Climate Idealism Can’t Hold a Candle to Collective Action

Cross-posted from the Carbon Tax Center.

Why do Copenhageners ride bicycles? The key reason, says Yale economist and bestselling author Robert J. Shiller, is that Danes are idealists who resolved, after the oil crisis of the 1970s, “to make a personal commitment to ride bicycles rather than drive, out of moral principle, even if that was inconvenient for them.”

“The sight of so many others riding bikes motivated the city’s inhabitants and appears to have improved the moral atmosphere enough,” Shiller wrote in yesterday’s New York Times, that the share of working inhabitants of Copenhagen who bike has reached 50 percent.

From “Copenhagen: City of Cyclists” (2010), a report by the City of Copenhagen.
Graphic: Copenhagen: City of Cyclists/City of Copenhagen

In much the same way, Shiller argues, “asking people to volunteer to save our climate by taking many small, individual actions” may be a more effective way to bring down carbon emissions than trying to enact overarching national or global policies such as carbon emission caps or taxes.

Goodness. Rarely do smart people so badly mangle both the historical record and basic economics. I say “people” because Shiller attributes his column’s main points to a new book, Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet, by Gernot Wagner of the Environmental Defense Fund and Martin L. Weitzman, a Harvard economist. And I say “smart” because the three stand at the top of their profession. Shiller won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2013, Weitzman is a leading light in the economics of climate change, and Wagner is highly regarded young economist.

But mangle they have (I haven’t seen the Wagner-Weitzman book but assume that Shiller represents it fairly).

Let’s start with the history, which is fairly well known to anyone versed in cycling advocacy, as I’ve been since the 1980s, when I spearheaded the revival of New York City’s bike advocacy group Transportation Alternatives. Copenhagen’s 40-year bicycle upsurge, and indeed much of the uptake of cycling across Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands, came about not through mass idealism but from deliberate public policies to help cities avoid the damages of pervasive automobile use while reducing oil dependence.

If idealism played a part at the outset it was a social idealism that instructed government to undertake integrated policies ­– stiff gas taxes and car ownership fees, generously funded public transit, elimination of free curbside parking, provision of safe and abundant bicycle routes — that enabled Copenhageners to do what they evidently desired all along: to use bikes safely and naturally.

The telltale is in the graphic. Only one in eleven Copenhageners who cycle have environment and climate in mind. The majority do it because it’s faster than other ways to travel, and around a third of cyclists say they ride because it’s healthy, inexpensive and convenient — belying Shiller’s meme of Danes idealistically choosing bikes despite their inconvenience vis-à-vis cars.

The mangling of economics, meanwhile, is baked into the very idea of “Putting Idealism to Work on Climate Change,” as Shiller titled his article. Expecting more than a small fraction of humanity to place ideals above convenience and economy has to qualify as magical thinking under current social and economic arrangements. Market failures simply won’t allow it. Unpriced externalities, whereby carbon emitters get to pollute for free, in effect make it expensive to move off fossil fuels. The prevalence of free riders, whereby your emissions reductions benefit me and every other person as much as yourself, is a further disincentive.

Shiller touched on externalities and free riders, but only in passing. Perhaps they didn’t fit his narrative centered on Wagner and Weitzman’s “Copenhagen Theory of Change, [by which] we should be asking people to volunteer to save our climate by taking many small, individual actions.”

One wonders if any of the three economists studied the actual evolution of cycling in Copenhagen before coining that term. Did they talk with Copenhagen officials, who might have cautioned them that the individual’s decision to cycle depends on social constructions such as elaborate and continuous bike lane networks, ample and convenient bike parking, and a traffic justice system that holds reckless drivers accountable — and who could have explained that bicycle infrastructure works best in conjunction with policies to raise the price of urban driving closer to its social cost? Did they learn that the citizenry has to clamor for these measures to neutralize the inevitable opposition from car owners and auto interests?

Concerning climate, recognition appears to be growing, if slowly, that carbon pricing, ideally delivered through transparent and robustly rising carbon taxes, is essential to correct the market failures that Shiller mentioned. The individual actions Shiller touts are important. I practice them and I constantly beseech everyone around me to try and do the same. But even more important are collective policies, like carbon taxing, that can make those individual actions possible and natural. That’s the only way our and other societies will succeed at pushing out carbon-emitting fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy and efficient use.

Big thanks for assistance on this post to Jon Orcutt, who as senior policy advisor to DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan engineered the extraordinary expansion of NYC’s bicycle infrastructure during 2007-2014.

  • J

    “Expecting more than a small fraction of humanity to place ideals above convenience and economy has to qualify as magical thinking under current social and economic arrangements.”

    Precisely! It’s especially shocking that an economist would to buy into such a misguided notion.

  • EC

    Wow–I am shocked that Shiller, so reasonable in so many other areas, could be so boneheaded. Thank you very much for the clear, reasonable response.

  • qrt145

    Strange… I thought economists liked to assume that people were self-interested actors. Unsurprisingly, most people who cycle do it for “selfish” reasons, be it because it is faster or cheaper or healthier or more fun, not because they want to save the planet or even the city.

    As for saving the planet, the average Dane probably produces more CO2 by flying on a single vacation trip than they save in years of riding a bike in Copenhagen. I’m sadly aware of that as I’m a bicycle commuter but also a frequent(ish) flyer…

  • NYCyclist

    Even before I read Schiller’s piece I knew something was awry. The photo accompanying the piece didn’t seem to match up with what I know about Copenhagen. It depicts two cyclists, wearing helmets, seemingly riding on a regular road.

  • avlowe

    Indeed you only need to look at the 2 top scoring reasons why CPH people ride bikes – Bikes deliver what they need in their daily lives.

    Some of this effect however can be suppressed – build your new massive regional hospital out of the city in a field connected to a fast freeway, and you might find that it is rather difficult to motivate folk to cycle there. Build your shops as huge mall-type sheds nowhere near peoples homes and again they’ll drive there.

    That sort of change needs gentle and subtle slow turning on of the tap – simple pop-up shops, working out of trailers/containers and able to move & reconfigure as you learn your market.

    The only times I’ve really seen cycling take off have been when a rail line closes between 2-3 stops and cycling IS the answer for so many of the passengers. You won’t need to build anything or install cycle parking to kick in an increase of 1000% or more in cycling activity in just a couple of months. OK you’ll be FORCED to catch up as bikes will get locked to every available fixed object and volume of cyclists on roads will show you where cycle lanes are needed, if only to make life a bit easier for the drivers, by providing routes to keep the cyclists moving!

  • Joe R.

    I *don’t* fly purely for selfish reasons, but in retrospect maybe encouraging a healthy fear of flying would do wonders to get CO2 emissions down. 🙂

  • Kevin Love

    “The only times I’ve really seen cycling take off have been when a rail line closes…”

    I’ve seen cycling take off when a city has used stout steel bollards to eliminate notorious rat-runs. This solved two problems at once:

    1. Eliminating rat-running meant that car driving was no longer the fastest, easiest and most convenient way of travelling from A to B.

    2. Since car drivers were no longer intimidating and bullying people off the road, a pleasant cycling environment was created.

  • walks bikes drives

    Just as an off the cuff comment to the FASTER reason of why Copenhageners ride… I came across my next door neighbor today who was driving while I was biking home. We were about 2 miles from home, traveling from the east side of Manhattan to the west, and then a bit uptown. I challenged him to see who would get home first. Just for the hell of it, I broke no traffic rules, even when it was safe to do so, such as sitting at a red light on Central Park West without any pedestrians or cross traffic. I still beat him home by about 5 minutes.

  • Ahhh…. Great catch Charles! It’s amazing what people with more brains that actual experience will say about cycling.

    Closer to home it gets really interesting when you have a bunch of non-cyclists making bike policy and planning (sigh!) but then I digress…

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