The Perils of 'Do Something Syndrome'

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Politicians need to seem to be doing SOMETHING, even if it is ill-advised, profligate, and futile, endangers Americans' standard of living and the nation's security. It applies to much of today's policymaking, from mitigation of climate change to the regulation of chemicals and genetic engineering.

The compulsion to be seen as doing something in response to perceived public health or environmental 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 brazenly ignore adverse consequences and grossly mischaracterize or oversell the benefits in favor of spin. In short, they ignore the maxim that the cure should never be worse than the disease.

Nowhere is DSS more evident than in using climate change as a justification for U.S. policies that have trivial impact on emissions but exact an enormous financial and lifestyle toll on the public. The issue is not whether carbon dioxide (CO2) is accumulating at an increasing rate (it indisputably is), but what humans can and should do about it, at what cost, and where the greatest potential for improvement is.  (Spoiler alert: It isn’t the U.S. or Europe; it’s China and India, who are by far the greatest emitters of greenhouse gases.)

Therefore, it is both punitive and futile to impose vast costs on the American people for initiatives that will make essentially no difference to humanity or for which much better alternatives are available.

We are seeing clear examples of DSS in recent proposals and in policies already in place.

A recent one is an initiative that would limit the use of gas-fired hot water heaters by imposing restrictions so drastic that they become uneconomic. The policy memo states that this will save 501 million metric tons (Mt) of CO2 over 30 years, or about 16 Mt per year, most of which will occur in the out years because of the time it will take to replace gas units with electric ones. This follows a push to transition to electric stoves from gas stoves, which are estimated currently to produce 6.8 Mt of CO2 annually.

Neither of these ideas is popular, especially forcing people to give up gas stoves and incur new wiring costs, but they serve the purpose of visibly demanding sacrifice in the pursuit of a noble goal. The impact would be less than 0.05% based on today’s emissions. That is DSS at work.

Instead, why not promote domestic production of oil that can travel by emissions-free pipelines (which are another DSS sacrificial lamb)? The transport of 2.3 billion barrels of imported oil carried by tankers from the Middle East emits 18 Mt of CO2 annually because tankers spew 4.57 grams of CO2 per kilometer per Mt of cargo. The answer is clearly that this choice is not as visibly virtuous. And never mind the domestic employment that would be created…

To put these numbers in context, current global CO2 emissions are about 39 billion tons (Gt) annually as of 2022 – that is, 2000 times greater than these “savings” – and emissions are certain to grow with time given the unfettered output from China and India.

Then there is the pipe dream of fully eliminating fossil fuels for electricity generation without an extensive push into nuclear power. We did a detailed analysis of what it would take to replace with “renewable” technologies the 2.4 billion megawatt-hours (MwH) currently provided annually by natural gas and coal generation. Our conclusion: You can’t get there from here. Details below.

Full electrification of just the current demand for electricity in the U.S. would be the most ambitious public works project in history. We calculate that it would require about 350,000 2 Mw wind turbines occupying 2-8 million acres (the acreage varies widely depending on conditions) or 5.8 million acres of solar cells, costing approximately one-half to two and a half trillion dollars, not including the cost of land; transmission (which is very costly, given that renewables are mostly not near users, other than rooftop installations); and maintenance (turbines are failing faster than anticipated) or eventual decommissioning and disposal. For perspective, the state of Rhode Island occupies less than one million acres.

The cost would at least double to use ocean-based wind turbines to save land. And that ignores the mass slaughter of birds that would be caused by the vast numbers of wind turbines.

Those calculations do not account for essential battery backup (since gas generators would no longer be permissible). Wind turbine efficiency (the percentage of theoretical benefit that is achieved in practice) is 40%, while that for solar is 35% (higher in desert locations), due to weather and nighttime darkness. Based on the experience of the West Texas freeze in 2021, four days of backup appears to be a fair estimate. Even assuming that sufficient minerals exist to supply the necessary battery capacity, the cost would run into the trillions of dollars. 

In short, renewable energy is good only up to the point where subsidies (for idle backup gas generators) or batteries to provide reliable power do not overwhelm the benefits. The promises of fossil-free energy sound far better than what reasonably can be achieved. More DSS at work.

Even beyond the senselessness and deception described above, undoubtedly the most horrendously expensive, ill-conceived, and essentially useless collection of policies being pursued is a wholesale transition from gasoline-powered cars to electric vehicles (EVs). The astronomical cost is counted in subsidies to customers, manufacturers, and charging infrastructure. How will today’s domestic auto manufacturers even survive without the profits from gasoline-powered vehicles or vast government support? But it is the grossly overstated benefits that make these costs wasteful and the entire strategy implausible.

Volkswagen’s own estimates are that an electric Golf must be driven 77,000 miles before the emissions difference between gasoline and electric fuel (for charging) offsets the CO2 generated in producing the car, most of which is from manufacturing the battery. Other manufacturers estimate similar high mileage breakeven points. And the longer the range of an EV (which keeps increasing, because it is a key selling point), the heavier the battery and the more distant the emissions breakeven point.

Finally, if the cost of infrastructure – that is, charging stations – is included, the EV advantage vanishes. And just try to imagine how residents in high-density urban areas could feasibly use a plug-in EV. Would we be digging up streets for curbside chargers or seizing property to build subsidized charging garages every few city blocks?

 Courtesy : Wikimedia Commons 

And then there is the particulate pollution generated from the tires of super-heavy EVs – most of which are significantly heavier than the Cadillac Escalade. No estimate is even available for how much CO2 might be emitted simply to manufacture the number of tires needed to accommodate the shorter life cycles of heavier vehicles. This is the Law of Unintended Consequences at work. (Another example is the risk of spontaneous, hard-to-extinguish fires started by EV batteries.)

DSS has preempted consideration of smarter, more realistic automotive policies, such as eliminating all subsidies for EVs and subsidizing hybrids instead. They do need gasoline, but in much smaller amounts. And Toyota estimates that for a single Tesla, the mining of minerals, which generates most of the CO2 that is attributable to an EV, could power 37 hybrids. Hybrids are not as sexy or as pseudo-emission-free as EVs, so hybrids tend to be thought of as only a tepid commitment to battling climate change and not, therefor, a manifestation of DSS.

Climate policy is far from the only subject that infects politicians with DSS. Many hastily conceived actions to deal with the COVID pandemic proved to be ill-conceived and useless, like limiting peoples’ travel to no more than 15 miles from home (California) or prohibiting the use of private power boats (Michigan). Or deciding that eliminating bail was the solution for high rates of incarceration. This list could go on and on.

The fundamental problem is that instead of formulating policies that are based on data and sound analysis, politicians are increasingly indulging in virtue signaling, crafting policies that are high-visibility but ineffective and often hugely expensive – in other words, DSS.  There is no simple fix, 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. He is also the co-inventor of relational databases. Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Glenn Swogger Distinguished Fellow at the American Council on Science and Health. He was the founding director of the U.S. FDA’s Office of Biotechnology.  They were undergraduates together at M.I.T.