Carbon Footprints Don’t Tell The Whole Story, But Climate Shadows Might

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One common argument against carbon footprints is that they focus on individual actions, and not larger collective action. The most ardent proponents of this argument would say to not worry about your carbon footprint at all, because large corporations and governments make impacts that are so much larger than ours that ours just doesn’t matter that much. It’s such a small drop in the overall bucket that even mass numbers of people lowering footprints wouldn’t solve climate change.

I personally don’t subscribe to this idea, at least not to that extreme. Private companies are deeply affected by the choices of families, because families buy the products these corporations make. People who are trying to lower footprints wouldn’t leave room for many of these large entities to pollute more because they wouldn’t have enough customers to survive. But then again, some corporations operate in the B2B (business to business) world, or they’re a government contractor. And then there’s the government itself. These types of entities are at least somewhat insulated from consumer choices.

This is where the idea of the “Climate Shadow” comes in. A recent article at explains the concept, and how it goes beyond footprints to factor in our contributions to collective actions.

“Enter: the “climate shadow,” a concept that I created to help each of us visualize how the sum of our life’s choices influence the climate emergency. Think of your climate shadow as a dark shape stretching out behind you. Everywhere you go, it goes too, tallying not just your air conditioning use and the gas mileage of your car, but also how you vote, how many children you choose to have, where you work, how you invest your money, how much you talk about climate change, and whether your words amplify urgency, apathy, or denial.”

The article gives the example of two men: one lives in a small apartment in the city and walks to work. The other flies on a plane weekly for work. The carbon footprint would tell us that the guy who walks to work has a better footprint than the guy who flies weekly, but the climate shadow asks us to gather more information. If the studio apartment walker guy works at an advertising firm that helps promote the burning of fossil fuels while the jet setting guy is a climate scientist or activist warning the world about the dangers of climate change, the whole situation changes.

The Good In This Concept

This concept is good because it considers other factors and shows a person’s true overall impact.

If you’ve got a great personal or family carbon footprint, but we’re turning around and doing things that encourage bad collective actions, we could very easily negate our good personal decisions. By taking this big picture approach, we can look at how our impacts affect the collective level, and this allows us to consider those actions more carefully

The climate shadow is also good in that it asks more of us. When we’re asked to limit personal impacts, we might recycle, switch to a better car (or none at all), improve our homes, or change our diets. But, if we stop there, we’re missing out on major opportunities to improve. By feeling a sense of urgency in those areas, we are more likely to improve them.

In other words, if everyone improved their carbon footprints, the impact would be good, but limited (and not enough). If everyone considered their climate shadows, enough change could happen to fix the problem.

What Makes This Concept Challenging

As I’ve pointed out in other articles, our species seems to be obsessed with numbers. We want to quantify everything — to assign it a number. We can then feed these numbers into formulas and computer programs, and they can reduce it all to just one number. Then, we look for ways to make that number better.

But, like the Tesla Safety Scores, credit scores, and other numbers we assign to everything, we have to be careful to not ignore context. If you’re getting a good safety score by gaming the system, it doesn’t reflect your true safety as a driver. Credit scores were designed to replace “redlining” and assign a “Fair Isaac” number to everyone, but they’ve proven to be better at excluding minorities than redlining ever was.

In both of these cases, trying to reduce something complex like driver safety or creditworthiness to one number allows us to substitute causation (a more complex concept) with correlation (a simpler concept). We end up not realizing that correlation does not imply causation.

When it comes to credit scores, this is easy to figure out if we ditch the numbers for a minute and think about causation. People who are discriminated against will have a much harder time getting or keeping a job, getting customers to do business with their small business, etc.. Without stable income, people facing discrimination end up with crappy scores. Sure, the crappy score correlates with a higher risk, but it’s actually caused by discrimination in many cases.

Safety scores, credit scores, and carbon footprints make sense to us because they’re easy to deal with mentally. Some numbers are better than others, and they can easily be calculated. They can then be changed, averaged, and have other mathematical operations performed on them. We trust math, so we end up trusting these numbers.

To embrace a better concept like a climate shadow, we need to balance quantitative thinking with qualitative thinking, and that’s harder than just looking at numbers. It’s tempting to be lazy and let someone else’s math do all of the thinking for us, but it’s harder to do the thinking ourselves.

Climate Shadows Ask Us To Stop Being Lazy

Really, that’s the core problem with using bogus numbers instead of thinking for ourselves: we have to stop being lazy. Making a few household changes to get a better footprint number is great, but switching jobs, spending time on climate activism, and other “shadow” changes are hard. If we want to make a difference, we need to do the hard things.

Featured image: Energy flowchart made by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1953 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba