UFOs, apocalyptic visions, and the EU Emissions Trading Scheme

Prices in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU-ETS) have hit new lows in Phase 2 (just over €10/tCO2). The mechanism became worthless in Phase 1. It looks likely to do the same in Phase 2 (as some of us predicted). It is not providing sufficient incentive for anyone to invest in any carbon-reducing projects. But it is still handing nice rents and market-protection to the beneficiaries of the allocation process. Uncertainty about its value, so vulnerable to political whim and economic fortune, is a significant factor in the reluctance of power companies to invest not only in renewables, but even in new coal, gas and nuclear stations, because their relative competitiveness depends on EU-ETS prices, and any investment can therefore be made uneconomic in the tap of a legislators' pen.

Naturally, Stavros Dimas (EU Environment Commissioner) has taken this confirmation of the irrationality and harmfulness of the scheme as a signal to try to draw others, particularly America, into a global ETS.

Robert Cialdini, in his book Influence, briefly recounts a real incident that was witnessed and analysed by the social scientists Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken and Stanley Schachter, recorded in their book When Prophecy Fails. The details are hilarious and illuminating in equal measure. I highly recommend you to read Cialdini at least, if not Festinger et al. But I will try to precis here the already potted version in Cialdini. A doomsday cult formed around a man with a long interest in mysticism, the occult and flying saucers, and a woman who claimed to channel messages from extra-terrestrial spiritual beings via the device of automatic writing. These messages started to foretell a disastrous flood that would engulf the world. However, they also reassured the members of the cult that they would be rescued by flying saucers that would be sent  a few hours before the flood was due to commence. During the period leading up to the appointed date, the members of the cult retreated into themselves, making little effort to warn others of the impending disaster. Of course, the spaceships failed to materialise, as did the flood. In the immediate aftermath of the non-appearance, there was silence, then introspection and despair, then signs that the group was starting to dissipate. At this point, the woman received a message from the extra-terrestrial spirtual beings, telling the group that "the little group, sitting alone all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction." A second message instructed her to publicize this news. The group set about contacting newspapers and trying to persuade as many people as possible of the truth of their experience.

Festinger et al and Cialdini provide a convincing explanation for this bizarre switch from secrecy to proselytization, at precisely the moment that it had become obvious that their beliefs were unfounded. The members had invested hugely in the cult's belief-system. The psychological cost of admitting it had been for nothing was too great to contemplate. Yet the evidence clearly indicated that it had indeed been a foolish waste. To avoid the spiritual cost of facing reality, they needed another way of maintaining their belief. Their best hope was in persuading others to share their views, for, if enough people agreed with them, it must (psychologically) be true, whatever the evidence seemed to suggest. The proselytizing was not a sign that they were now more confident of the truth of their beliefs, but precisely the opposite - it was the conscious response to the subconscious awareness of their folly.

Of course, people outside the cult could see the flaw in their beliefs, and the desperation that underlay their efforts. Not a single new member was attracted. Let's hope that those in the White House and elsewhere can spot the equally obvious evidence of the failure of the EU-ETS, and the motives for Mr Dimas's promotion of the cult of carbon-trading.