“It’s hard to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on him 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 you not being convinced”, was the formulation of HL Mencken.
This truth will be all too familiar to anyone who writes or reads about climate change and technological responses to it. For many years, oil companies and their political representatives have insisted that climate change is not real, even though their own internal research has concluded that it is. When this position became untenable, they switched to arguments that the fight against climate change is compatible with the continuation (and even increase) of fossil fuel consumption. While oil companies are rebranding themselves as climate change warriors, they are also funding media campaigns and disingenuous “studies” that cast doubt on the green credentials of electric vehicles and renewable energy.
So the bogus 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 who refuse to embrace electric vehicles 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 keeps trying to convince me that its fuel economy rivals that of my Prius (in fact, it’s EPA rated at 25 mpg).
Another gentleman of my acquaintance, who has a young daughter, is as liberal as anyone I know – a committed vegan and an ardent supporter of equal rights and environmental justice. And yet, when he recently bought a new home for his young family, he chose a suburban McMansion that would require a daily round trip of nearly 100 miles, driving—you guessed it—a gas-powered SUV.
At this point, our conservative friends may interject that these are examples of independent, critical thinking. My friends disagree with electric cars – they realize that electric vehicles actually pollute more than gas burners and that the best thing we can all do for the environment is to keep using fossil fuels (“low carbon oil”, “clean diesel” and “clean coal” , maybe).
However, the “dirty little secret of electric vehicles” argument, which seems to float down the drains of social media hundreds of times a day, does not 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 shown 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 arguments for and against EVs before making a purchase decision?
Well, maybe not. As a psychologist might tell you, we humans are naturally subject to certain biases that often make us make decisions without even 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 then use logic to justify them later (a friend of mine who drives an “efficient” SUV provides a perfect example).
We humans are biased towards continuing to do the things we’ve always done. Americans have gotten so used to spending two hours every weekday hot and swearing in traffic that many of us, including my liberal traveler friend, don’t see how insane it is.
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 vehicles will require replacing all of our gas stations with charging stations. Many car buyers refuse to go electric because they mistakenly believe it will mean sitting around waiting for their car to charge. Policymakers make bad decisions about charging station locations because they don’t understand that driving patterns won’t be the same in an electric ecosystem.
Of course, the harmful effects of inherent human bias are seen not only at the micro level of individual car buyers, but also at the macro level of politicians and corporate leaders. Toyota, biased to believe that the old ways are best, is spending a lot of money and prestige to convince G7 policymakers to promote hybrids at the expense of electric vehicles. A California agency that should be promoting zero-emission commercial vehicles instead funneled money to a fossil fuel advocacy group, apparently believing that slightly cleaner diesel and LNG vehicles pose less risk than EVs. And of course, politicians in many countries love the idea of using hydrogen to fuel passenger vehicles, against the advice of most scientists and automakers — apparently because they’re biased to believe 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 explores several common human biases in the context of policy decisions about climate change. “Policy makers, decision makers and influencers in the key climate action file, where we will be investing 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, and also make sure 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 cites several examples of biases that lead individuals and leaders to make bad economic decisions. People fear loss far more than they value gain, which leads 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 they could make from utilities ) . Americans have been conditioned to believe that we live in “the best country in the world,” which blinds us to the fact that we have the most unreliable electrical grid among developed nations. In fact, investing in upgrading and improving the network we all depend on could do more for the environment than pouring money into public charging stations that will only serve a small number of drivers. We also have the “dysfunctional myth of rugged individualism”, which can lead some to invest in overpriced battery storage systems, when a vehicle-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 “stuck within the paradigm of burning things for heat… their bias from long familiarity is that the only energy that counts is the energy you light a match.”
Many in the transportation and energy industries have become committed 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 tend to overrely on weak data that supports their preconceptions.”
Barnard has some similar comments about the nuclear energy 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 did not update their predecessors on the subject. As a result, they ignore… the empirical reality of the last decade or so that clearly shows that nuclear is, at best, something that might be useful for the last 5% to 20% of electricity generation, not 50% to 80%. Many people cling to the perspectives they came up with decades ago and, for various reasons, don’t update their datasets and analyses.”
Mr. Barnard admits he has his blind spots and biases, and yes, dear readers, so does your favorite EV writer. Being prejudiced doesn’t mean we’re stupid – it means we’re human. Certain 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 most difficult things for us humans to do, but the ecosystem that supports all life on Earth is now at risk, and to make the radical change that is needed, we will have to face some of these biases and overcome them.
Originally published on EVANNEX.
by Charles Morris
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