CO2 kills. An open letter to motorists

Richard Parncutt 

2013, revised 2021

Check out the hashtag #juststopdriving on twitter. There you can read messages from grumpy impatient people who like to complain about bad drivers. Those drivers are too slow or too old, they don't indicate properly and so on. I'm not sure what such a forum achieves, but it exists.

That is not what "just stop driving" means. It means that everyone who can should stop driving, because cars are making a big contribution to global warming - not to mention reducing quality of life in cities. If you are not disabled, you don't have small children to drive around, and you don't regularly have to carry heavy loads, just stop driving. Use the public transport, your bicycle or your own two feet. It will do you good!

To all those complaining about bad drivers on #juststopdriving, let me say this. Go to any city and watch the cars go by. Or stand on a bridge over a motorway (freeway, autobahn) - if you can breathe up there, that is, or you can stand the noise. Then look at the people in the cars. Maybe three out of four have only one person in them. They drive back and forth like this every day, it seems, as if it was normal. Are you one of them?

Sometimes I am, which is really rather embarrassing. But sometimes it just cannot be avoided.

Often I see people driving alone, stuck in a traffic jam, engine running, afraid of being late to an appointment, wondering whose fault the traffic jam is. Reminds me of that joke about the house with the lights on but nobody was home. When will the penny drop?

Is it really normal to drive daily alone in a city? If you can afford a car, you can also read the newspaper. All motorists know that their driving is contributing to global warming. They all have good excuses, of course - the public transport is not good enough, they have a sore foot, they have to pick someone up, it might rain today, etc. - but as a rule these excuses are lame. If you support public transport, it will improve. If you have a sore foot, get some crutches. If you have to pick someone up, ask them to take public transport. If it looks like rain, take an umbrella. These are the kind of thing parents have to explain to their six-year-old children.

Many people claim that they could not possibly do their work without a car. They have to travel all over place to appointments, or they constantly have to carry stuff around.
Their clients expect them to be mobile. That's what they say, and it seems true enough. But these are usually half-truths. In most cases, the driver has not bothered to think systematically about different possible ways of solving these problems using other forms of transport or communications technologies. The creative aspect is missing. They haven't considered the work they could get done on the train, or the positive effect of cycling on their health. (Overweight, by any chance?) They don't realise how much you can carry on a basket on the back of a bike, or that bikes are often faster than cars in peak periods. They haven't added up how much time they waste in traffic jams or looking for parking spots and walking back and forth between their parked car and their real destination. They haven't realised how the stress of driving (the constant risk of an accident) might be affecting their health. They never tried wearing a regular cycling poncho and cycling in the rain. They never put decent lights on their bike so they could ride safely at night. They haven't thought about skyping and teleconferencing, or about the other stuff they could be doing if they spent less time on the road. They haven't installed a public transport app on their mobile phone that can quickly tell them how to get from anywhere to anywhere else in a major city. They haven't bought a long-term public transport pass. They haven't thought about the new organisational possibilities that can emerge when you stop driving. And if they are really hooked on driving, they haven't seriously considered buying an electric car. If you ask them, they just tell you how often they have to drive more than 150 km and how difficult it would be to recharge the battery. But again they haven't done a proper cost-benefit analysis. They haven't developed creative solutions.

What the motorists don't realise is that the constraints that they consider so important do not depend on their working situation at all. Instead, they depend on the car itself. Things about cars that motorists typically claim to be essential for their job (such as dropping everything and visiting a client at short notice) are only "essential" because a car makes them possible. If they had a helicopter, and you asked them to do without it and drive a car instead, they would insist on keeping the helicopter because of the things you can do in a helicopter and not in a car. But these limitations are arbitrary. Every form of transport has its own advantages and disadvantages. The problem to be solved is one of optimization: making best use of the advantages and creatively compensating for the disadvantages. You can apply this idea to a combination of cycling, public transport and the occasional use of taxis, just as you can apply it to a helicopter.

Beyond that, many motorists are behaving as if the concept of personal responsibility did not exist. Do they care about what cars are doing to the environment? I may be wrong, but I can't explain it any other way. Actions speak louder than words.

Now that I have your attention, I would like to talk to all of you kind, well-meaning people. All at once. Hallo, are you listening? Here I am, a human being, an inhabitant of Planet Earth, just like you. Like you, I have my strengths and my weaknesses. And like you, I have something to say.

The CO2 we are producing unnecessarily is killing people in the future. Most of global human-made 
CO2 has been produced, directly or indirectly, by a few hundred million people: the middle and upper classes of industrialised countries. As a rule, the more money you have, the bigger your carbon footprint. The estimated number of people who will die as an indirect result of global warming in the coming century is also a few hundred million. That is about one to one, which basically means that each one of us is killing one of them.

For the purposes of calculation, I am ignoring the 22nd century, which according to mainstream climate science will be even worse. Temperatures will continue to rise, even if emissions have completely stopped. That could kill billions and threaten the survival of our species (not to mention many others). That is because the changes we are putting in motion today are probably unstoppable and irreversible. "Climate engineers" have some ideas for getting CO2 back out of the atmosphere by "geoengineering", but it is likely that none of these ideas will ever work. At least not to the required extent.

There are important differences between driving a car all your life and murdering someone, of course. One difference is about the time it takes to kill someone. If you shoot someone, they might take a minute or two to die. If you drive a car all your life, the other person might take decades or even a century to die. Another difference is that if you murder someone you generally know who they are. But there is also an important similarity. In both cases, the end result us the same: the other person suffers and dies. From that point of view, it doesn't matter whether we are talking about a factory worker in Haiti, a farmer in Bangladesh, a child in Angola, or even your own child or grandchild. It doesn't matter whether the death happens in 2051, 2069, or 2094.
The immediate cause of death doesn't matter either; it might be malaria, hunger, diarrhea, dengue fever, aids, a big storm, or a war over diminishing resources (more). Maybe that person will be murdered by the border controls of a rich country, as millions of starving climate refugees try to invade by force. The rich countries will justify their actions by the necessity to feed their own people. If they can't do that any more, they certainly can't feed the climate refugees. All these forms of death are possible, but in the end it doesn't matter which one. That person will suffer and die, all the same. And if  the problem is an indirect result of global warming, as I am assuming, then it is caused by humans. That's us. We are doing it, and we are perfectly capable of changing our behavior, if we want to.

CO2  kills, which makes most or all of us everyday middle-class CO2 producers into "indirect murderers". Perhaps you could call us "passive murderers". We don't intend to harm anyone, of course. We really don't. We are just pretending to be stupid. Or if you prefer to be more polite about it: we are in "passive climate denial".

I am not a hero. I have driven an awful lot of cars and flown in an awful lot of planes in my life. According to the above rough calculation, all of that surely adds up to killing one person in the future, which makes me an indirect murderer, too. But I never drove a car alone every day to work, because in my world that was obviously an immoral thing to do. Even before the public discussion and public denial of global warming began in the 1990s, it was clear to me and many others that cars were destroying our cities. And they still are. Just imagine: Paris without cars! Just lots of filles shopping for perfume in Galleries Lafayette and hopping on and off the métro. Lots of garçons with berets, riding old rusty bikes, carrying their wine and baguettes.

For these reasons, I have been regularly riding a bike and using public transport for decades, in the different cities that I have called home. After all, I am not sick, and I am not stupid - although you are free to disagree with my arguments if you find them offensive.

To all those motorists driving unnecessarily every day, let me say this. There are an awful lot of you. You may even be a majority, so in a democracy you can basically do what you like. As far as I can tell, there is no god who will punish you after you die. So you have nothing to fear. But you also have a head and a heart. So listen to what your head and your heart are telling you, and have surely been telling you all along: stop driving unnecessarily. Study the options, and find a way to get out of the global destruction scene. If you're not a fan of altruism or morality, just do it for yourself - for your health and your self esteem. You might even save some money.

GPS control of cars

It appears that most motorists either don't understand the arguments I presented above, or are pretending not to understand, or are deliberately ignoring arguments of that kind. Some are even actively denying and spreading fake news. That's a pretty serious state of affairs, especially since most people accept that state as normal and unremarkable. Evidently, some kind of social control will be necessary to protect the rights of young people and future generations, if humanity is going to survive the 21st Century.

Bút there is a relatively simple solution. New cars should by law be constantly transmitting a GPS signal, to inform government authorities of the car's location. 
The idea is not new and can easily be done using Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS). There are many potential advantages:
  • Governments could flexibly charge road taxes to demotivate travel in metropolitan areas, especially when it contributes to air pollution. 
  • Governments could charge motorists for the true social costs of using roads (construction, space, accidents, pollution, quality of life). That would ensure that those costs were covered by the users and the non-users were not being charged. Why should cyclists pay so that motorists can dominate the roads? 
  • The new source of funds could be used to ensure that new sustainable transport options are financed. That would give motorists an ever-increasing number of fast, easy alternatives to the private car. 
  • In case of accidents, police could more fairly determine who was at fault and who was innocent.
  • Motorists could more easily predict traffic along their planned route and calculate the fastest route to a given location. 
  • For the general benefit of motorists, traffic jams could be systematically reduced or avoided.
  • As cars increasingly become self-driving in the future, these things will happen anyway, so why not get started now?
  • Those who object to this invasion of their privacy will be free to walk, cycle, or use public transport. Since that is in the public interest, governments should be encouraging it anyway.
Clearly, everyone would benefit -- including the motorists themselves, not only from the cleaner air and better quality of life, but also from faster transport options.

The advantages of universal GPS monitoring of private vehicles far outweigh the obvious disadvantage of invasion into people’s privacy. According to Kant’s "categorical imperative", private cars should be banned anyway, because if everyone in the world had a car, the environmental consequences would be bad enough to wipe out humanity. That could be true even if the cars were electric, given the resources needed to manufacture an electric car. According to that logic, cars should be limited to essential and emergency services.

As long as we don't have the courage to move in that direction, and continue to allow people to destroy the future with their private cars, government authorities should at the very least try to get the situation under control.
your car

The opinions expressed on this page are the author's personal opinions. Readers who know and care about this topic are asked to contact the author with suggestions for improving or extending the content: parncutt at gmx dot at. Back to Richard Parncutt's homepage