Al Gore May Be a Hypocrite For Living in an Energy-Intensive Mansion, But He's Right About the Need for a Carbon Tax

By MICHAEL C. DORF

Monday, Mar. 26, 2007

Since Al Gore's film "An Inconvenient Truth" won an Oscar last month, global warming skeptics have been branding the former Vice President a hypocrite because his Nashville home consumes more than twelve times as much energy as a typical home in that city. If this criticism is meant to somehow discredit the film's central claim that global warming is an extraordinarily serious crisis that demands urgent action, then the skeptics are deliberately confusing the issue. Global warming is a global crisis whether or not Gore is a hypocrite.

Still, even if their motives are impure, the people calling attention to Gore's energy consumption make an important point. Gore's voracious appetite for energy undermines his ability to lead a worldwide movement to slow global warming. As I explain in this column, that's partly because Gore is a personal role model, and partly because his own approach to reducing his carbon footprint--individual "carbon balancing"--is at best a half measure. We need a carbon tax. And to his credit, Gore supports one.

No Excuse for Gore's Energy Consumption

Gore spokeswoman Kalee Kreider and other Gore defenders have offered a number of explanations for his energy consumption. Yet none of them quite works.

First, Gore's defenders point out that he purchases "green energy" and is installing solar panels and other energy-saving devices in his home. (The solar panels were apparently delayed by local government officials.) These are certainly commendable measures, but no one claims that, as a result, the home is or will be able to run without generating greenhouse gas emissions. Making a 10,000 square-foot home more energy-efficient is a little like driving oneself to work in a hybrid gas-electric stretch limousine. It may be less of a gas guzzler than a stretch Hummer, but it's hardly a Prius, much less a bicycle.

Second, Gore's defenders note that his home doubles as an office for him and his wife, Tipper. By working at home, the Gores reduce carbon emissions from commuting. Thus, Gore apologists say, the right standard is not the Gore home versus other homes, but the Gore home versus the energy it takes others to power their homes, their offices, and their commute.

Yet here too, even if we applaud the Gores' efforts, they come up short. Plenty of people who work at home manage to get by quite comfortably with much smaller living spaces and work spaces than the Gores have chosen. Further, whatever energy Gore saves by avoiding the daily commute, he more than makes up for by jetting around the world to campaign against global warming. And that's not to mention the fact that the Gores also own two other homes.

The third and best defense offered for Gore's energy use is that for every molecule of carbon dioxide his consumption contributes to the atmosphere, he invests in offsetting energy-saving technology to be used around the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a compensating molecule. Thus, Gore is "carbon neutral." Yet it is not clear why Gore's admirable carbon-reduction philanthropy should not supplement--rather than substitute for--conservation efforts on his part.

What Is Carbon Balancing?

If you are concerned about the contribution that your lifestyle makes to global warming, you can pay to undo the damage via organizations that balance your harmful impact with a compensating helpful one. For example, let's say you take a four-hour plane trip. If you pay Carbon Bank USA $12, it will plant a tree on your behalf, which will absorb roughly the same amount of carbon dioxide as your portion of the plane trip released into the atmosphere.

Alternatively, you could pay TerraPass, which will invest your money in renewable, relatively clean energy, so that somebody else's purchase of electric power comes from wind, rather than oil or coal. As Gregg Easterbrook noted in an opinion piece in the New York Times earlier this month, TerraPass will also use the money it receives from conscientious carbon consumers in the First World to cover landfills in the Third World, thus preventing the escape of methane gas, a particularly potent contributor to global warming.

Carbon balancing sounds too good to be true. Is it a way to have your Hummer and an environmentally clean conscience too? Maybe not.

Is Carbon Balancing the Modern Equivalent of Papal Indulgences?

Consider an analogy. In Catholic theology, sinners could reduce or eliminate their time in purgatory by repenting and earning "indulgences" from the Church. During the Sixteenth Century, Pope Leo X created controversy by, in effect, selling indulgences for donations to the Church, earning condemnation from, among others, Martin Luther. Forgiving the sins of the contrite is one thing; accepting bribes for a ticket to heaven quite another.

If every person on Earth has a moral obligation to reduce his or her contribution to global warming, then Gore's donations to green technology do not expiate his sins. It's good that he supports such efforts, but there is simply no reason why he couldn't do so and also reduce the emissions for which he is personally responsible.

If you think "sin" is the wrong category, but agree with Gore's statement to Congress last week that global warming is a "moral issue," consider the following analogy to the great American issues of the Nineteenth Century, slavery and the preservation of the Union. Facing a manpower shortage, in 1863 Congress passed a law subjecting able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 35 to the draft. However, a draftee who didn't want to fight could satisfy his obligation either by supplying a substitute or paying a $300 fee. Needless to say, this provision was unpopular among the poor and the middle class, who could not afford to buy their way out of service.

Now suppose you thought that you had a moral obligation to fight on behalf of the Union in the Civil War. Is it remotely plausible that you could discharge that moral obligation--as opposed to your mere legal obligation--by paying for someone to serve in your stead? Certainly not. And likewise, it is not plausible to think that Al Gore discharges his moral obligation to reduce his carbon footprint vicariously.

The Politics of Personal Virtue?

In criticizing Gore's personal energy consumption, rather than looking at the net effect of all of his actions, am I succumbing to the cynical view espoused by Vice President Cheney in 2001? Cheney denigrated efforts at conservation as mere "personal virtue" rather than the "basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy." I do not mean to offer conservation as a kind of energy Puritanism. Accordingly, I might give Gore his due--and not begrudge him his well-lit mansion--if carbon offsets substantially contributed to the fight against global warming.

Unfortunately, their effect is small. For one thing, we must consider the consequences of Gore's actions on the behavior of others. By making himself the leading spokesman for the fight to slow or reverse manmade global warming, Al Gore has become a role model for others. However, by purchasing offsets from green causes but still consuming large quantities of energy, Gore sends the signal that the rich can fight global warming by opening their wallets, but the personal sacrifices that a reduction in energy use would entail are too great to endure. Such a signal may inspire some other wealthy people to make similar donations, but for the vast majority struggling to pay their bills, only the second half of the message will be salient: Personally leading a "green" life requires enormous sacrifices.

A Better Way: The Carbon Tax

More broadly, individual purchases of carbon offsets can make only a small dent in global warming. Most people of modest means won't feel that they can afford to purchase the offsets and everybody who might be inclined to do so may wonder--once they realize that they are in fact making a charitable donation--why they should donate to carbon offsets, rather than other worthy causes.

There is, however, a mechanism for encouraging conservation and technological advances to combat global warming: a tax on greenhouse gas emissions equal to the cost in dollars of remedying the harm done by those emissions. Economists call this a Pigovian tax, after English economist Arthur Pigou.

Most taxes are a mixed blessing in that they generate revenue, but only at the cost of discouraging otherwise beneficial activity. In economics argot, most taxes introduce distortions. By contrast, a Pigovian tax is an unalloyed blessing because it corrects a distortion: cost externalization. When you drive a car, you pay for the cost of producing the gasoline but not for the cost to the health of the planet from the greenhouse gases it emits. You externalize that latter cost to everyone else, and as a result, you pay too little for gasoline and drive too much.

If set correctly, a Pigovian tax ensures that the price of goods and services reflects their true cost, including costs that would otherwise be externalized. When price goes up, demand goes down, so the Pigovian tax on gasoline (and other greenhouse gas-producing activities) encourages conservation and innovation, while the revenue it produces can be put to other good uses.

Political Roadblocks Can Only Be Overcome By Leadership

When Al Gore and other conservation-minded individuals pay to carbon balance, they are voluntarily paying a Pigovian tax. To generalize their approach on a scale that could make an important difference, they should call for an actual Pigovian tax on greenhouse gas emissions. And in fact, Gore and others do just that.

Unfortunately, current elected officials tend to oppose anything resembling a carbon tax. As I will now explain, there are some legitimate issues that a carbon tax would raise, but none of these presents an insuperable obstacle.

One worry is bureaucracy. Setting and continually adjusting the tax to account for actual greenhouse gas emissions across the economy would require considerable expertise--although even a crude Pigovian tax, such as a tax on coal and oil, would go a long way.

Another issue is hardship. Many Americans depend on greenhouse gas producing activities for their livelihood. But distributional issues could be addressed through targeted relief, and more generally, a carbon tax would tend to be progressive, as wealthy people fly more, own bigger homes, and in general consume more energy.

Finally, critics rightly note that global warming is a global problem, and that reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by the United States will not make enough of a difference without the cooperation of emerging powerhouse economies like those of China and India. That's certainly right, but the United States is still the world's largest producer of greenhouse gases, so a substantial change here will make a substantial contribution to the larger solution. As for contributions from other countries, there is no reason why diplomacy could not be used to appeal to leaders in other countries to take similar measures. Their economies and populations are at even greater risk--due to the dangers from coastal flooding--than our own.

In truth, the ultimate reason why a carbon tax faces rough sledding in Congress is politics. Whenever the price of energy rises, Americans get angry and politicians look for someone to blame. Indeed, Gore's support for a carbon tax is the surest sign possible that he really isn't planning to run for President again.

Does that mean that the prospects for a carbon tax are hopeless? Not necessarily. If Al Gore and others can enlist sufficient public support for real action on global warming, the elected officials will follow suit. And that is why Gore should do everything possible to persuade people of ordinary means that a carbon neutral lifestyle is within their reach.


Michael C. Dorf is the Isidor & Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law at Columbia University. He is the author of No Litmus Test: Law and Politics in the Twenty-First Century and he blogs at www.michaeldorf.org.

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