The giggle test

There are cheap ways to increase the reflectance of roadbeds and rooftops, making cities more comfortable in the summer, reducing energy consumption, and counteracting global warming. But they seem too trivial to matter, precisely because they don’t have large costs or side-effects. Thus they don’t enter the political discourse. This is a problem.

Jane Galt asks a good question: what happened to the idea of replacing black roofs (and, for that matter, black roadways) with white (or light gray) ones as a way of increasing the albedo of the Earth (and also reducing the summer temperature in big cities)? Light-colored roofing materials surely can’t cost much more than dark-colored ones, and apparently mixing a little bit of chalk dust in with asphalt substantially increases its reflectivity at trivial cost.

For the homeowner, this means lower air-conditioning bills. For the rest of the people in that city, it means a more bearable summer (and therefore lower air-conditioning bills). For the planet, less air-conditioning means less coal-burning which means lower greenhouse-gas emissions. So why isn’t this proposal in the political mix when it comes to global warming and energy conservation?

Jonah Goldberg thinks this reflects a bias in favor of regulation; Matt Yglesias thinks it reflects a bias against conservation. I think the problem is deeper: the solution seems so trivial compared to the problem that it’s hard to believe it could matter. The very aspect that makes it so elegant in policy terms makes it a non-starter in political terms.

The idea simply doesn’t pass the giggle test: a candidate who campaigned on it would just be laughed at, like Lyndon Johnson turning off lights in the White House to fight the federal deficit or Jimmy Carter wearing a sweater to reduce oil imports. (As a secondary problem, it doesn’t generate substantial revenues for anyone, and therefore isn’t likely to be lobbied for.) Just as a child is unlikely to be impressed with a highly efficient engine, because it fails to make a satisfyingly loud noise, or to trust a medicine that doesn’t taste bitter, a political journalist is unlikely to be impressed with an innovation that doesn’t cost a lot of money or create some other sort of major inconvenience or controversy.

Of course, if we had political reporters who weren’t pig-ignorant about science and technology, this wouldn’t be as significant a problem as it is. And if politicians weren’t in the habit of offering trivial pseudo-solutions to serious problems, journalists would be less cynical about things that seem too easy. But then if my grandmother had wheels she would have been a trolley car.

This is a case where simply repeating the idea until it no longer seems funny could make a difference. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to explain the idea to five people until they stop laughing.

Update A reader points out that metal roofing has considerable advantages in durability as well as albedo to offset somewhat higher up-front costs. This seems to be one of the many instances in which consumers systematically act as if they had insanely high discount rates. Some electric utilities, pushed by their PUC’s, make “conservation loans” to their customers, building repayment into the electric bill and taking advantage of the utility’s ability to borrow at low rates. I don’t know whether any of those programs extend to metal roofing.

Updated to fix a technical error: virtually all of the global-warming benefit comes from reduced electricity use, since the fraction of the earth’s surface covered by roofs is so small that the direct effect on the planet’s albedo is negligible.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

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