Throughout the Presidential campaign, we’ve been bombarded with catchphrases, such as “Trumped-up trickle-down economics” and “Get ‘em out.”
I’ve decided to coin my own catchphrase – “Mickey Mouse mitigation measures.”
Let me start with an example. Over the summer, the New York Times ran a front-page article about a small town in the UK – Ashton Hayes, population 1,000 – that had reduced its carbon emissions by 24%. The article is light on details about what the town’s residents are doing to reduce their carbon emissions, though it does mention triple-pane windows and solar panels. Set aside questions about whether the residents are accurately accounting for everything (are they counting the carbon emitted to manufacture their solar panels?), there are several features of their efforts that make them a prime example of Mickey Mouse climate mitigation:
- They are fun! But, they are based on a fantasy version of the real world, which includes a talking mouse. The article describes how the town is “adopting the apolitical, voluntary, fun method.” For example, residents are opting to take fewer trips, possibly vacationing in the UK rather than flying to a tropical island.
And, they are taking these actions themselves without policies or politicians. In fact, the town has forbidden politicians from speaking at meetings.
There’s no way that the whole world will achieve the ambitious carbon reductions that scientists suggest are needed (e.g., 80% reductions by 2050) with voluntary, individual actions. The vast majority of CO2 emissions come from economic activities that people will not volunteer to give up. We need to focus on decarbonizing transportation of goods and people, decarbonizing the production of things like steel and cement – essential for our bridges, hospitals and apartment buildings – the list goes on. Decarbonizing vacations is not enough.
I don’t want to disparage the efforts of the residents of this town – if they’re having fun with this, they should go for it. But, I will disparage the New York Times editorial team for heralding the town on the front page as a climate “leader.”
- They are expensive, so something only the rich will do. It costs a lot to get into Disneyland to meet Mickey. Similarly, most sources conclude that triple-pane windows are too expensive to be a good investment, with payback periods of at least several decades. Solar panels in cloudy England don’t seem like a great investment, either.
Maybe upper-middle class Brits are able to shell out extra money to reduce GHG emissions, but it won’t work well for the rest of the world. Since projections suggest that most of the growth in energy use and associated CO2 emissions will come from the developing world, we need to focus on climate solutions that will work in China, India and Sub-Saharan Africa without inhibiting economic growth.
- They have no relevance to the majority of the world population. With 1,000 people, Ashton Hayes represents 0.000014% of the world’s population. Not only that, the lifestyles, building stock, institutions, etc. of upper-middle class Brits are different from the rest of the world. Even if triple-pane windows were hugely cost-effective, figuring out how to retrofit 500 year-old British farmhouses with them does not teach us much of relevance to the new apartment buildings in the growing urban centers of China, India and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Disney’s Mickey Mouse-shaped solar farm seems to be the corporate version of Mickey Mouse mitigation. I’m guessing it was somebody’s idea of fun, in the corporate, public relations sense. (This article speculates that the farm will serve a tiny fraction of Disneyworld’s total consumption.) Also, engineering the iconic shape probably cost a bit extra, and incurring that additional cost won’t help us lower emissions in the developing world.
Why should I bother ranting about this? I fear that by paying attention to Mickey Mouse mitigation measures, we’re lulling ourselves into a false sense of achievement and diverting attention from real solutions. Greenhouse gases are different from most environmental problems we have dealt with so far because they are global pollutants. We can fight the local spread of mosquito-borne diseases if everyone does their part and covers outdoor standing water, but climate change is too big to rely on local, voluntary actions.
Are we doing Mickey Mouse mitigation in California?
So, here’s a question. To what extent is California – after all, the home of the original Disneyland – engaging in Mickey Mouse mitigation? I focus on California because it’s my home state, but also because we seem to be the birthplace of many environmental policies that are subsequently adopted around the world.
Unfortunately, I fear that we’re paying an awful lot of attention to some Mickey Mouse approaches.
Take Community Choice Aggregators (CCAs), which a lot of Californians have been talking about recently. Many of these organizations, with names like “Marin Clean Energy” (now MCE), advertise themselves as alternatives to the utility for people interested in getting a higher share of their electricity from renewable sources. Severin’s blog post earlier this year raises important question about whether CCAs can actually reduce emissions and how their costs might compare to utilities’ costs.
My concern is that they’re relying on customers volunteering to get more renewable electricity, and, so far, it’s been largely richer Californians who have made that choice – two of the Mickey Mouse characteristics.
The maps below show a fair amount of overlap between the counties that have embraced CCAs and the counties with higher median household incomes. For example, the median household income in the purple counties, where CCAs are currently serving customers, is almost $80,000 while the median household income in the blue counties, without CCA activity, is $48,000.
Again, I don’t want to disparage people who opt to join CCAs, but let’s not get too excited about their potential to help the whole world fight climate change. We can’t expect the poor or even the rising middle classes in China, India and Sub-Saharan Africa to volunteer to pay more for renewable electricity.
CCA Activity Today in PG&E’s Service Territory
Median Household Income by County, 2009-13
Thomas Friedman, in the book, Hot, Flat and Crowded, has a chapter that criticizes easy, symbolic actions. The chapter is titled, “205 Easy Ways to Save the Earth.” My point is a little different, as even some more difficult actions, like expecting people to voluntarily pay more for clean energy, are not scalable to the rest of the world.
Here’s something that would not be Mickey Mouse: recent leaks suggest the Clinton campaign contemplated a $42 per ton carbon tax, and Washington state has a good-sized carbon tax proposed in a ballot initiative. These policies could be enacted everywhere, so it would be great to gain some experience with them. Plus, putting a price on carbon in the developed world could help spur innovations that could be transferred to the developing world.
We need to keep our eyes on the ball. We need climate change solutions that have a chance of working in the developing world. Before you pat yourself on the back for installing solar panels on your roof or switching to the CCA, ask yourself how this will help mitigate climate change for people who may never hear of Mickey Mouse in their lifetimes.
Catherine Wolfram is the Cora Jane Flood Professor of Business Administration at the Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley. During Academic year 2018-19, she will serve as the Acting Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at Berkeley Haas. She is the Program Director of the National Bureau of Economic Research's Environment and Energy Economics Program, Faculty Director of The E2e Project, a research organization focused on energy efficiency and a research affiliate at the Energy Institute at Haas. She is also an affiliated faculty member of in the Agriculture and Resource Economics department and the Energy and Resources Group at Berkeley.
Wolfram has published extensively on the economics of energy markets. Her work has analyzed rural electrification programs in the developing world, energy efficiency programs in the US, the effects of environmental regulation on energy markets and the impact of privatization and restructuring in the US and UK. She is currently implementing several randomized controlled trials to evaluate energy programs in the U.S., Ghana, and Kenya.
She received a PhD in Economics from MIT in 1996 and an AB from Harvard in 1989. Before joining the faculty at UC Berkeley, she was an Assistant Professor of Economics at Harvard.