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The lessons from historic preservation councils blocking solar panels

American politics is a thicket of local civic and political groups that may resist change.

solar home
A suburban home that has been defaced with solar panels.

To achieve their ambitious climate goals, countries of the world will need to change almost everything: how people get around, where and how they work, how they heat their homes and charge their phones, what they buy, and where they live. That will be challenging for any number of reasons, ranging from the opposition of wealthy incumbents to the limits of current infrastructure.

But one of the main reasons it will be challenging is that many people just don’t like change. Human beings place a high value — from economists’ point of view, an irrationally high value — on maintaining the familiar things around them.

I was thinking about this as I read a recent Washington Post story about historic preservation districts stifling the growth of rooftop solar, particularly in Washington, DC. Some applications to install solar panels are being denied or reduced in size over aesthetic concerns.

Basically, historic preservation councils don’t want historically preserved districts to visibly change. That’s the whole point. Thus, panel installations that would be visible from the street are being denied. In some cases, homeowners are forced to lay panels flat; in some cases, they are forced to wrap panels in special camouflaging sheets. In either case, the efficiency of the panels is substantially reduced.

happy solar customers
Solar panels mean happy suburban families!

The story produced considerable angst and outrage among climate hawks, myself included. There is something undeniably ridiculous about seeing people prioritize their views over stemming the rise in greenhouse gases. As though anything will have the luxury of staying the same in the face of severe climate change!

Even though it’s a bit of a sideshow — this isn’t a lot of solar energy — there are lessons within it worth dwelling on and taking seriously, especially for those involved in conceiving, writing, and implementing climate policy. It shows why change will always involve a healthy amount of on-the-ground organizing and grinding. It’s just hard.

The climate motivational mismatch

Here is a revealing quote from Sara Green, a resident of the Takoma historic district in DC, on the subject of allowing visible solar panels: “The impact on the polar bears or on climate change is extremely minor. However, the impact of putting solar panels on front-facing elevations in the Takoma historic district is enormous.”

It’s easy to make fun of this sentiment if you take Green to be comparing the importance of visible solar panels to the importance of climate change itself. That’s obviously absurd. Comparatively, climate change is everything; the nostalgia of a few affluent area homeowners is nothing.

But that’s not what she said. She compared the impact on climate change to the impact on her aesthetic experience. And on that comparison, she’s more or less correct.

Relative to the size and speed of what’s needed, the contribution of a single rooftop solar system is a droplet in the ocean. Every home in Takoma could go solar and it wouldn’t register. Every home in DC. Every home in the US would barely matter on a global level. Climate change is an unfathomably large problem.

On the other hand, her aesthetic experience of her neighborhood is an important daily presence in her life and really would be changed by the addition of lots of visible solar panels.

Solar panels on a roof.
Imagine having to look at these.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

It’s a motivational mismatch that pops up again and again in climate policy: She’s being asked to change something that’s a source of immediate, familiar comfort to her in the name of marginal benefits to the climate.

Of course, there are also increasing financial benefits to going solar — homeowners see their power bills drop — and it may be that those benefits will eventually overwhelm the resistance of the many Sara Greens in American cities. But invoking climate change, as compelling as it may seem from the outside, probably won’t work, at least not on its own.

People don’t like change

Reformers, by definition, believe that things need to change. And they find that, in the abstract, on polls and surveys, the public often agrees. But when it comes to actual changes, even people who would benefit resist or, more often, just do nothing.

Confronted with a decision, a rational actor (as defined by economists) seeks to maximize their own interests. If the change is better than the status quo, or has reasonable chances of being better, they choose the change.

Humans, it turns out, don’t really reason that way. Two of the strongest cognitive biases in the human mind are status quo bias (a tendency to choose to keep things the same, either through inaction or repeating previous decisions) and loss aversion (the pain of losses is roughly twice the pleasure of equivalent gains). Both bias people toward not rocking the boat.

At a deep level, people want order and predictability and some control over the minutiae of their lives. It makes them feel safe. That can often manifest in ways that look somewhat ludicrous from the outside, as urbanist reformers have discovered again and again: People prize their on-street parking, the width of particular roads, the exact amount of natural light their house receives, the particular plants and trees in their yard and neighborhood. They prize these things more than the abstract benefits of denser, more walkable development, and they certainly prize them more than the distant benefits of carbon reduction.

I frequently think of the homeowner in Berkeley Hills who, when faced with the loss of an on-street parking spot to make way for emergency vehicles responding to fires, threatened to lie down in the street in protest.

It can seem selfish or shortsighted from a distance, throwing a fit over aesthetics or minor inconveniences in the face of giant collective problems. But we all have our daily routines, comforts, and spaces, and it’s not difficult to imagine how upsetting it might be to have them disrupted. People have very different “damage functions,” as economists put it; a small harm to one is a grievous blow to another.

The reforms necessary to reduce emissions are going to face a certain amount of resistance not because of any cost-benefit analysis or policy design dispute, but simply because they require a lot of change, and people, especially in relatively stable countries and communities, don’t like change. Even if the changes make sense economically, even if they’re possible politically, even if the world is on fire ... people like their stuff the way it is.

Tesla solar roof
Tesla, addressing your aesthetic concerns.

The world is full of pockets of change-resistant power

Even if the high muckety-mucks of the world are extremely concerned with climate change and the fate of humanity, the leaders of the Takoma homeowners association are concerned with keeping Takoma the way they like it. They derive part of their identity and status from being Takoma homeowners and will fight tooth and nail to defend it.

While climate wonks are forever coming up with grand schemes meant to change everything at once (see: carbon tax), the truth is that American politics is a thicket of local civic and political groups — homeowners associations, trade groups, town and county boards and governments — with overlapping fiefdoms, each capable of serving as sand in the gears. And as analysts like Jonathan Chait are fond of reminding us, local governments are responsible for some of America’s most reactionary and change-averse policy.

Big national problems loom large for analysts of big national problems. But on the ground, in the cities, suburbs, and rural areas of the US, people like their corner store, their parking spot, the church potluck on Sunday afternoons, and the way the light looks in the evening. Particularly in our current era of angst and uncertainty, they enjoy the predictable comforts around them. Those who ask them to change those things, even in service of something better, face a high burden of proof.

I wrote a fairly pessimistic post earlier this month about the world’s chances of meeting ambitious climate targets, partly with this in mind. While many things seem possible when considered in the abstract, purely through the lens of technology and economics, they seem a lot more difficult when considered from the local view — convincing thousands and thousands of Sara Greens across the country to put up with solar panels, EV chargers, home batteries, wind turbines, bike shares, transit stops, and dense residential construction.

The “political will” climate hawks are forever seeking will not arrive in some grand moment of revelation, with a binding national resolution and a wartime pivot. It is an aggregate, made up of hundreds and thousands of local decisions, each responding to local circumstances and pressures.

If climate reformers hope to find success in the long run, they must be everywhere on the ground, part of those local pressures.

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