On GreenPeace, defeatism, and the nature of human progress

evolution.jpgBelow is a reprint of a post I wrote a little while back for Grist in which I noted that most individuals will never make the sort of dramatic lifestyle changes in response to climate change that many environmentalists are hoping for, and that fortunately they probably won’t have to. The post got an unexpected reaction. It was meant to be fundamentally optimistic, but some took it as fundamentally defeatist.

I understand the reaction, although I think it was at least partially overblown. I am quite obviously not, as a few suggested, arguing against the possibility of human progress. The stuff I’m talking about is far more prosaic. Do you think in ten years that the average television screen will be bigger or smaller than it is today? I say bigger. That’s the type of stuff I’m talking about, not, say, the spread of human rights.

But partly the reaction reflects a legitimate debate that can be had over what constitutes a “significant” change in consumer behavior. Clearly changes do occur over time. What instigates these changes, and how do they make the transition from fringe to mainstream?

I think I’m correct in my belief that history has rarely if ever witnessed significant voluntary shifts in consumer behavior in response to environmental concerns — particularly shifts that require paying more or doing without. But it’s interesting to consider exceptions to this pattern. Some of the more obvious examples seem like red herrings to me. The success of the organic food industry, for example, is probably more related to health and quality considerations than environmental ones (although that doesn’t diminish the environmental value of these products).

Read the original post, and let me know your thoughts.

* * *

Virgin Blue, the Australian extension of Richard Branson’s airline empire, recently launched a program to allow passengers to purchase carbon offsets when they book a flight.

That’s nice. But what struck me was this quote from Greenpeace’s energy campaigner, Ben Pearson:

Virgin should not be criticized out of hand for this scheme, but it promotes the idea that dealing with climate change is easy and cheap rather than being about the difficult task of changing consumer behavior, government policy and investment.

Let’s take the Pepsi Challenge. Pretend I just told you that I have a problem that I’d like your help in fixing. To address this problem, we have to pick a course of action. Which course of action sounds more appealing to you:

  1. Easy. Cheap.
  2. Difficult task. Changing consumer behavior. Government policy. Investment.

I confess that I find criticisms like Ben Pearson’s utterly baffling. Of course addressing climate change will be difficult. Of course it will require changes to consumer behavior. It most certainly will require government policy and investment.

But if carbon offsets work as a way to engage individuals (who, let’s recall, are not the ones actually making government policy or infrastructure investments) on the issue of climate change and also convince them that solutions are attainable — that’s a good thing!

It is the precisely the people who would have us do nothing who are shouting most loudly about the price tag. Dealing with climate change will entail enormous pain and sacrifice, they want us to know. And Greenpeace’s message is: “We agree. This is going to totally suck. Let’s get to it!”

What makes this criticism doubly odd is that it’s most likely wrong. Consumers will never significantly change their behavior, and they probably won’t have to. Let’s say we decided to ban incandescent light bulbs and double CAFE standards tomorrow. The result would be massive energy savings through technology switching, with no discernible changes to consumer behavior.

Better lights and cars alone won’t solve the climate change problem, of course, but various studies have put the total cost of achieving the necessary carbon reductions to be somewhere around a single percent of global GDP or less.

In other words, easy and cheap.

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  1. Alan Bender - April 17, 2007

    Which part of 80% don’t you understand?
    [Ed — huh?]

  2. Chad - April 18, 2007

    Reminds me of one of my favorite thoughts about poltiics: The average voter wants
    A: Lower taxes
    B: More spending on just about every program
    C: No deficits
    In other words, the average voter is an idiot.
    The reason that politicians on both sides have to say such foolish things all the time is they are trying to abide by the cognitive dissonance forced upon them by the average voters’ wants, even though the politician darned well knows that it is impossible.
    The solution to global warming mitigation is rather simple – either carbon taxes or cap-and-trade, with offsetting reductions in income taxes (and expanded EITC and Social Security for the poor who don’t pay taxes at all). Even half-way intelligent Republicans can usually be convinced that, between the two, it is better to tax gasoline than it is to tax work.
    This is far preferable to CAFE standards, which are actually a form of the cognitive dissonance. You can’t legislate new technology into existence, so all raising CAFE standards does is say to auto makers “Sell what the consumer doesn’t want!”, rather than actually changing the consumers’ wants, as a carbon tax would. The problem with this is that corporations make money by attempting to sell what the consumers ask for. GM would be perfectly happy to make and sell a fleet that got 50 mpg – the day consumers ask for such a fleet.

  3. Adam Stein - April 18, 2007

    CAFE gets a bad rap because it’s such a crude piece of legislation. As everyone points out, it really makes no sense to mandate fuel efficiency targets via weird formulas. It makes much more sense to stimulate demand by making people pay for their carbon.
    The only problem with this critique is that CAFE worked really well. It did what it was supposed to do.
    I’m never quite sure what to do with this fact. But it does support the notion that there are some pretty severe market failures in the auto industry.

  4. Ernesto - April 18, 2007

    Kudos to you, Chad. I have noticed that the American persona is in essence schizophrenic. We want one thing but do the other. We pray to a god but drive over-sized SUVs. We wish for world peace but send our children to the military. We worry about violence in our schools but we support gun ownership. In my travels around the Caribbean, we Americans have become the joke of the modern world. They believe Americans have been spoiled for too long and now that the world is catching up, we’re in for a rude awakening. Unfortunately, recent history is working against us; look at the administration we Americans put in the White House. Lord help us!! Peace.

  5. peggy - April 18, 2007

    I too have grave concerns about middle and upper-class Americans’ willingness to make the lifestyle changes needed. But let’s also remember that lower income folks have a whole other set of issues: working many jobs, Living away from mass transit sometimes and relying on old inefficient cars, eating fast food for reasons of time and price. No extra cash to weagtherproof homes or buy CFL’s. I could go on and on. They’re going to need major subsidies, not moralizing.

  6. Jim Moses - April 18, 2007

    Peggy makes a good point in her first sentence of comment No. 5. The bottom line is that our willingness, or ability, to make behavioral changes regarding our lifestyle is not something we should depend upon. However, alternative energy sources do not mean we need to dramatically change our habits. For example, mandating a 50 mpg fuel efficiency rating in order to sell automobiles in this country would require no behavioral adjustment save for the car companies. Also, economic incentives are the prime, if not THE, motivator for behavioral changes. If we to go green make it worth our time. Believing that we should do this out of the goodness of our hearts is a dead-end approach (no, I am not cynical just a little more realistic than I once was).

  7. Martin from Canada - April 18, 2007

    Please understand that higher prices automatically allocate the uses of energy.
    Government regulations and caps are not as efficient as “letting the market decide”
    Darwin was right – let the market work and the green credits will flow automatically with a very low cost.
    This issue is all about allocation of scarse resources.

  8. Aaron A. - April 18, 2007

    I won’t argue that we’re not spoiled, but specifically in cases like CAFE standards, we consumers haven’t traditionally put fuel efficiency at the top of our car-buying criteria. With gas at a perfectly-reasonable $.99 per gallon, why should we?

    If cars become available that can save consumers money through high-efficiency engines, while still looking good, feeling safe, and being reasonably affordable, consumer habits will change. While I’m not a big fan of regulation, today’s manufacturers need a kick in the rear to make them take action. That’s where CAFE standards come in. It’s true that you can’t legislate technology into being, but you can create incentives for research and development, or penalties for stagnation.

  9. richard schumacher - April 20, 2007

    The problem is not allocation of scarce energy resources, it’s allocation of *plentiful* resources. Everyone wants to use fossil fuel because it’s so damn common and cheap. But of course it’s cheap only because its external costs are not paid by the user. A free market cannot account for external costs. Government regulation is required to impose them upon the user and so create an economic incentive that would not otherwise exist.

    As for changing behaviour, the less of it that is required the faster we can mitigate global warming. I pay for 100% wind power from Green Mountain and consequently run my air conditioner as much as I like with no guilt. We will succeed by creating a responsibly and intelligently wealthy world, not by trying to impose an austere one.

  10. Chad - April 20, 2007

    Aaron, if your justification for CAFE standards is to stimulate R&D, it would be much easier and cheaper to simply fund NSF or give R&D tax credits to the target industries than it would be to implement backhanded, market-distorting, and highly arbitrary efficiency standards.
    Of course, implementing a carbon tax would be even more effective. Unfortunately, no politician has the balls to raise a direct tax (indirect, hidden, taxation is perfectly fine, of course).

  11. Aaron A. - April 24, 2007

    Chad sez:
    Aaron, if your justification for CAFE standards is to stimulate R&D, it would be much easier and cheaper to simply fund NSF or give R&D tax credits to the target industries than it would be to implement backhanded, market-distorting, and highly arbitrary efficiency standards.

    I like the idea of tax credits, as long as they’re contingent on actual achievements. Detroit has the technology; there’s a group of folks in California who’ve built 100+ MPG plug-in hybrids with off-the-shelf parts. Detroit just needs the incentive to produce more efficient vehicles. Whether that’s a tax break for making plug-ins, or penalties for not doing so, that’s a question for the policy makers.

    You are right insofar as customers don’t demand more efficient vehicles (at least they haven’t yet). Buyers want style and power and machismo and the “safety” of street-legal military vehicles. But there’s no reason that that can’t also be more fuel efficient.