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Meghan L. O'Sullivan

If All Vehicles Go Electric, That’s Just Step One

To address emissions, the electric grid would need to eliminate fossil fuels and the petrochemical industry would need to reverse its explosive growth.

The big switch.

The big switch.

Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

Many of the headlines coming out of Detroit this week during the North American International Auto Show will be about electric vehicles — from new electric concept vehicles from Nissan and Infiniti to an emerging partnership between Ford and VW on electric and autonomous vehicles. By all means, environmentalists and others should celebrate progress in bringing more EVs to market. But they should not assume such progress absolves the world from working hard on other fronts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. When I speak about energy, I find too many people in my audiences putting far too much hope in the lone measure of phasing out petro-powered cars.

There’s a particular psychological phenomenon at work here: All humans tend to focus on one or two solutions to incredibly complex problems. Robert Jervis, a political science professor at Columbia University, writes about how the brain can account for only a limited number of factors in considering any particular phenomenon. As a result, each of us tends to fixate on a small number of facets, and to give priority to the ones we understand.