While much of the U.S. has been dealing with severe winter weather, California is experiencing a record dry spell. The clear skies have also brought some cold nights and, with them, wood smoke. What I’ve noticed in my neighborhood is that the desire for a cozy wood fire cuts across political lines. And as the local air quality authority has called a record number of no-burn days due to poor air quality (high levels of PM 2.5, the fine particulates that can get through the respiratory system and lodge in lungs), the anger at restrictions on those cozy fires has also cut across political lines.
Many of these neighbors are friends of mine. They are caring people who recycle their newspapers and bring home their groceries in reusable bags. Most are concerned about pollution in general and believe that greenhouse gases are causing potentially devastating climate change. Yet, they ignore warnings about the pollution from their wood fires, in some cases even blatantly violating the burning bans that have been called on nearly half of all days in the bay area since November 1.
The science on local particulate air pollution is settled – both that wood fires are the primary source in winter and that the health threat is significant. And it takes much less imagination to understand the danger from wood smoke than the danger from carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Particulates are visible in higher concentrations and your nose, eyes and throat tell you that there is a problem with the air. GHGs are invisible and odorless.
Addressing the wood smoke problem does not require a fundamental shift in the way we live. Sure there is a sacrifice – even I enjoy a wood fire on occasion – but it doesn’t mean living in a colder house, traveling less, reducing electricity consumption or anything else that has a broad impact on standard of living. The houses around me already have natural gas furnaces that are a less-expensive way to heat.
Yet, judging from news reports, letters to the editor in the local papers, and discussions with my neighbors, there is widespread resentment that the air quality district is restricting wood fires. Many of the excuses are of the “my contribution is so small it doesn’t matter” variety. One recent letter in the local paper dismissed policies that are designed to reduce pollutants so small that they aren’t even visible, a “what I can’t see couldn’t be that dangerous” attitude that I bet is more widespread that we’d like to admit.
My point here is not to scold my neighbors. I think they are just as public-spirited as other people. What I take away from this is that people have a strong ability to deny uncomfortable truths about pollution (and externalities more broadly) when the implication is that they need to change the way they live, even if the change is fairly small. The changes we will have to make to address climate change are going to be much more challenging than just substituting a cleaner, easier and cheaper heating source for a dirtier one that is also a hassle to use.
This realization has helped move me in the last few years to argue for much greater emphasis on subsidies for R&D to reduce the cost of substitutes for fossil fuel. The renewables advocates are right that we have the technology today to address climate change, but we don’t have the technology to address climate change without sacrifice.
There are people who will voluntarily sacrifice to reduce their pollution, but that’s not most people. Even among the upper middle-class households in my neighborhood (by world standards, quite wealthy), most people react by denying the problem or denying their ability to have any impact on it.
Broad support for national or international strategies to reduce carbon emissions quickly dissipates if those policies turn out to be expensive (see Spain’s abandoning renewable subsidies) or if other priorities come to the fore (see how Germany’s decision to ditch nuclear power has led to increased coal-fired generation). In the developing world, where incomes are much lower and the other threats to life are more immediate, sustained support for more-expensive alternative technologies will almost certainly be even more scarce.
These political realities also point out another, related, reason to lean towards greater R&D funding. Any shift away from fossil fuels will create losers (think coal miners, oil drillers, Big Carbon shareholders). If the loss is directly attributable to regulation (or even pricing GHGs) there will be tremendous pressure to loosen the regulation. If it’s due to a new technology then all the government needs to do is step back and let the market have its way. “Regulation is killing our industry” carries a lot more political heft than “A new lower-cost technology is killing our industry and we need government regulation to slow it down.”
Digital photography destroyed the film industry without a murmur of government intervention. If the shift had been due to expensive regulations on film (even if they were good public policy), we’d still be getting our photos developed at the local drug store.
With apologies to Donald Rumsfeld (now there’s a phrase I didn’t ever imagine I’d be writing), we have to go to war against climate change with the human and political constraints that exist, not the benevolence, rationality, and far-sightedness that we wish existed.
Severin Borenstein is E.T. Grether Professor of Business Administration and Public Policy at the Haas School of Business. He has published extensively on the oil and gasoline industries, electricity markets and pricing greenhouse gases. His current research projects include the economics of renewable energy, economic policies for reducing greenhouse gases, and alternative models of retail electricity pricing. In 2012-13, he served on the Emissions Market Assessment Committee that advised the California Air Resources Board on the operation of California’s Cap and Trade market for greenhouse gases. Currently, he chairs the California Energy Commission's Petroleum Market Advisory Committee and is a member of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District's Advisory Council.