The Problem with 'Do Something Syndrome'
Too often, virtue-signaling trumps cost-benefit balancing
by Andrew I. Fillat and Henry I. Miller
August 2, 2023
The compulsion to do something in response to perceived public concerns is a syndrome endemic in the political class and, increasingly, the mass media. Lately, "Do Something Syndrome," or DSS, has led to policies that ignore adverse consequences and grossly mischaracterize or oversell the benefits.
DSS is especially evident in using climate change as a justification for domestic policies that trivially affect global carbon dioxide emissions — 40 billion tons per year — and exact an enormous financial and lifestyle toll on the public. The issue is not whether carbon dioxide is rapidly accumulating — it indisputably is — but what can and should be done about it, at what cost, and who should do it. (Spoiler alert: it isn't the U.S. or Europe, it's China and India, by far the greatest emitters of greenhouse gases.)
Instead, climate zealots impose vast punitive and futile costs on the public for initiatives seen as virtuous but that make little difference in a global context and often ignore better options.
Typical DSS-think underpins a recent initiative that would discourage gas-fired hot water heaters by imposing drastic regulations on them. That follows a push to transition to electric stoves from gas ones. Both programs are unpopular, and the emissions reduction of them will be trivial — at best less than 0.05% — but they serve the political purpose of visibly demanding sacrifice for an ostensibly noble goal.
Another example is the pipe dream of eliminating fossil fuels for electricity generation without an extensive push into nuclear power. We performed a detailed analysis of employing renewable technologies (i.e., wind and solar) to replace the 2.4 billion megawatt-hours produced annually by natural gas and coal generation. It is simply not feasible.
Decarbonizing just the current demand for electricity in the U.S. would be the most ambitious public works project in history. It would require about 350,000 2-megawatt wind turbines occupying 2-8 million acres (the needed acreage varies widely depending on conditions) or 5.8 million acres of solar cells, costing approximately $1 trillion to $2.5 trillion — not including the cost of land, transmission (from distant solar and wind fields), maintenance (turbines are failing faster than anticipated), and ultimate decommissioning and disposal. (For perspective, the state of Rhode Island occupies less than 1 million acres.)
And this does not include battery backup (no gas generators allowed!), at a cost of over $1 trillion per day to compensate for intermittency. Weather history indicates that four days' worth of backup is needed, but mineral shortages suggest it would take many decades to produce the batteries.
Then there is the zealots' push for electric vehicles despite data such as Volkswagen's own estimates that an electric Golf must be driven 77,000 miles before the emissions savings offset the carbon dioxide generated in producing the car and battery. VW is not alone, and as electric vehicle range is pushed higher to satisfy buyers, the heavier batteries only increase the emissions break-even mileage.
Finally, if the cost of charging stations is included, the EV advantage virtually vanishes. And there are additional problems for downtown city dwellers: Do we dig up streets for chargers or seize property to construct subsidized charging garages every few city blocks?
We have two better ideas that would really accomplish something. However, they violate the decarbonization dogma, so they're unattractive to DSS sufferers.
First, we should promote domestic production of oil that is delivered via (emissions-free) pipelines — another DSS sacrificial lamb — to offset the 18 million tons per year of carbon dioxide spewed out by tankers transporting oil to the U.S. from abroad. Sadly, cutting domestic production is more powerful imagery than a solution that would make a real difference in emissions.
Second, let's abandon all subsidies for EVs and subsidize hybrid vehicles instead. They do need gasoline, but in much smaller amounts, and don't require charging stations. Toyota estimates that the carbon dioxide from the mining of minerals for a single EV could instead be spread over 37 hybrids that have much smaller batteries. The carbon dioxide emissions from battery manufacturing are relevant to any rational analysis but are ignored in EV sales pitches because they do not come out of tailpipes.
There is no simple remedy for DSS, except for the public to demand coherent explanations from political leaders, and then to vote accordingly.
Andrew I. Fillat spent his career in technology venture capital and information technology companies. Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Glenn Swogger Distinguished Fellow at the American Council on Science and Health. They were undergraduates together at M.I.T.