an opportunity for sustainable consumption governance. "Sustainable consumption" refers to the use of goods and services in a way that meets basic needs and improves quality of life while minimizing natural resources degradation and pollution, so as not to jeopardize the needs of future generations. The term "sustainable consumption governance" as used herein encompasses the diverse array of private and public activities and institutions that seek to lead market participants toward more sustainable consumption.

Introduction: Climate Change and Consumption

by Douglas A. Kysar and Michael P. Vandenbergh

Will the response to climate change require environmental lawyers and policymakers to finally confront limits on material consumption by individuals and households? The Articles in this issue are the product of an April 2008 Climate Change and Consumption Conference that addressed this question. In the last several years, numerous scholarly books, articles, and conferences in the natural and social sciences have focused on consumption and the environment. Yet, only a handful of law review articles in the United States have directed sustained attention toward this issue, and none have focused on the nexus between climate change and consumption.

The Climate Change and Consumption Conference began the process of filling this gap by bringing legal scholars to the table with social scientists, philosophers, environmental engineers, and natural scientists. The Articles in this issue are the result. They do not provide a uniform answer to the question, but they present views from a remarkably broad set of disciplinary perspectives. They begin what we hope will be a vibrant debate by academicians and policymakers at the global, federal, state, and local levels regarding the role of consumption as a driver of climate change and as a potential site of regulatory response.

Consumption, Happiness, and Climate Change

by Mark A. Cohen and Michael P. Vandenbergh

A large body of literature has developed over the past several years on the economics of happiness. One of the key insights of this literature is that beyond a subsistence level of income, relative income is often more important than absolute income to individual well-being. This is true for both comparisons against a reference group, e.g., across a community or country, as well as comparisons for the same individual over time. Another key insight is that changes in income have only transitory effects on well-being.

In this Article, we explore the implications of this literature for understanding the relationship between climate change policies and consumption. We identify a number of ways in which accounting for the implications of the new happiness literature could lead to laws and policies that influence consumption in ways that increase the prospects for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in developed and developing countries. We do not examine every nuance of the growing happiness literature, but we provide a brief introduction and observations that we hope will stimulate further efforts by academicians and policymakers.

Toward a Climate-Literate Society

by Mark S. McCaffrey and Susan M. Buhr

In 1958, as part of the science education efforts for the International Geophysical Year, a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) publication, Planet Earth: Mystery With 100, Clues, explained that the natural greenhouse effect was being altered. "[O]ur industrial civilization has been pouring carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at a great rate," and if this continued, "it would have a marked warming effect on the earth's climate" and could "cause significant melting of the great ice caps and raise sea levels in time." Despite the 50-year lead time afforded by this portent of our current circumstances, citizens today hold significant and pervasive misunderstandings about climate science. Students and even teachers in modern classrooms exhibit multiple misconceptions about the climate system in general, and the causes and effects of climate change in particular.

While many efforts have focused on promoting a change of behavior aimed at reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, "an educated citizenry is required to make wise decisions regarding policies and practices aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the human impact on the Earth's resources." To support wise decisionmaking, an understanding of basic climate processes is imperative. In their paper, The Case for Climate Literacy in the 21st Century, Frank Niepold and colleagues call for a large climate literacy effort in the United States that "enables and fosters numerous partnerships, alliances and collaborations across the entire spectrum of educators, communicators, and science centers to achieve wider and more efficient opportunities to engage the public." They go on to state that "our country's future depends on the abilities of the public to plan proactively for the complexities of the 21st century."

Using Economics to Fuel Responsible Energy Consumption Decisions

by W. Kip Viscusi

Examining individual consumption behavior is pertinent to both the current sources of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as well as policies designed to limit these emissions. A wide variety of private household decisions generate externalities that have environmental ramifications both now and in the future. Because household decisions may not be fully aligned with broader societal objectives, improving these decisions could foster society's environmental policy objectives. If, however, it were always as inexpensive to reduce pollution after the fact using the analog of end-of-pipe treatment, then there would be no need to alter consumption behavior, as it would be no more costly to address the harm after it has occurred.

This Article considers the determinants of individual consumption decisions and how these decisions might better account for environmental impacts. In addition to exploiting the quite direct forms of regulatory incentives to alter behavior, such as taxes and regulatory standards, policymakers should take advantage of the potential of informational remedies that can assist people in making more efficient choices for themselves and more responsible decisions for the environment. This Article considers as a case study ways in which current information provisions for household energy utilization might be improved. In exploring the potential role of more environmentally responsible consumption decisions, I do not mean to imply that such policies alone are sufficient to fully address all climate change problems. However, to the extent that substantial benefits can be generated at little cost, consumption-oriented efforts should be included in a broad mix of climate change initiatives.

Tools for Measuring Individuals' Climate Behaviors and Greenhouse Gas Impacts

by K. Carrie Armel and Thomas N. Robinson

In the United States, the residential sector accounts for a significant proportion of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions produced each year. Sixty-two percent of vehicle emissions come from passenger cars and light-duty trucks, and one-quarter of non-transportation emissions come from residential sources. Many individual-level behaviors that contribute to these emissions could be modified, for example, by purchasing compact fluorescent bulbs (purchasing behaviors), increasing one's refrigerator temperature (nonpurchasing, one-time behaviors), regularly shutting off the lights (repeated behaviors or habits), or insulating one's hot water heater (complex behaviors that require expert assistance or are costly). Changes in such individual-level behaviors may play an important role in slowing climate change.

Corn Futures: Consumer Politics, Health, and Climate Change

by Jedediah Purdy and James Salzman

The price of grain is now directly tied to the price of oil. We used to have a grain economy and a fuel economy. But now they're beginning to fuse.

Mexicans have long been known as the Corn People, but that label perhaps provides a better fit for modern day Americans. The simple seeds of corn play a fundamental role unprecedented in the history of human agriculture. Corn now underpins two major sectors--arguably the two most important sectors--of our modern economy: food supply and energy supply. How we choose to consume this seed has far-ranging consequences for pressing issues as far apart as climate change and diabetes, energy policy and immigration, tropical deforestation and food riots.

Recent years have brought surging interest in both the food we eat and the energy we use. The growth of farmers' markets around the country, the decision of major retailers such as Walmart to sell organic produce, and the popularity of grocery chains such as Whole Foods all bear witness to the fact that Americans care more and more about where their food comes from and how it was grown. The recent popularity of compact fluorescent light bulbs, hybrid cars such as the Toyota Prius, and voluntary carbon offsets similarly demonstrates that individuals see a connection between their behavior and climate change, and care enough to do something about it.

Supersizing the American Dream in an Era of Climate Change

by Jack N. Barkenbus

I. Supersizing Trends

Thoughtful Americans recognize that the United States is a prodigious consumer of energy and natural resources, and as such, a large-scale emitter of carbon dioxide (CO2), the primary greenhouse gas (GHG) forcing climate change. Few, however, recognize the truly, singular nature of the U.S. contribution to climate change. The U.S. share of CO emissions from energy generation is approximately 20% of the global total, which when allocated across the entire population, comes to a little over 20 tons per person per year. Some countries, such as Australia and Canada, have comparable per capita emissions, but without a large population base, their total emissions pale in comparison to the United States. China's total emissions rival those of the United States, but China's per capita emissions are exceedingly small (3.9 tons per person). Moreover, if we compare the United States to its economic counterpart, the European Union, we find European per capita emissions to be roughly one-half those of the United States.

Various explanations exist for why the U.S. emissions profile is sui generis. Some examples might be the country's large coal-based electricity generation and its extensive geographical scope (making the transportation sector a large-scale emitter). An equally compelling explanation highlighted in this Article is that American individuals and households, through their pursuit of the American Dream, have created a lifestyle inimical to combating climate change. Statistical evidence will be marshaled demonstrating that the "supersizing" of the American Dream--that is, the building of larger dwellings accompanied by the accumulation of more and larger household possessions--has taken place relatively recently and seriously diminishes our ability to reduce our collective carbon footprint.

Who Are Climate Change Activists in America?

by Dana R. Fisher

During the climate change meetings at the Group of Eight (G-8) Summit in July 2008, President George W. Bush summarized the results of the meeting:

The G-8 expressed our desire to have a--a significant reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050. We [the United States] made it clear and the other nations agreed that they must also participate in an ambitious goal, with interim goals and interim plans to enable the world to successfully address climate change. And we made progress, significant progress, toward a comprehensive approach.

Even with public statements of support for emission reductions at an international event, President Bush's actions continue to be consistent with his position on the Kyoto Protocol, which he made clear in a letter to U.S. Senate leaders in March 2001. In the letter, he stated: "As you know, I oppose the Kyoto Protocol."

Evangelicals, Climate Change, and Consumption

by David A. Skeel Jr.

Before 2006, some American evangelicals were indifferent about environmental issues, but many were hostile, denouncing "environmental wackos" and the quasi-religious language of the environmental movement. But the release of a startlingly pro-environmental document called Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to Action two years ago signaled the sudden emergence of a sizeable group of evangelical environmentalists. Signed by many prominent evangelicals, the call to action prompted a swift backlash from other leaders, who defended the long-standing evangelical skepticism of the environmental movement. Since then, the evangelical community has been deeply divided. Although there are hints of fissures on other social issues, none is as stark as the new debate over climate change in particular and environmentalism more generally.

So goes an increasingly common account of evangelicals' uneasy relationship with environmentalism. As a description of the present, the storyline is roughly accurate: evangelicals are indeed divided. But today's evangelical environmentalists are not a new breed. Difficult as it is to imagine now, evangelicals once seemed poised to become a potent ally to the early environmental movement. In the late 1960s, leading evangelical intellectual and pastor Francis Schaeffer gave a series of talks at the flagship evangelical college, Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, insisting that the biblical views of creation and of men and women as God's stewards should make evangelicals avid environmentalists. Evangelical churches, he argued, should take the lead in countering the environmentally degrading tendencies of modern culture.