Does the Environment Deserve a Tip?

A recent survey asked people whether they wanted government to do something about global warming and whether they would be willing to pay more in their electric bill. The good news: a solid majority (71%) said government should do something. But when it comes to footing the bill, people are more generous to their barista than to the planet. 57% said they’d pay an extra $1 a month, but only 37% would pay $10 a month extra, and nearly 80% refused to pay an extra $50 a month.

Experts tried to put a positive spin on this. One noted, “While the amounts may seem small, the willingness to take action, even if there are some out-of-pocket costs, is encouraging” and another thought it was good that a majority is “willing to pay at all.” The survey certainly was not filled with climate deniers: 77% said it is happening.

To me, the response suggests a worrisome inability to connect the problem of global warming with lifestyle change. The idea that the government can do something apart from costly lifestyle change is maddening. Indeed, it is like one of my favorite surveys ever, which shows that a majority of Americans want to cut government spending, but then when asked whether specific programs should receive a cut, NO program garners a majority. Even among Republicans, only foreign aid and unemployment get majority support for cuts. This is a kind of unreality, and one that makes legislating pretty hard!

It also suggests that people do not have a clear grasp of the magnitude of the problem. Behavioral economists talk about framing effects and price perception, which suggests that the monetary values we associate with something can be manipulated. Many consumers would willingly pay (at least) $10 a month for an extra cable package or a trip to the movies or a dinner stop at a fast casual restaurant – all quite typical purchases – but when asked to pay $10 a month more for energy, even when they believe global warming is happening, they resist. Even a relatively moderate economist (Paul Krugman criticizes his book a bit in the New York Review of Books) William Nordhaus, suggests a $25 a ton carbon price, which he estimates would raise the cost of electric production by slightly more than 20% - for many people, a lot more than $10 a month. And that, of course, would not include the hikes needed at the pump. And even these, many suggest, would not bring about the needed change. Yes, there may be a virtuous cycle, already underway, where clean energy becomes cheaper. But there isn’t a scenario I’m aware of that suggests we could produce anywhere near the amount of energy we presently consume through clean energy.

Pope Francis writes in Laudato Si’ that “many things need to change course, but above all it is we ourselves who need to change.” Until we recognize that the atmosphere is at least as valuable to us as many, many other things, it is extremely difficult to imagine progress on this problem. It’s good that people care. But sentiments are inadequate. We can’t pray for the good the environment unless we are willing to pay for it.

David Cloutier is an associate professor of theology at the Catholic University of America and the author of Walking God’s Earth: The Environment and Catholic Faith.

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