Most of us recognize certain behavior as inherently risky, and so we seek to avoid it. But the relationship of the three Rs – risk reward, and resources – matters. When risk is hard to predict, when the cost of risk avoidance is high and when the benefits of risk avoidance are shared, we are prone to defer taking action, hoping instead that the risk will not materialize, that others will address it, or that we’ll be bailed out if the worst should occur. The Climate Conference now underway in Doha is a great example, redesigning our power supply is another, addressing our soaring national debt yet another – all are cases of overwhelming risks that push us into denial and risk tolerance over risk avoidance.
Put another way, when the cost of insurance is too great, we are more likely to self insure (accept the risk) or socialize it (count on a bailout) than we are to take active measures to avoid it. Responsibility has a cost, and right now, we’re stuck in a game of musical chairs, each of us hoping that we will be the one to find a seat when the music stops. But some things are certain, some risks are unavoidable. Take death, for instance – as we age that universal truth becomes more and more real (I’m 55 and have lost both my parents) and I choose to avoid many things I did when I was younger. Notoriously, teenagers presume they’re immortal, seeing risk as more an attractive thrill to seek out, than a consequence to avoid.
So why do so many of us responsible adults act like teenagers when it comes to major risks? The only responsible path in the face of reports like PwC’s Too Late for Two Degrees? Low Carbon Economy Index 2012 and the Climate Action Tracker is to take immediate bold measures to turn the tide, so to speak, yet we collectively avoid decarbonization. Both reports predict dire consequences down the road, and paint an increasingly depressing picture, yet still we’re collectively involved in a complex risk avoidance mechanism we might describe as “desperate helplessness.” I hate to say it, but I place little hope in global exercises like Kyoto, Copenhagen, Doha – it seems the best we can do, but the pattern of denial is increasingly apparent. We built this city on carbon, and we can’t let it go. The immediate real and political cost to take necessary measures at the country level continues to outweigh the long-term global consequences, no matter how dire.
Similarly, Caltech’s Reznick Institute authored a compelling report in September on the need for grid modernization and a reconceptualization of alternatives – Grid 2020: Towards a Policy of Renewable and Distributed Energy Resources – pointing to decentralization and decarbonization. But will this path be embraced by an industry and country addicted to cheap power, dependent on fossil fuels and a vulnerable grid? We’ll see. I suspect it will take some time to sink in.
Given my focus on electricity, I juxtapose our utter reliance on the grid to provide our quintessentially vital resource on the one hand, with our collective resistance on the other to embrace the grid’s inherent vulnerability and take independent measures to ensure power continuity. Certainly, successive storms in the Northeastern US give many pause to consider the precarious nature of grid reliance. But too often, we look at what happened, throw up our hands in disgust, and as the immediacy fades, we allow our immediate sense of urgency to fade as well. Northeast states turn to the federal government for compensation in the tens of billions to rebuild (socialization of losses), but we all know that we may face a similar situation when the next storm comes. When do we shift from a policy of system restoration to one of system redesign?
Whether its climate change slowly pushing the planet into irreversible feedback loops that accelerate our bad situation, increasingly frequent extreme storms and a rising threat of cyber attacks that threaten our grid with disruption, or a political dysfunction that challenges our fiscal health, we grow more impotent and dig deeper into our collective denial. We wait for some kind of magic to happen to rescue us from the consequences of growing risks – others will offset our carbon so we don’t have to change, technology will present solutions, utility experts will modernize the grid, the Fiscal Cliff will bring politicians to their senses.
Ultimately, as top down solutions evade us, we will look for solutions from within each of us, taking the small actions we can take that will collectively begin to turn the tide. Solutions begin with accepting truths and responsibility, seeking new perspectives to vexing problems, then taking action at the local level. Locally, the capital cost of backup systems will always be immediate, making an argument to defer a backup solution more attractive. But when we defer responsibility for our economic health to the utility or the government, we externalize the responsibility for our vital power supply and become victims of our own inaction. In short, we’re stuck in denial. And as the saying goes, “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.” We must each set denial aside, consider what we can do individually absent external action by others, and promote incremental change that lowers our individual risk while also lowering collective risk. At the collective level, individual innovation becomes contagious with widespread adoption – we need to find some Gangnam Style energy and climate solutions by fostering innovation at the local level.
Image: Gangnam Style via Shutterstock