People Won't Pay to Prevent Climate Change, Which Is Bad News for Environmentalists

If you really care about something, as the saying goes, you should be willing to put your money where your mouth is. Alas, as it turns out, people won't pay to prevent climate change — even people who claim they are concerned about it. Via Forbes, Stephen Ansolabehere, a professor of government at Harvard University, has been studying people's attitudes towards climate and energy for over a decade. The gist of his findings, as presented recently at the Energy Policy Institute of Chicago, is that people are only willing to pay about 5 percent more on their energy bills to fund clean energy. In other words, not much at all — even when they are people who take climate change seriously and who care about a fix. This amounts to $5 on a typical electric bill, probably less than what you spent on your last tube of lipstick.

The Environmental Protection Agency's "Clean Power Plan," for instance, would result in an estimated 2 percent surcharge on energy bills to cover its recommended environmental fixes for power plants. But we all know how accurate the government is at estimating the costs of things. As soon as those surcharges creep towards 5 percent, even the most enthusiastic of environmentalist power consumers will start to balk. And it's not just Americans — Ansolabehere's research found the same level of willingness to pay across other developed nations, including Canada, France, Germany, Japan, and Canada.

As usual, this empirical finding about willingness to pay for climate fixes will almost certainly become a political Rorschach test. Environmentalists on the left will claim that people's unwillingness to pay gives us reason to fix global warming (sorry, "climate change!") on a federal level, where the costs per person can be distributed (or hidden) in taxes and cuts to other services, instead of appearing in an itemized fashion on people's energy bills. Skeptics on the right will argue that climate change is too far down most worried, broke, post-recession Americans' priority list for us to reasonably shell out much for questionable "solutions" as a collective (especially at the expense of allegedly economy-growing measures like tax cuts and loosened business regulations).

In any case, it's just really hard for our feeble human minds to care about the long run and the big picture in any domain at the expense of our present interests. You might be able to get people to pay more if you scare them about the imminent effects of climate change. But we as a species are probably going to end up "adapting" to climate change after the fact (when it's absolutely necessary) more than preventing it.

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