“It’s hard to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” This pearl of wisdom is usually attributed to Upton Sinclair, but many other thinkers have made similar observations. “Never argue with a man whose job depends on his being unconvinced,” was the formulation of HL Mencken.
This truth will be quite familiar to anyone who writes or reads about climate change and technological responses to it. For many years, oil companies and their political leaders insisted that climate change was not real, even though their own internal research concluded that it was. When this position became unsustainable, they moved to arguments that the fight against climate change was compatible with continued (and even increasing) consumption of fossil fuels. While rebranding themselves as climate change fighters, oil companies are also funding media campaigns and bogus “studies” that cast doubt on the green reputation of electric vehicles and renewable energy.
So the fraudulent arguments of fossil apologists may be morally offensive, but they are understandable. But what about people who understand and acknowledge the dangers of climate change but refuse to embrace electric cars and/or renewable energy?
I personally know many people who fit this description, and I’m sure most of our readers do too. A European friend of mine is a huge technophile – he always has the latest and greatest smartphone apps and we’ve had many discussions about Tesla, solar panels, etc. And yet when it came time for a new car, he bought a huge gas-guzzling SUV – and he keeps trying to get me convincing that its fuel economy rivals my Prius (it’s actually EPA rated at 25 mpg).
Another gentleman I know, who has a young daughter, is as liberal as anyone I know – a committed vegan and a passionate advocate for equal rights and environmental justice. And yet, when he recently bought a new home for his young family, he chose a suburban McMansion that will require a daily round-trip commute of nearly 100 miles and driving—you guessed it—a gas-guzzling SUV.
At this point, our conservative friends may instill that these are examples of independent, critical thinking. My friends don’t fall for the temptation of electric cars – they realize that electric cars actually pollute more than gas burners and that the best thing we can all do for the environment is to continue using fossil fuels (“low carbon oil”, maybe “clean diesel” and “clean coal”).
The “dirty little secret of electric cars” argument that seems to float down the social media drains hundreds of times a day doesn’t stand up to scientific scrutiny. In a recent three-article series (“Debunking Common EV Myths,” Parts One, Two, and Three), I provide links to dozens of studies that have demonstrated the environmental benefits of EVs over older vehicles.
Could it be that my green-talking, SUV-driving friends haven’t read my works? Surely they have considered all available literature and carefully weighed the various pro-EV and anti-EV arguments before making a purchase decision?
Well, maybe not. As a psychologist might tell you, we humans are naturally subject to certain biases that often lead us to make decisions without considering any of the logical arguments for or against a particular choice. As a car salesman might tell you, people make buying decisions based on emotion and later use logic to justify them (my friend who drives an “economy” SUV provides a perfect example).
We humans are biased to keep doing the things we’ve always done. Americans have gotten so used to spending two hours of each workday fuming and cursing in traffic that many of us, including my liberal commuter friend, don’t see that it’s crazy.
Our biases cause us to see each new technology through the lens of the one it replaces. That’s why so many people seem to think that the transition to electric cars will require replacing all of our gas stations with charging stations. Many car buyers are reluctant to go electric because they mistakenly believe it will mean sitting around waiting for their car to charge. Policymakers make bad decisions about where to place chargers because they don’t understand that driving patterns won’t be the same in the electric ecosystem.
Of course, the sinister effects of innate human biases are seen not only at the micro level of individual car buyers, but also at the macro level of politicians and corporate executives. Committed to believing that the old ways are best, Toyota is spending a lot of money and prestige to convince G7 politicians to support hybrids at the expense of electric cars. A California agency supposed to promote zero-emission commercial vehicles instead funneled money to a fossil fuel advocacy group, apparently believing that slightly cleaner diesel and LNG vehicles pose less of a risk than electric vehicles. And of course, politicians in many countries love the idea of using hydrogen to power passenger vehicles, against the advice of most scientists and automakers—apparently because they’re biased into believing that fueling a vehicle must involve pumping and burning something (and because they see a way to keep the flow money from fossil fuels).
In a recent article, cleantech consultant Michael Barnard examines several common human biases in the context of policy decisions about climate change. “Policymakers, decision-makers and influencers in the main body of climate action, where we will invest trillions in transformation over the coming years and decades, need to be clearer-eyed than the average person on the street,” he writes. “They need to work harder to understand their own biases and blind spots, as well as ensure that they work with teams and advisors who have different biases and blind spots to ensure that groupthink doesn’t lead them down an unfortunate path.”
Barnard gives several examples of biases that lead individuals and leaders to make bad economic decisions. People tend to fear loss far more than they value gain, leading to people not being enthusiastic about potentially transformative vehicle-to-grid technology (drivers fear losing control of their vehicle’s charging more than they value the money that would they could earn from public service) . Americans are used to believing that we live in the “best country in the world,” which blinds us to the fact that we have the least reliable electrical grid of any developed country. Investing in modernizing and making the grid we all depend on could actually do more good for the environment than pouring money into public chargers that will only serve a small number of drivers. We also have a “dysfunctional myth of rugged individualism” that can lead some to invest in overpriced battery storage systems when a car-to-home solution might make more economic sense.
Mr Barnard also talks about the irrational enthusiasm for hydrogen as a vehicle fuel. A century of dependence on liquid or gaseous fuels has left many “trapped in a paradigm of burning things for heat … their bias caused by a long knowledge that the only energy that counts is the energy you light a match.”
Many people in the transportation and energy industries have made a commitment to hydrogen over the past few decades and refuse to let it go, even though recent research shows that while hydrogen may find applications in certain industrial processes, it is an inefficient and expensive way to power vehicles. “Their confirmation bias prevents them from accepting data that contradicts their preconceptions, and means that they greatly overrely on weak data that supports their preconceptions.”
Barnard has some similar comments about the nuclear power crowd, many of whom “came to this pro-nuclear conclusion in the early to mid-2000s, when it was really uncertain whether wind and solar could scale up, be grid-reliable, and be cost-effective.” . They have not updated their previous messages on this topic. As a result, they ignore … the empirical reality of the past decades, which clearly shows that nuclear power is at best something that could be useful for the last 5% to 20% of electricity generation, not 50% to 80%. Many people cling to perspectives they arrived at decades ago and, for various reasons, do not update their data sets and analyses.”
Mr. Barnard admits he has his own blind spots and biases, and yes, dear readers, your favorite EV writer does too. Being prejudiced doesn’t mean we’re stupid – it means we’re human. Some biases are hard-wired into our brains, and some of the strongest biases are the ones that prevent us from taking risks and trying new things. “Updating our priorities” is one of the hardest things for us humans to do, but the ecosystem that supports all life on Earth is now at risk, and to make the kind of radical changes required, we’re going to have to confront some of it. prejudices and overcome them.
Originally posted on EVANNEX.
by Charles Morris
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