Is "Going Green" the Enemy of Climate Change Reform?

America's green tech fad isn't just failing to reverse global warming. It's actually hurting the effort to fight climate change.

That's the take from this really interesting piece by Mike Tidwell in Sunday's Washington Post. He argues that we should drop our eco-fad -- the green peacock on NBC, Vanity Fair's green issue, those toothless "5 Easy Ways to Green Your Office" posters and so on-- and focus on directly appealing to our lawmakers by calling, mailing and Tweeting at them to pass something even stronger than the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill. Hmmm.

I suppose I don't entirely agree with the line of thinking here. I don't think it's the case that the faddish "going green" movement is hurting the larger climate change movement the way Tidwell suggests. Here's a parallel example. My local Starbucks used to sell bottles of water that promised to send some of the proceeds to Africa. Obviously, any globally conscientious individual with a beating heart and parched tongue is going to seriously consider this purchase (although my friends and I wondered about the trade-off between the ecological cost of bottling the water and the pennies that were redirected to African charities through the purchase). The point was that most Starbucks patrons aren't regularly donating to African charities, but they could be encouraged to pay mere pennies more for a drink they would have bought anyway if they knew the extra change was going to an orphanage. That thousands of people buy the bottled water doesn't make them more or less attuned to the plight of African orphans. It just means they like a little altruistic buzz while going about their normal lives.

Just the same, I don't think most Americans that take part in green fads are thinking "I could email my Congressperson about cap-and-trade ... or I could just turn off this lamp when I leave work." They turn off the lamp because it's really easy, and they don't email the Congressperson because, well, most people just don't. Green fads aren't standing in the way of a national climate change reform movement. They're standing in for Americans' willingness to "do good" so long as it doesn't require them doing anything too radical.

Rhetorically, I understand where Tidwell is coming from. Tackling climate change won't take a million "5 Ways to Green Your Office" posters. It'll take a carbon price. And I know that Tidwell knows that. But blaming green fads for our moral sluggishness on real climate reform is like blaming my local Starbucks for Africa's orphans. It's a great way to get on the cover of the Washington Post's Outlook section, but I don't think it's a great argument.