The Moral Imperative to Live a Negative Carbon Lifestyle

By: Chandu Visweswariah

Would you knowingly harm your child? Of course not! What about your grandchild? Same answer. What about your grandchild’s children and grandchildren? This concept is echoed in every major religious traditionand beautifully captured in an ancient and profound Haudenosaunee principle:

The Peacemaker taught us about the Seven Generations. He said, when you sit in council for the welfare of the people, you must not think of yourself or of your family, not even of your generation. He said, make your decisions on behalf of the seven generations coming, so that they may enjoy what you have today.

— Oren Lyons (Seneca), Faithkeeper, Onondaga Nation

In understanding the attributes of harm, one can classify harm as small or grievous. For purposes of this blog, let us confine ourselves to grievous harm. Harm can be caused knowingly or unknowingly, and to people you know or don’t know. Grievous harm to a large number of people caused knowingly is the worst kind.

Since caring for others is a fundamental precept that we should all accept, one cannot cause such grievous harm as part of leading a moral life.

We are now aware of some unimpeachable facts about climate change which puts it into the “grievous knowing harm” category:

1. CO2 in the atmosphere was 280 parts-per-million (ppm) in the pre-industrial era in 1880.

2. Today it is 416 ppm.

3. Without strong action, it will reach 560 ppm by the end of the century, double the pre-industrial baseline.

4. Warming due to that doubling will be 2.6 to 4.1 degrees C, causing incalculable environmental damage and human suffering, mostly to people we don’t even know, mostly to future generations, mostly to people who did not cause the problem in the first place and mostly to people who are least equipped to face these problems.

5. CO2 emissions stay in the atmosphere for multiple decades, so the time window to stave off the worst impacts is the next twenty years.

6. We have a stark choice:

a. Either we continue to emit “business as usual” and reach 560 ppm by the end of the century with the concomitant 2.6 to 4.1 degrees C warming, and lose our coral reefs, arctic summer ice and cause untold human suffering due to rising seas, extreme weather events, disease, low crop yields, migration, starvation, and so on.

b. Or we sharply reduce emissions to net zero by 2040 to reach 350 ppm by the end of the century and limit warming to 1.5 degrees C, handing a better world to “seven generations” and all those that come after us.

History will judge the timeline of global warming in three eras. From 1880 to 1960 was the period of unknowing harm. From 1960 to 2020 was the period when we educated ourselves. Models were built, debates raged, measurements were collected, theories were proposed, conferences were held and most importantly, technology was invented and perfected to preserve our lifestyle while reversing global warming. Finally, the period from 2020 to 2040 will be the “Great Transition” when we took strong, swift and concerted action to achieve net zero carbon, while simultaneously improving our quality of life, ensuring social equity and growing our economies.

Knowing everything we know today, knowing the severe harm that will be caused to present and future generations, knowing the global scale of the crisis, and understanding all the dimensions of the harm, we can no longer classify our carbon emissions as causing unknowing harm. Nor can we ignore the fact that the resulting harm will be grievous. Every time we start a car, flick a switch, turn up the heat or throw something in incinerator-bound garbage, we are causing knowing and irreparable harm to legions of people across multiple generations. And we bear individual responsibility.

That is a heavy concept that brings the baggage of guilt with it! The only relief from a feeling of guilt is to do something about it. I believe this means we have a moral imperative to find our way quickly to a negative carbon lifestyle. Is this doable? Of course, it is. A simple seven step “step down” program to a negative carbon lifestyle is described below. Future blogs will explore the details of each of these steps.

The average American emits about 16 tons of CO2 equivalent per year as shown in the figure below. These seven steps will shrink that footprint and even take it into negative territory.


1. The easiest step is to zero our carbon emissions from electricity. Either switch to a clean Energy Service Company (ESCO) or Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) or community solar or install your own rooftop/backyard solar.

2. Step 2 is to switch your vehicle to an electric vehicle – today, this switch results in a cleaner, better and less expensive transportation experience. Non-drivers have their part to play as well.

3. Step 3 is to switch your home heating and cooling to air-source heat pumps (at this time, we are not recommending ground-source heat pumps). Even if your home does not have duct work for forced air, a combination of mini-splits and VRFs (Variable Refrigerant Flow systems) will usually do the trick. If you’re a renter, discuss this subject with your landlord.

4. Step 4 is to reduce emissions from “Food and waste.” Move your diet to minimize animal products and reduce waste by a combination of recycling, composting and reduced packaging.

5. Step 5 is to attack “Goods and services” by buying local, divesting fossil fuel investments and in general consuming wisely.

6. Step 6 is to reduce your “zip code overhead” by convincing your local schools, houses of worship, municipal facilities and retail establishments to take these 7 steps – be relentless, don’t take “no” for an answer!

7. Step 7 is to catapult yourself into negative territory by purchasing carbon offsets, increasing forestation and planting trees.

We now know that continued emissions will cause grievous harm to untold people in this and future generations. We cannot in good faith continue with a “business as usual” attitude towards carbon emissions. We must each follow the 7-step path to a negative carbon lifestyle as soon as possible.

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