A recently released National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory study reports that thousands of birds are being incinerated at the new Ivanpah Solar installation in California’s Mojave Desert.  In commenting on the study, James Greiff of Bloomberg View wrote that “[w]hat no one seems to have counted on was how the facility . . . would affect the environment.”  That seems an odd statement, given that solar power is widely promoted as one solution to the environmental problems of air pollution and climate change.

But it is not unusual that proponents of environmental protection initiatives fail to account for even the environmental costs of those measures.  The Ivanpah facility generates electricity for 140,000 homes with zero carbon emissions, but birds are incinerated in the 800 to 1000 degree Fahrenheit temperatures produced by the mirrors that concentrate the sun’s heat on the boilers that drive the steam turbines.  Other green alternatives pose similar risks.  The increasingly efficient solar panels that sprawl over endless sun-drenched acres of California and the Southwest kill birds that fly into the panels, and wind farms kill thousands of birds, including eagles and other raptors, in their massive blender-like blades.

The broader lesson these examples illustrate seems a hard one for environmentalists and policy makers to learn.  There is no such thing as a free lunch or, to put it in economists’ terms, there are opportunity costs to everything we do.  If we invest resources in X, we cannot invest them in Y.  And even if we do our very best cost-benefit analysis, there will be both costs and benefits we do not anticipate.

Short of omniscience, there is no avoiding unintended consequences.  But we would do a far better job of both power generation and environmental protection if we understood and accepted two realities of public policy making on any topic.

First, although virtually every public policy advocate claims to be speaking for the public good, it is no coincidence that almost all prefer whatever policy will make them better off.  In other words we are all what economists call “rent seekers,” and the more government does the more opportunities there are for publicly administered and funded private benefit.

This does not mean that government should do nothing, but it does mean that once government gets involved in promoting green energy, for example, solar and wind interests, like fossil fuel interests before them, will press lawmakers to pass laws that advantage their businesses.  Once such laws are passed, as the examples of ethanol subsidies and minimum ethanol content mandates demonstrate, it is extremely difficult to undo them even when it becomes clear that the unintended consequences far outweigh the environmental benefits.

Second, most public policy advocates have a singular focus that leads them willfully to ignore the opportunity costs of their preferred policies.  If reduced carbon emissions are good, no carbon emissions must be better.  The fact that natural gas emits about half as much greenhouse gases as coal does not argue for supporting increased gas production because the lone goal is to eliminate all carbon emissions.

Many years ago William Baxter wrote a little book titled “People or Penguins: The Case for Optimal Pollution.”  No one can seriously claim to favor zero pollution, said Baxter, because the marginal cost of each additional reduction in emissions rises inexorably as we get nearer to zero pollution.  At some point, the opportunity costs of further emissions reduction will outweigh the benefits.  The hard economic facts have not changed since Baxter wrote four decades ago, but nor have the minds of those who continue to urge environmental policies that do more harm than good.

Birds die as a result of all sorts of human activities – everything from habitat destruction to collisions with automobiles.  We have now discovered that they also are incinerated by one solar technology, killed by collisions with another and mangled in the massive blades of wind turbines.  The point is not to curtail any of these activities.  Rather the point is to do our best to account for the opportunity costs of every alternative and to adjust our actions and policies accordingly.  The realities of special interest politics and regulatory sclerosis make such sophisticated policy making extremely challenging.