As a progressive liberal I found a lot to like in Richard Thaler and Cass Sustein’s book ‘Nudge.’ Boiled down to an elevator pitch, it argues that if the school cafeteria places fruit at eye level and the chocolate brownie at the bottom, kids will eat more fruit and be healthier. And I like that. Committed choco-holics can still get their fix, but overall, kids will eat more fruit and less chocolate. It’s not taking away anybody’s choice, but ‘nudging’ people towards an option that most think is healthier.
Nudge was widely praised and quickly accepted. However, it is my opinion that it triggered a new wave of policy measures that, if written up in a book, might have the title ‘Compel.’ That’s the thing with us liberal Democrats–we make a lot of sense in opposition, but give us a little power and you gotta watch us like hawks. That’s why Hillary is safer for conservatives–she’s even more pragmatic and centrist than Obama. (I like Bernie, but… no.)
We are now engaged in the public ritual of shaming fossil fuel companies for… what? Selling us what we need to survive in a modern world? Accurately estimating the ongoing demand for their products? Agreeing with the IPCC about the various uncertainties involved in predicting future climate?
This is Phase 2 of an activist strategy. Phase 1 was persuading companies to adopt a Greenwash stance, publicly praising efforts to reduce emissions, adopting high profile and highly visible signature efforts to seem Green and to award legitimacy to activist efforts to pursue EverGreener targets. For them, it is just another unavoidable cost of doing business.
As I’ve written before, this is because climate activists have chosen to pursue a strategy that emulates the activist strategy against tobacco companies. As I’ve written before, the tobacco strategy failed–tobacco companies make far more money and sell far more cigarettes than before the show trials and reparations. But as activists and lawyers reaped a lot of the reparations paid by the tobacco companies, it’s apparently considered viable by at least the activists of today.
Let’s talk briefly about Stage 3 of the strategy. Government is already on the side of activist efforts throughout the developed world. So are the multinationals. As taxes, targets and penalties are enacted to lower emissions, the focus will quickly shift to individuals–we the people.
Lest you think this a bit paranoid, I remind you that this is what happened with tobacco. No smoking zones, higher insurance, fines for smoking in designated smoke-free zones, ever-higher taxes on tobacco products, etc. Once the tobacco companies paid obeisance to the activists, it legitimized ever stronger measures targeting smokers.
This is as far from the concept of Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge as it is possible to get. Nonetheless, it worked as a policy, despite the fact that it barely reduced the percentage of people who smoke. It became public anathema and smokers were forced to sacrifice large parts of their freedom.
(I’m an ex-smoker who has lost several family members to the consequences of smoking. I’m tolerant of smokers but hope it disappears as a practice as soon as possible.)
The logical outcome of the activist strategy against emissions will be to ration emissions for the populace. As green energy is not going to scale up fast enough to meet the perceived needs of the climate community, reductions in conventional fuel usage will become the order of the day.
Although I wish they would at least consider ‘Nudge’ options to achieve their goals, the cost of presenting feasible alternatives is high and the temperament of the activist community is vengeful. So instead of building bike lanes and making public transportation easily available, safe and comfortable (which would cost a lot of money), it is likely that they will institute brownouts, mileage limits and other constraints on the use of energy derived from fossil fuels.
The growing proliferation of smart meters will be hijacked away from their original purpose (to allow you to time your consumption to coincide with the lowest rates available) and be used to penalize what someone considers high consumption (don’t hold your breath waiting for rewards for low consumption).
This will succeed just as well as the Tobacco Strategy, which means not at all. Just as the tobacco companies turned their focus to the developing world for increased sales, so too will fossil fuel companies. They will be joined by manufacturers fleeing from rationing and high prices.
The partisan affiliation of whoever is in power when this happens won’t matter. Republican or Democrat, Labour or Tory–the politicians will fall in line. The momentum built up by Stages 1 and 2 of this strategy will prove impossible to thwart.
There will be many losers and the winners will again be limited to activists and lawyers.
As for cheating on the numbers, given that electricity and oil are both fungible, it will be easy for regulators to apportion ‘fossil fuel burdens’ as they choose. Already, if you drive an electric car you get criticism for the coal that generates the electricity that powers your car. Natural gas will be penalized because of fracking, coal because of fly ash and mercury, oil because of spills. Nothing to do with emissions, but other environmental burdens will be added and you will pay the costs.
In the future, energy for the consumer will not only be rationed, it will be more expensive.
In my next to last post I will talk about possible counter-strategies–activists aren’t the only ones who paid attention to the tobacco wars.