Wednesday, March 26, 2008

John Tierney calls for carbon etiquette

My feelings towards John Tierney, the science columnist for the New York Times, are similar to my feelings for The Economist and some of my favorite bloggers (like Tory Gattis in Houston): I may disagree with them often, but I also know where they stand and can count on them to present interesting arguments.

I'm really fond of this tagline from Tierney's blog, the TierneyLab:
The Lab's work is guided by two founding principles:
  1. Just because an idea appeals to a lot of people doesn't mean it's wrong.

  2. But that's a good working theory.
In other words, he loves poking at what he considers to be "conventional wisdom."

Unfortunately, Tierney also considers a lot of global warming science to be "conventional wisdom" - and as a result he can seem like a pretty conventional fossil-fuels apologist when he begins to talk up fringe viewpoints as legitimate points of debate.

Still, he's coming around, and he has good ideas. In his column in this week's Science Times, he discusses a hot topic in psychological economics these days: humans' failure to adequately acknowledge and plan for cataclysmic risks like climate change (see also this post from a couple weeks ago).

Carbon taxes, Tierney argues, won't be able to change most people's behavior: even if our electric bills did reflect the true price of generation, including global warming costs, there's a good chance that most people would keep on using as much electricity as ever, since the consequence of receiving and paying the bill is too far removed from the act of switching on your plasma television.

I'll grant that this might be true for individual households, but big firms and landlords - factories, office buildings, retail centers, etc. - tend to make more informed economic decisions and probably would adjust their consumption appropriately. Still, households are a significant source of carbon emissions, so it is a valid point.

Tierney suggests that the appropriate incentive for households might not be prices, but small psychological "nudges" toward a targeted social norm:
A study in California showed that when the monthly electric bill listed the average consumption in the neighborhood, the people in above-average households significantly decreased their consumption.

Meanwhile, the people with the below-average bills reacted by significantly increasing their consumption — not exactly the goal of the project.

That reaction was avoided when the bill featured a little drawing along with the numbers: a smiling face on a below-average bill or a frowning face on an above-average bill. After that simple nudge, the heavy users made even bigger cuts in consumption, while the light users remained frugal...

I’d like to see a new green fad for electronic jewelry with real-time displays of carbon footprints. These could be mood rings, bracelets, lapel pins or anything else that could change color depending on how much electricity you use, how much gasoline your car burns, how much you travel.
Here's my favorite part about this idea:
Besides putting the enthusiasm of greens to practical use, this fashion statement might also inject some realism into the debate about global warming. Once you start keeping track of all the energy you use, you begin to see the difficulties of making drastic reductions — and the difference between effective actions and ritual displays.

Installing a solar-powered hot-water heater or a windmill at your place in the country is not going to erase the carbon footprint of maintaining and traveling to a second home. Recycling glass bottles and avoiding plastic bags at the grocery store will not offset your car’s emissions.

Switching to a Prius will not undo the effects of frequent air travel. A couple of international trips can be worse for your carbon footprint than driving a Hummer for a year. If the delegates to future conferences on climate change are expected to wear illuminated symbols of their energy consumption, they won’t be visiting any more spots like Bali.

1 comment:

Turboglacier said...

Suppose all cars were required to have a real-time display on their rear bumpers showing their current MPG?