Is Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a climate hypocrite? That was the recent charge leveled against the freshman member of Congress, due to her apparent preference for car travel over public transit. The New York Democrat is outspoken on the need to take action on climate change and is the motivating force behind the much hyped Green New Deal, which aims to zero out greenhouse gas emissions in the United States by 2030.

Ocasio-Cortez is only the latest in a long line of green advocates who have been tagged with the hypocrisy label. The home of former vice president Al Gore uses 20 times the electricity of the typical house. Actor Leonardo DiCaprio warns of the dangers of fossil fuels while flying around on private jets. Not that green activists are necessarily great at giving others advice on how to reduce their carbon footprint either. When she was asked what people could do personally to fight climate change, Ocasio-Cortez had decided to suggest not using disposable plastic razors when you shave.

I enjoy poking fun at these folks as much as the next guy, but there is a deeper point involved here. In fact, one of the things that makes climate change such a difficult problem to solve is that it is impossible for a single person, or perhaps even a single nation, to do much to reduce emissions at all. Climate change is an example of what is called a collective action problem. This is a situation where everyone would benefit by taking a certain action, but only if everyone else does as well.

Suppose you are at a party. It is crowded and everyone is talking so loudly that you have to shout over each other to be heard. It would obviously be better if everyone quieted down. But will setting a personal example by whispering work in this situation? Of course not. Speaking softly would not quiet the room. It would just mean your own words get drowned out.

The same dynamic can play out at the level of nations. The United States accounts for only about 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Even if Ocasio-Cortez were successful in reducing our emissions to zero, that would not solve global warming. It could even have no effect, if other countries decided that our emissions reductions gave them the room to increase their emissions before dangerous levels of warming are reached.

Even where individual action is not totally pointless, it can be much more costly to act alone than as part of a group. When individuals were first diagnosed with Celiac disease, for instance, eating in a restaurant could be very costly for those affected because there were very few, if any, meal options that did not contain gluten. As the number of individuals avoiding gluten grew nationwide, however, restaurants responded by changing their cooking practices and offering more gluten free options, therefore reducing the costs of eating at restaurants for those with Celiac disease.

So how do you solve a collective action problem? Well that is easier said than done. Sometimes a collective action problem can be overcome by having the group make a decision binding on everyone. Before 1979, few hockey players wore helmets despite the increased risk of injury because a player in a helmet was thought to be at a competitive disadvantage to one without a helmet. Now all players wear helmets. What changed? The National Hockey League made wearing helmets mandatory. This option is not available in the case of climate change, however, because thankfully there is no world government that can mandate emissions reductions.

An individual or nation could also try to develop alternatives to emitting activities that are preferable even without considering the significant climate impacts. A range of policies have been proposed to encourage these developments, from carbon pricing to more funds for government research and development. Until there is a major breakthrough on this front, however, anyone who wants to do something about climate change is only going to end up looking a bit hypocritical in their personal habits.

Image credit: Rachael Warriner

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