Why so angry?

After a recent article in the Herald (ungated version here) I received the following email:

I realise that your objective is to advance a right wing agenda rather than provide factual information, but I was sufficiently annoyed by your article that I have provided media with the attached more informative article, to help people understand the real issues.

The article from my correspondent (I will not name him) was mostly about how EVs are good and will become great in the near future. I suspect he is right.

But that completely misses the point of my Herald piece.

My point is that having capped emissions with the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), to then tax or subsidise vehicles or anything else already covered by the cap will make no difference to total emissions.

This has nothing to do with the merits of EVs. Of course EVs can reduce emissions. But the emissions benefits of EV subsidies must be zero under a binding emissions cap.

The question I want to consider here is why an argument against ineffective emissions policies should lead somebody who is worried about climate change to feel angry.

I do not know my correspondent. I assume he was not the only person annoyed by my article. For the purposes of this post, I will assume people who feel angry reading my article:

  1. Are worried about the climate change.
  2. Believe greenhouse gas emissions cause climate change, and
  3. Support policies and actions which lower emissions.

What could lead someone who holds those views to object to an argument that we should oppose emissions policies which do not lower emissions?

Before I try to answer this question, let me first say I do not usually spend time thinking about peoples’ motivations on policy matters. My focus is on the merits of policy. Here I make an exception because I want to reach people who are concerned about climate and who see me as an opponent. If I can understand why people get mad, I have a better chance of communicating effectively and, ultimately, helping.

So let the speculation on where the anger is coming from begin.

First, the objective (lower emissions) is bundled with specific actions. Support for action on climate is support for more EVs, more renewables, less coal and petrol. These actions go with the goal of lower emissions like peas and carrots. EVs always mean lower emissions. Coal always means higher emissions. And more is always better when it comes to favoured technologies; for disfavoured technologies, less. No exceptions.

This view does not fit well with reality. It is probably not obvious, for example, that using coal and natural gas plausibly makes it easier to reduce emissions, or that further investment in renewables beyond some unseen limit in our electricity system will make it harder to achieve our emissions targets. See the ICCC final report on electricity.

For anyone who sees action on climate and getting more EVs on roads as the same thing, any argument against EV subsidies is going to look a lot like an argument against cutting emissions per se.

Second, the only alternative to taxes, subsidies and regulations to lower emissions is to do nothing. Here is James Shaw (at 43:00) saying exactly that to Parliament’s Environment Committee at a recent appearance, for example, after being challenged on the effectiveness of policies.

Such a conclusion is surely natural for anyone who has not heard of the ETS, or who does not know that it caps emissions, or who does not see the cap as credible, or who does not understand how a cap will generally neutralise other policies.

Shaw is in none of those categories, by the way – it is his cap! He introduced the legislation which gave the ETS its hard emissions cap. The bill passed last year.

I suspect another driver of this “alternative is doing nothing” view may have something to do with the idea that human agency is a necessary part of lowering emissions. Sure, the ETS will have some effect, the thinking might go. Profit-maximising corporates will always respond to the incentives of a carbon price. But we will not succeed, the thinking may go, unless somebody decides how and where emissions come down. Many seem to believe prices alone cannot bite hard enough to shift behaviours; we need more than incentives to overcome consumers’ myopia.

Third, I wonder if people are quick to suspect trickery lies behind any question of emissions policies? Sure, this person says he wants lower emissions, but perhaps there is a hidden agenda, either a political agenda or opposition to action on climate.

Another possibility is that the response to my article is a “rally behind the flag” effect. The classic example of rallying behind the flag is America’s response to the attack on Pearl Harbour by Japan in 1941. Political accountability for the catastrophe was put to one side. The focus was squarely on the forward-looking question of winning the war.

I do not think flag-rallying explains much in climate. Bad emissions policies are not in the past – they are not sunk, as it were. Policies are very much in the here and now, or in the future. They can be changed. Those policies will determine success or failure in the war on emissions.

If anything, rallying behind the flag should encourage not deter (constructive) skepticism of policies. Yet many people do not welcome questions about whether emissions policies work. If rallying behind the flag means overlooking past mistakes to focus on the mission at hand, climate policies are not a good fit.

Whatever explains the anger towards my article, it probably does not help that I am one of the only people saying emissions policies should work. It is striking how, out of all the people who demand action on climate, almost nobody has any apparent interest in the performance of the government’s emissions policies.

Anyway, these are my guesses about the psychology behind the interesting conundrum of why well-meaning, intelligent people who want action to reduce emissions feel genuinely angry when they see someone pointing out where emissions policies might not work.

This anger has consequences. It will, and almost certainly has, suppressed questions at the government on the performance of its policies.

We now stand at a precipice. In the next few months the government could commit to policies that will cost percentages of GDP but will not lower emissions, not by a single tonne. If the current track continues, we will end up materially poorer while doing nothing to help future generations on climate.

Surely, there no political constituency for that outcome? Yet that is the path we are on. Almost nobody is asking the government this most basic question: how does your emissions strategy cut emissions?

That question helps protect future generations. So don’t be angry at the person asking it. Be angry about the answer.

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