Guest essay by Eric Worrall
Robert H. Frank, a professor of management and economics at Cornell University, thinks economists who dismiss the idea of a surge in electric vehicles are ignoring the phenomenon of “social contagion”.
How peer pressure can help stop climate change
Buying hybrids and solar panels persuades other people to buy them. That dynamic can help stop climate change.
By Robert Frank
FEBRUARY 20, 2020
Economists are generally skeptical of self-sacrificing behavior because of what’s known as the free-rider problem. Since costly individual acts of self-restraint have only negligible environmental impact, economists predict that rational, self-interested individuals won’t take them. For instance, if someone buys a Toyota Prius hybrid — which costs several thousand dollars more than a comparable vehicle with an internal-combustion engine — and no one else does, there’s no discernible effect on overall emissions. She has spent the extra money for no reason. Alternatively, if everyone else buys a Prius but she doesn’t, she reaps the environmental benefits for free. Many solutions to environmental problems follow this logic and would therefore seem to require that we make decisions collectively, not individually.
Economists have other reasons for rejecting conscious consumption. Although the Prius emits about 50 percent less CO2 than similar non-hybrid cars, even greater reductions in CO2 could be achieved by buying a cheaper vehicle and using the savings to purchase carbon offsets — sponsoring carbon-absorbing reforestation, for instance. It may feel better to drive the Prius, but cold economic logic seems to favor offsets.
But these traditional arguments start to break down once you bring social contagion into the picture. That’s because the direct effect of owning a Prius is only a small part of its total impact.
Human nature is more complex than assumed in the simple models once favored by most economists. Our judgment about whether a house is adequate, for example, depends not only on its absolute features but also on how it compares with surrounding houses. We also value our reputations. It’s when we consider the effects of our behavior on our peers, and vice versa, that the consequences of individual decisions to reduce carbon use start to grow in importance. We know, for example, that decisions about car purchases are influenced by the actions of neighbors. In a 2008 study, economists from UCLA and Helsinki examined Finnish records of more than 210,000 vehicle purchases (new and used) from 1999 through 2001. They found that people were 12 percent more likely to purchase a car on a given day if one of their 10 nearest neighbors had purchased one during the preceding 10 days.
Keeping global warming at bay will indeed require a massive social movement — one that defeats climate obstructionists resoundingly at the polls — just as critics of conscious consumption have long insisted. But those critics fail to see how small, individual choices can set in motion the mighty revolution they envision.Read more: https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/02/20/how-peer-pressure-can-help-save-planet/?arc404=true
Read the full article for the “infectious disease” quote.
The problem with Professor Frank’s theory is an unspoken assumption that climate action is actually possible, that renewables are a viable replacement for fossil fuel, that there is enough lithium and wealth to build everyone a Prius.
That social revolution Professor Frank talks about – climate activists won that a long time ago. With the exception of President Trump, pretty much every leading politician on Earth genuflects to climate activism. Billions of dollars, likely trillions, have been poured into renewables, carbon trading, every imaginable scheme to ween the world of fossil fuel.
And there is nothing substantial to show for any of it. After all that effort, all that treasure, renewable energy is still a bit player. Where renewable adoption is high, all renewables have managed to deliver is electrical network instability.
How can all this will to act and investment of wealth possibly not deliver more substantial results? The answer of course is the goal is unattainable.
When google engineers tried to find a viable path for the world to switch to renewables in 2014, they discovered to their horror that no viable path to a renewable future exists.
Google didn’t advocate giving up – the people who ran the study were committed greens. But they had no idea what the next step would be.
When committed Democrat Film Maker Michael Moore dived into the renewable rabbit hole, to expose the big oil conspiracy everyone said was holding back renewables, Moore discovered a network of lies and false promises, but not the big oil conspiracy he expected.
My suggestion Professor Frank, you have the economic skills, take your own trip down the rabbit hole. Go dig up the Google study and figure out where they went wrong. Because if you find a way to make renewables affordable, to make renewables an economically viable replacement for fossil fuel, in the current socio-political environment fossil fuel will vanish as soon as we figure out how to live without it.
“… we are losing the battle to stop climate change because we are following environmental leaders who have taken us down the wrong road—selling out the green movement to wealthy interests and corporate America …”
– Michael Moore’s “Planet of the Humans” film homepage