Frog Warming

by Win Wenger, Ph.D.
Winsights No. 38 (February 2000)

The trick is to put the frogs live into luke warm water, then gradually heat it. At any time until they lose consciousness, the frogs could, if alarmed, hop out of the pot and escape. But they don’t, because they don’t notice that the gradually-warming water is heating up.

Thank goodness we clever human beings, on this gradually warming Earth of ours, aren’t stupid like those frogs!

Well, as a matter of fact, we have noticed it — some of us, at least. We even have the data projecting the continuing ocean-rise swamping most of our major cities, and the pending disruption and collapse of our agriculture. Far more is going on than perhaps would suffice to alert a frog, even a very stupid frog.

Actually, at any given point we could fairly readily stabilize or reverse the temptrend, by any of a great many different means, but chances are that we won’t, so settled are we within the walls of our stew pan.

Emergency measures (taken against the backdrop of a failed and shrinking economic base due to loss of our cities, our agriculture and most of our industry) are not good, and not only because we need to forestall such losses rather than merely react to them. We can change global and/or regional temps by any number of ways of changing the amount of sunlight being reflected instead of absorbed. Even though that can affect overall temperature averages, we just don’t know enough yet about how such albedo changes would affect weather patterns as such. The “cure” could be as bad as the “disease,” at least for our agriculture and living conditions.

Long-term? That appears to revolve around how much of our biomass turns into carbon dioxide (forest fires and our use of fossil fuels) and how much of our solar-heat absorbing carbon dioxide gets turned back into biomass (by growing plants), plus some not-so-funny feedback cycles involving carbon dioxide release and absorption rates in a warming ocean.

Here we need a lot of accumulated effects of little choices by a lot of people, rather than the heroic actions of one or a few individuals — and for the long haul….

That can’t be accomplished through persuasion. However persuasive a given case is or can be made to be, over time people’s attention wanders and other issues turn up.

That can’t be accomplished by fiat either. Policing to enforce is expensive, and costly in terms of other things we value, and over time other crises come up which pre-empt away the resources allotted for policing the task.

Nor can we leave this to the goodwill and conviction of a heroic few. Their continuing sacrifice puts them at a cumulative disadvantage relative to those who don’t give a damn about the matter. After a while, we find ourselves without those heroic few, whose heroism we might find ourselves badly needing on other issues and situations.

What’s left to us? Rearranging incentives so that enough more people, for their own reasons and without sacrifice or policed compulsion, will make enough of the right decisions in their day-to-day lives that we can on the whole restore balance to our carbon dioxide budget (and to other such issues as well).

A nice thing about incentives is that, unlike command and policing, they get the job done without abridging any individual’s freedom. Just by making it somewhat more expensive to burn a lot of the wrong fuel or to slash-and-burn forests, or by providing a little bonus for those things which make for energy efficiency, a lot more people, choosing for their own unabridged free variety of reasons, will choose those actions which result in better conditions for us all. The free marketplace does this now, but for some things it does it a lot better than for others. So on some things, including global warming, the marketplace needs a little help — such as the appropriate tax incentives.

Look to what extremes people go now to find and use tax loopholes! Simply rearrange those loopholes so that all that effort to avoid taxes will benefit the public rather than hurting it.

Another nice thing about incentives is that they don’t require heroic sacrifice. We get to keep our heroes for other matters. Everyone gets to play out their own best interests in a way which also works in the best interests of us all.

Another nice thing about incentives is that they’ll last for the long haul. They’ll go on working for as long as the incentives are in place. We don’t have to “jawbone” people, over and over, from campaign to emergency campaign as we used to try with inflation, exhorting them to do “the right thing” until our heroes appear and get used up. We can, and probably should, have some sort of sunset closure on our deliberately set incentives — but let’s tie such closures to conditions and not just to the calendar.

Some of our electric utilities charge less for power use when it is during off-peak times. Under different conditions, different general behaviors are appropriate, and achievable, given the right incentives for the purpose. Incentives are an easy way to correct what we, en masse, are doing vis-a-vis global warming (and vis-a-vis many other matters as well!). When the conditions are finally corrected and we reach the point where we appear headed into overshoot with global cooling, then we can simply re-set the relevant incentives.

There is much more to say about incentives, both in specifics and in terms of their general theory. You’ll find much of it, in fact, said in one little book, Incentives As A Preferred Instrument of Corporate and Public Policy. Until you’ve looked more closely at the above situation and at this book, though, ba-deep. Ba-DEEP!!!=