Save Gas, Don’t Gaslight

Evan Mills, Ph.D.
2 min readFeb 25, 2022

The New Yorker could have used some fact-checking before printing a recent anti-energy-efficiency piece

With this photo of “sustainable ice harvesting” (instead of modern refrigeration), David Owen feeds the old trope that getting out of the climate crisis requires going back to the stone age.

I’ve always respected the New Yorker, and admired the high-caliber writing. But there appears to be an Achilles Heel in their fact-checking apparatus.

David Owen drifts astray in his recent piece, speculating that energy efficiency merely seduces consumers into using more energy (“How the Refrigerator Became an Agent of Climate Catastrophe,” January 15, 2022).

The so-called “rebound effect” that has captured Owen’s imagination, is a pseudo-scientific gambit by climate policy cynics to gaslight consumers, policymakers, and even journalists into thinking that if energy is saved it just means the money will be used to buy more energy.

Speaking of refrigerators, what really frosts me is that The New Yorker has allowed Owen to do this before — about a decade ago — and it was roundly debunked.

Although numerous peer-reviewed articles long ago shown the flaws in this oft-sensationalized notion— rebound is weak and often undetectable — in our anti-science age it keeps whizzing back like a boomerang.

In reality, energy bill savings are primarily spent to improve people’s lives, not on energy per se. While buying a new car with double the previous mpg won’t compel the owner to drive faster and farther such that their gains are negated, reduced energy spending may help put more food on the table. Indeed as efficiency has risen here in the U.S., per-household energy use has declined by one-third since 1980.

In any case, society won’t go back to horses for transportation or to cutting ice blocks out of rivers to chill beer. Owen is right to be concerned that climate change is forcing energy-using adaptations like more cooling, but blame directed at air-conditioners is misplaced. Rather, let’s make buildings as efficient as possible as fast as possible while cleaning up the grid, so that they are zero emitters. And yes, by all means do unplug that old unused fridge.

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Evan Mills, Ph.D.

Energy & environment scientist, with 40 years experience developing and advancing climate change solutions. http://evanmills.lbl.gov