Light in an empty room

This blog was written by John D. Wilson, former Deputy Director for Regulatory Policy at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Guest Blog | July 9, 2011 | Energy Efficiency

Energy efficiency is under attack. Its opponents want us to believe that energy efficiency does not exist.

Some people just dont think there is any way to save energy.
Some people just don’t think there is any way to save energy.

The battle to stop government from reducing energy waste echoes decades of struggle to stop the environmental assault on public health. Intentional efforts to discredit facts leaves the public in a room that is empty of solutions, where it seems nothing can be done.

In her “urgent and eloquent plea to confront the holocaust that is global pollution and the rising catastrophe of global climate change,” epidemiologist Devra Davis recalls a conversation with economist Jae Edmonds. He explained why  the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had not yet estimated the public health costs of reducing the air pollution associated with global warming pollution. He replied:

“In our models, we assume that all public health benefits have already taken place. They are kind of like hundred dollar bills lying on the ground. They do not exist, because if they did, they would all be picked up.”

Energy efficiency isn’t any more difficult to dismiss into non-existence than public health improvements. In the view of some ivory-tower economists, the market is already perfect, and energy efficiency isn’t, well, efficient.

These arguments aren’t merely wrong, they are used to distract us from real opportunities. And these distractions mean that the “hundred dollar bills” of energy efficiency are not lying on the ground. They are in the bank accounts of those who sell the energy that is wasted.

Lightbulb efficiency standards: Opponents attack a solution that will save energy and money

In 2007, a bipartisan majority of Congress enacted legislation that led to the first-ever energy efficiency standards for lightbulbs. President George W. Bush signed the legislation, and his energy policy officials endorsed the lightbulb standard, which ACEEE estimated would save electricity users $3 billion by 2030.

Today this standard is under attack. It is not difficult to debunk the myths and claims used to attack lightbulb efficiency standards. It is not hard to get elected if you are an advocate for taking steps to stop causing global warming. But …

… but it may be impossible to use even the best evidence persuasively. As Andrew Hoffman has written, “providing more contrary scientific evidence to people disinclined to [accept the scientific consensus regarding climate change] … could actually make [climate skeptics ] more resolute in resisting conclusions at variance with their cultural beliefs.”

Hoffman carefully, and correctly, distinguishes the “organized denier movement … run by professional advocacy organizations working to discredit climate change” from the cultural skeptics who are so resistant to persuasion. And when you fuel the debate with tinder laid by the organized denier movement and the accellerant poured on by ambitious politicians, it ignites a battle intended to destroy solutions.

If this was a debate, and not a battle, we’d be thinking about the role of government in promoting innovation.

And if we cared about innovation and progress, we’d try to better understand the role of government efficiency standards. As Roger A. Pilke, Jr. has written, “Technologies and the standards that guide their deployment have … been so successful, in fact, that the role of government has become invisible — so much so that even members of Congress should be excused for believing the government has no business mandating your choice of light bulbs.”

Pilke is correct that government’s role in promoting innovation has become invisible, but I’m not so sure that it is due to success. Rooms can be emptied, heroes forgotten, accomplishments made invisible.

Devra Davis recounts the view of environmental health scientists John Spengler: “It is not enough to be right. You have to publish your findings on something subject to controversy over and over and over again.”

Supporting the energy saving … money saving lightbulb efficiency standards will help Americans. But will it convince the skeptics that there is an opportunity to do something good for society, to help people save money and pollute less? That opportunity does not seem to exist.

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