Thousands of years ago, human beings transcended the overwhelming wrath of nature, proceeded to overcome tribal wars amongst each other (kind of), and now live in a state of chaotic harmony across the planet. However, by our own hands, the conflict with nature has once again ensued—this time on a world stage.
Climate change is possibly the biggest threat humanity is to face for the centuries to come, with each extreme weather event veering us one inch closer to apocalyptic doom. This sense of urgency is akin to a worldwide alarm, insisting that everyone take action in whatever way possible, individuals and countries alike. This, however, is precisely the issue according to authors Bjorn Lomberg and Stephen Pinker. Our strong fear response to apocalyptic imagery makes us panic, unfortunately making us more susceptible to heuristics and biases in our thinking when it comes to proposed solutions. They argue that, for what could possibly be the biggest threat of the next generations of humans, it is necessary to be as critical and honest as possible when assessing solutions and paving the way forward.
One of the key issues is the habit of catastrophic framing within the discourse surrounding climate, thus creating a panicked atmosphere that is in no way optimal for clear decision-making. This is particularly important in democratic countries, wherein people’s panic can easily be reflected in overbearing, inefficient and expensive policymaking. Framing bias is a cognitive bias whereby the contextual framework of a given topic or concept affects decision-making.
Bjorn Lomberg, author, and former director of the Danish government’s Environmental Assessment Institute, suggests that a lot of environmental projections are inappropriately framed in a pessimistic light, arguing that the climate crisis is one of humanity’s global problems, but not a catastrophic one. For example, he highlights how the media picked up a story claiming a study purported 187 million people will have to emigrate, or even drown, due to rising sea levels by the end of the century. While stories like these gain traction, therefore being successful in the eyes of the media, the study itself affirmed that this scenario is highly unlikely due to relatively cheap innovative solutions, dykes for instance, that would bring the affected group down to 305,000 people. This is not to say that the problem does not exist, but Lomberg reframes the issue as manageable in the long-term, while also shedding light on the media’s bias towards sensational journalism.
Nevertheless, much of the issue surrounding climate change is to do with energy and the effects of its production, and the undeniable truth that long-term emissions of CO2 spell disaster for the environment. The debate has been centered around orthodox solutions, typically mitigation policies that incentivize reducing carbon emitting energy sources. These policies are popular in political rhetoric and have a digestible narrative—less carbon is better. However, Lomberg argues that the proportion of money spent on these policies far outweighs their real-world efficacy. The US spends $50 billion or more each year subsidizing solar and wind, with $10 billion in tax cuts, while the nuclear sector, which produces more than half of the US’s zero-carbon electricity, receives a mere $100 million.
This pertains to a cognitive bias common in behavioral finance, loss aversion, a phenomenon where people tend to prioritize avoiding losses over earning gains. For example, our attention would be directed towards a losing stock, and we would try and figure out how to prevent losing that money instead of focusing on making a new gain somewhere else.
Despite the fact that spending on mitigation policies like solar and wind has been doubled down on for decades, the economic principle of opportunity cost insists that we consider where the highest return per dollar spent lies—which has unfortunately not been realized in the incremental increases in solar and wind energy.
Furthermore, Lomberg argues that mitigation policies revolving around abstention are largely ineffective. During the first year of the covid-19 pandemic, the entire planet’s carbon emitting economy and transportation circuits shut down. According to the findings of climate economists, this period results in a marginal reduction of only 500th of a degree Fahrenheit by the end of the century. Belief bias, namely the tendency to judge the validity of an argument by the plausibility of its conclusion, plays a role in small-scale mitigation policies. Often people are contented not by the efficacy of their action, but by the satisfaction they feel linked to the plausibility. While this perspective may appear cynical, Lomberg goes on to introduce a different strategy that is both cheaper and more effective in the long-term: innovation policies.
The primary principle of innovating green energy is to bring costs below those of fossil fuels, thereby providing an incentive for everyone—not only well-meaning Western democracies—to engage. Lomberg illustrates the economic principle of perpetual underinvestment in research and development, proposing that instead of $15 billion, $100 billion be invested in green R&D.
“We are proposing…to spend about 100 billion dollars. So, dramatic ramp up. So we’re not talking about just a little adjustment, it’s a lot more money. But at the same time, much, much cheaper than what we’re just spending in subsidies to solar and wind right now. The problem with the existing sort of venture capital argument, is that most of these will only invest if they can see a payoff in the next five years.”– Bjorn Lomberg, speaking on behalf of the Copenhagen consensus center, composed of 27 of the world’s top climate economists
Effective alternatives, and ultimately potential solutions to the green energy-cost equation, already exist. Nuclear power for instance has shown potential to generate considerable amounts of energy at low cost and zero-carbon emission. However, availability bias—the tendency for people to assess risk by the ease of remembering examples, specifically fear-evoking ones—gets in the way of people’s rational thinking. Stephen Pinker purports that this cognitive bias has affected the progression of nuclear power considering the various sensational accidents that occurred over decades. Nevertheless, nuclear power, particularly 4th generation plants, remains the most scalable clean energy source we know of.
Another relevant example of green energy innovation, suggested by the biotechnologist who led the process of sequencing the human genome, would be to harvest algae that take up sunlight and CO2 and fuse them with gasoline to make it carbon neutral. Ultimately, there are hundreds of ideas that are underfunded in proportion to the inefficient and expensive mitigation policies supported by political rhetoric. We will not use all of them, and most of them will fail, but the bottom line is that we only need one of these technologies to revolutionize our climate paradigm. And importantly, once they are cheaper than fossil fuels, the entire world will follow suit.
Human ingenuity has consistently been the solution to the inscrutable problems of our past, yet we persistently hesitate to bet on it as an abstract idea. The future is paved by innovations that catalyze progress, ones that moments before very few could have imagined. Investing money more intelligently in green innovation, despite the rhetoric of our intrusive biases and panic, could very well be the light at the end of the tunnel that will navigate our species towards a brighter future.
Ford, Jonathan. “Are Cooler Heads Needed on Climate Change?” Financial Times, 18 Sept. 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/93d6353c-9ab1-4bd9-86bb-7d77aab44dde.
Goldstein, Joshua S., et al. “Nuclear Power Can Save the World.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 6 Apr. 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/06/opinion/sunday/climate-change-nuclear-power.html.
Shellenberger, Michael. “Why Climate Alarmism Hurts Us All.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 6 Dec. 2019, https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelshellenberger/2019/12/04/why-climate-alarmism-hurts-us-all/?sh=498e402b36d8.
Trembath, Alex. “Alternatives to Climate Alarmism.” National Review, National Review, 28 July 2020, https://www.nationalreview.com/magazine/2020/08/10/alternatives-to-climate-alarmism/.