What We Think

Will our economy be stronger with reliable food, water, health, weather, coastlines, jobs, and international borders, or without them?

To ask the question is to answer it. But somehow it is still news when Felipe Calderon heads up a seven-nation study to “present an economic case” for reducing carbon emissions.  There is a ‘duh’ answer to this question: all our wealth, everything we have ever held dear, and all our hopes for the future are the greatest possible costs and therefore best avoided.

But pretend we don’t know the ‘duh’ answer and, like Fellipe Calderon, try to find the ‘cost’ of mitigation – the ‘cost’ of doing something about pollution. Surely we can work that out? We can do the calculating but here is one problem: we have never been correct about the ‘costs’ of environmental regulations in the past. Not acid rain, not The Montreal Protocol and the ozone layer, nor seat belts, de-leaded gasoline, The Clean Air Act, The Clean Water Act, and many others. In fact *all* the others.

How’s 0.00 for a batting average?

Traditional economists are wrong every single time they try to cost environmental and health regulations.  But for some reason they are still invited onto TV, into Congress and into boardrooms to testify to what they predict the ‘costs’ of environmental legislation will be. It’s perverse that we still ask them, and that we listen to their answers.  What we should say is: “Your ‘costs’ of climate regulation are wrong. We they are wrong because you are *always* wrong. And you are always wrong in the same direction.” But instead we trot out a different old-school economist, and this one predicts that, yes, ‘costs’ will be large, but they will be manageable.

This is also wrong.  But not for lack of effort. Economists have an impossible task: to forecast innovation, new policies, compliance, human understanding, human behavior, businesses behavior, consumers, etc, and do this for every individual, every household, city, region and nation on earth. Rather than fail at this impossible task, old-school economists choose instead to succeed at a much simpler task: multiply today’s problems by today’s costs.

If it costs $2,000 to insulate an attic, multiply that by 100,000,000 houses for the US and you’re good. Maybe drop the prices a little due to ‘efficiencies’ or ‘innovation’. Perhaps take the price reductions of the last ten years and extrapolate forwards in a straight line. Then calculate the energy savings, using today’s cost of energy. Repeat the same basic exercise for every known source of carbon pollution in the economy, and every current way of reducing those emissions. It’s a big effort, but simple. Old-school economists do this for carbon pollution just like they did for acid rain and every other environmental law. And just like every other case, the answer they come up with is meaningless.

Consider the attic as an opportunity instead of as a cost, because that’s how the market sees it:  Thanks to new legislation you have a new market of 100,000,000 customers for a $2,000 insulation product. How do revenues of 200Bn sound? That market is yours if you can improve on a system that hasn’t changed much in 50 years. Not in the product, delivery, service, data management (zero), or any other significant way. Feel lucky? You should do. The costs you are saving your customers currently assume a monopoly supply of energy from a remote source. Costs have previously not changed price from day to day or minute to minute, or even in response to demand. Despite the fact that demand varies wildly and from place to place. No benefits have previously been recognized for reduction of demand on the fixed assets of the monopolist. All of this will of course change, can be changed by you. So I expect you can insulate for less than $2,000, save more energy, save more money, and improve grid reliability all at the same time.

Multiply that attic innovation by every possible way of creating efficiency and energy currently known, and those currently unknown, and there you see our future. And it looks nothing like the one old-school economists see.

Why do I keep saying ‘old school’ economists?  Because those are the majority that for decades have assumed that (and I am not kidding) that all consumers know everything about the market, and they only act rationally in economic self-interest.  Really, they assume that.  Now, new-school economists know that we are not rational or all-knowing, so they can’t tell us the future either, but they *know* that they can’t. They don’t get invited on to TV, and certainly not into the climate-denier Wall Street Journal.

Given that the future is so rosy for innovation do we sit back and wait for the market to do its’ magic? No, there is 1) too much friction in the current system, 2) massive resistance to change from vested interests, and 3) no ‘starting gun’ for that market of 100 million homes, and all the other opportunities.

Because the true cost of inaction is everything we hold dear, we know it’s worth giving the market a very good reason to start moving. We could legislate individual changes through caps or taxes, but a price on carbon pollution is the ideal starting gun. Companies are budgeting internally for the cost of carbon pollution already (even ExxonMobil). When we create an external, shared, price it will shift the playing field enough to overcome both inertia and active resistance.

Then the market will do its stuff and the old-school economists will be proven wrong. Again.


Quentin Prideaux
Sustainable Wellesley


Assuming for the moment that you are not the President, CEO of ExxonMobil, or the Editor of the New York Times, can your actions on global warming have any real effect?
There are two ways you can affect global warming – via your personal carbon footprint and through the influence you have on others.

Let’s consider your personal carbon footprint by turning it on its head. Imagine for a moment that you’d never been born (I was a ‘surprise’ baby so that’s easy for me). Once you are over the existential angst notice that your carbon footprint just dropped to zero. Is the planet saved now? No. Oh dear.

If changing your own emissions doesn’t do it, maybe you can influence enough other people to make a difference? You are one of 7 billion people on earth, and maybe one of the 315 million Americans. Can you personally reach enough of them to turn round global warming? No. Oh double-dear.

Does this mean that personal action is pointless? Absolutely not. Every single thing that mankind has ever done, is doing, and will ever do is done by individuals. There are no aliens running the planet (really). There is no “them”. It’s us.

The link between a seemingly ineffectual individual and all of humanity is that all the individual actions *do* add up. From action chaotic ripples of outcomes are created. This is the ‘butterfly effect’ of personal change – unknown and unforeseen consequences occur far from the small initiating action. Your use of LEDs not only reduces your use of dirty coal, your lights are seen by others who may try them out. And because you purchased LED bulbs more are manufactured, reducing their price, increasing sales. Tipping points are passed. Influence spreads.

These butterfly effects won’t have a clear link to your desired result, but every single desired result does come from individual action.
And overtly influencing others works too. A climate presenter I know gave a presentation in a small town in Australia, and someone came up to her afterwards to discuss the issue at length. That person was an MP. Who later voted for carbon legislation. That passed by one vote.

In September 2015, 400,000 individuals went for a walk in New York holding banners. Just so others could see how many cared so much about global warming. It was a very visible crowd with a very visible effect. Made up of individuals who acted.

Personal action does matter. It is the only thing that can matter. Through the butterfly effect, through direct impact, through politics, commerce, social networks, houses of worship, institutions, schools, colleges and more. Gradually the impossible becomes the inevitable. Just like it did for female suffrage, civil rights, ending the cold war, legislating acid rain, banning DDT, The Montreal Protocol, and more.

It starts and ends with personal action. With us. With you.

P.S. And that is what Sustainable Wellesley is all about – join us in making a difference.

Quentin Prideaux
Sustainable Wellesley

Letter Published in The Townsman and Other Local Papers: July 9 2015

I completely agree with Mr Palmer’s suggestion [“Global Warming is Not ‘Setted Science,” by Fred Palmer, June 18] that when responding to the threat of global warming: “there be an honest and open debate based on facts and sound scientific data about what is causing global warming, what is the prognosis, and what if anything can or should be done about it.”

And I have good news. This debate went on for around 200 years, starting when Joseph Fourier identified the greenhouse effect. It has been more than 100 years since Savante Arrhenius contributed to the debate by calculating how much global warming we should expect from burning our gasoline, coal, oil, and “natural” gas. Arrhenius’ calculation was not difficult, and his findings are approximately the same as what we know to be true today.

I say “know to be true” because a scientific fact can reasonably be called knowledge when every single national science body on Earth, including our own National Academy of Sciences, has studied it intensely for decades and every single one of them agrees and publicly states that it is true. This is the case for human-caused global warming. There is plenty more to learn on the subject, but on the central facts the “debate” is long over. If he would like all the details, I refer Mr Palmer to the tens of thousands of research papers on the subject by tens of thousands of researchers, produced over the last 100 years. This research addresses his itemized concerns and many others.

Of course Mr Palmer is free to have and share any opinion he likes. But I would caution any policy-maker against giving any weight to his personal point of view. I am sure we could find people who dispute the law of gravity, but I wouldn’t want them designing my bridges. People have certainly disputed that smoking causes cancer, and those who would profit even used lies and deception to facilitate smokers’ illness and death. But even if they could produce someone who ‘smoked 100-a-day and lived to 112 years old’ we knew not to let them drive our public health policy. We do celebrate the stimulation that creative thinkers bring to science and our discourse. But, when they repeat arguments, like Mr Palmer’s, that have been disproven countless times we do not let them make decisions that affect the rest of us. When any climate deniers have evidence or theories that support their deeply-held personal convictions then we will pay close attention. I expect that a researcher who disproved hundreds of years of settled climate science in one fell swoop would be awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics. That would be exciting indeed!

Meanwhile, like the rest of the world, the majority of Americans (whether you are counting them as a whole or slice and dice them into male, female, Democrats, Republicans, north, south, young, old, rich, poor, etc) understand and accept the three key facts: 1) global warming is already happening, 2) we are causing it, and 3) it is a bad thing.

Global warming IS a bad thing, but fortunately it appears that not only will the initial investment to avoid the worst effects be low, it will also improve our health, security, safety, air, and water, and will conserve our way of life and the beautiful places we call home. Today there are already more jobs in each of the US wind and solar power industries as there are in the entire US coal industry. Companies like Tesla are stunningly successful with their electric cars and now home battery storage. Already about 100 Wellesley families have installed solar panels and are saving money as a result. Others are installing insulation, buying more efficient cars, and changing lightbulbs. As a country we are still not moving far or fast enough by a very long shot, and we need to change laws as well as lightbulbs. We should debate which laws and which changes, but arguing that there isn’t a problem to be solved is wasting our time.

For those that understand the problem and would like to be part of the solution I recommend three organizations, 1) 350.org for national climate activism and awareness-raising, 2) Citizen’s Climate Lobby for legal and political solutions, and 3) our own Sustainable Wellesley for local activities and get-togethers. There is something here for everyone.

Quentin Prideaux
Sustainable Wellesley

Letter as published