Ecocentric

Why We Don’t Care About Saving Our Grandchildren From Climate Change

A new study shows that human beings are too selfish to endure present pain to avert future climate change. That's why we need win-win solutions now

  • Share
  • Read Later
Attila Kisbenedek / AFP / Getty Images

Some 30,000 people demonstrate in the center of Copenhagen on Dec. 12, 2009 to turn up the heat on world leaders debating global warming at the U.N. climate conference

You want to know what the biggest obstacle to dealing with climate change is? Simple: time. It will take decades before the carbon dioxide we emit now begins to have its full effect on the planet’s climate. And by the same token, it will take decades before we are able to enjoy the positive climate effects of reducing carbon-dioxide emissions now. (Even if we could stop emitting all CO₂ today, there’s already future warming that’s been baked into the system, thanks to past emission.) But we will feel the economic effects of either emitting or restricting CO₂ right now, in real time. While we can argue about the relative cost of reducing CO₂ emissions now — just as we can argue about the economic effects of climate change in the future — it should be clear that any attempt to restrict CO₂ emissions enough to make a dent in future climate change will cause some present-day economic pain. The global economy is still so dependent on relatively inexpensive fossil fuels that a quick transition to renewable sources would likely be costly in the short term. (See Naomi Klein’s 2011 piece in The Nation for a fairly clear-eyed view of what truly radical climate policy would mean.)

What that means, in effect, is that climate policy asks the present to sacrifice for the future. Human beings tend not to be very good at that kind of planning, even when their own future selves stand to benefit — a study this year found that just 10% of Americans have saved enough in a 401(k) or individual retirement account to put themselves on a track to retire. When it comes to climate change, the worst effects will be felt years after many people today are long gone. From a self-centered perspective, that makes strict climate policy like saving for a retirement you know you’ll never live to see.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that a new study in Nature Climate Change confirms the fact that the kind of long-term cooperation demanded by effective climate policy is going to be even more challenging than we thought.

(MORE: Cold Years in the Future Could Be Hotter Than the Hottest Years Now)

American and German researchers led by Jennifer Jacquet of New York University put together a collective-risk group experiment that is centered around climate change. Here’s how it worked. Each subject in groups with six participants was given a $55 operating fund. The experiment went 10 rounds, and during each round, they were allowed to choose one of three options: invest $0, $2.75 or $5.50 into a climate account. The participants were told that the total amount contributed would go to fund an advertisement on climate change in a German newspaper. If at the end of the 10 rounds, the group reached a target of $165 — or about $27 per person — they were considered to have successfully averted climate change, and each participant was given an additional $60 dollars. (If the numbers seem rough, it’s because I’m converting from euros — the currency used in the experiment — and rounding off.) If the group failed to reach the $165 target, there was a 90% probability that they wouldn’t get the additional payout. As a group, members would be better off if they collectively invested enough to reach that $165 target — otherwise they wouldn’t get the payout — but individually, members could benefit by keeping their money to themselves while hoping the rest of the group would pay enough to reach the target. (That’s the so-called free-rider phenomenon, and it’s a major challenge for climate policy.)

Here’s the twist, though: that $60 dollar endowment was paid out on three different time horizons. In one treatment, the cash was given to the groups the next day. In the second treatment, it was given seven weeks later. And in the third treatment, the cash was instead invested in planting oak trees that would sequester carbon — but since those trees wouldn’t be fully grown for years, all the benefit would accrue to future generations, not the current players in the experiment. The difference between that third treatment and the first and second is what’s known as “intergenerational discounting,” which happens when the benefits of an action in the present are highly diluted and mostly spread among many people in the future. Which, as it happens, is pretty much how climate policy would work.

(MORE: The Hard Math of Flood Insurance in a Warming World)

Unsurprisingly, the more delayed the payout was, the less likely the experimental groups would put enough money away to meet the goal to stop climate change. Even among those who knew they’d get the payout the next day, only seven of 10 groups invested sufficient funds, while none of the 11 groups who knew their endowment would be invested in planting trees gave enough money to “stop” climate change. While this is just one experiment, the results do not bode well for humanity’s ability to come together to stop climate change. As the authors write:

Applying our results to international climate-change negotiations paints a sobering picture. Owing to intergenerational discounting, cooperation will be greatly undermined if, as in our setting, short-term gains can arise only from defection. This suggests the necessity of introducing powerful short-term incentives to cooperate, such as punishment, reward or reputation, in experimental research as well as in international endeavors to mitigate climate change.

Fortunately, short-term incentives for fighting climate change do exist. It takes decades to benefit from reductions in carbon-dioxide emissions, but phasing out fossil fuels like coal and oil can bring immediate improvements in air pollution. And air pollution has turned out to be even more dangerous than experts thought, with the World Health Organization last week declaring that bad air is a leading environmental cause of cancer, comparable to secondhand smoke.

The Nature Climate Change study also underscores why “win-win” climate policies — like innovation investments that can lead directly to cheap clean energy, rather than policies that make dirty energy more expensive — are likely to be the most effective ones. Barring a species-wide personality change, few of us will be willing to endure present pain so that our grandchildren won’t have to endure an unlivable climate. We’re likely better off tailoring solutions that work with our selfishness and brief attention span, rather than hoping we suddenly become better, more farsighted people.

MORE: The Benefits and Perils of Energy Abundance

349 comments
TheSteelGeneral
TheSteelGeneral

OR .... we can do BOTH innovation investments that lead directly to cheap clean energy, AND have policies that make dirty energy more expensive.

Is "your gas guzzler is paying for my hybrid" really such a hard policy to sell?

I guess when Big Oil is allowed to bribe politicians, it is.

KenKennemur
KenKennemur

climate change has happened from the beginning and will go from one extreme to the other regardless what we do. Its all about power one group trying to take power from the other. I personally don't give a crap about climate change and laugh at the idiots running around saying the sky is falling.

James_P
James_P

@KenKennemur You obviously don't know what you are talking about, Ken. I'm not sure who brainwashed you into believing this is about power groups. All it takes is some global traveling to notice the very prominent and often visually upsetting impact human activity is having on the natural world. The 40 billion tons of carbon we pump into the atmosphere each year is having a very, very negative effect on our planet, ourselves and the multitude of other species which live here. I suggest instead of making negative comments which display your overall ignorance, you should try to help be a part of the solution rather than part of the problem. You can start by watching the award-winning documentary "Chasing Ice". This should shed a little bit of light on the reality of the situation for you.

KarlJenner
KarlJenner

@James_P @KenKennemur yopu obviously have never heard of the 'carbon cycle', ignored NASA's observations that there's been a recent 14% increase in planetary plant growth and coverage, that when the weather warms, CO2 outgasses from water (it's ore soluble in cold water), that of the 12,000 known glaciers, we only study the 120 or so that are actually receding, that Antarctica's ice layer has been increasing the last 30 years (aside from the West, above the recently discovered ring of volcanoes) that plants plundered the air of CO2 eons back, which is why there's only 0.04% in the air, that the trillions of tonnes of locked up carbon (coal) is a result of plants squandering the resource - that C4 plants have evolved and are able to strip CO2 levels down to zero, that when C3 plants have adequate CO2, they do not need to pump water, and at 0.15% plant water consumption drops as much as 90%.. more CO2 is good for the world, there's more regrowth now than ever before and farming land is being lost at a record rate as forests reclaim it - what isn't good is consumerism squandering their energy on unnecessary items, what isn't good is the millions that die due to inadequate food distribution, the millions that die from malaria, wood smoke from fires because they don't have cheap electricity,  the push for ineficiient power production methods we abandoned years ago because they were inadequate.. just as we abandoned electric cars.  We really need better science education these days.. And that's not to mean more science degrees, but more teaching of the principles of the philosophy of science - that 'theories' can only be scientific if they can be falsified (ie, models are not tools of science) and that science seeks to falsify not to prove - it's a method of learning by dispelling mistruths and myths. 

hellonorbu
hellonorbu

The problem is modern Western philosophical traditions that don't understand reincarnation.  From a Buddhist (or Hindu or Taoist or Indigenous) perspective, not planning for our future lives is insane because we will have had and will have many thousands of lives on this planet.  Why sacrifice all of that for just this one?


This is also the reason why we have difficulty defending our traditions in the short term - because Western systems encourage reckless and aggressive behavior that is not restrained by common sense.  They destroy the sacred visions of the world and leave no thought for the future.  This leads to a sense of arrogance that is entirely misplaced, since they are destroying themselves as well as others.


Facing this problem requires calm deliberation and an attitude of overcoming these dangerous delusions while saving those who practice them.  The only thing we have on our side is time.  We can keep some coherence from life time to life time, like societal secret agents, whereas unfortunately many of those with a Western view often fall into lower states such as animals or persons without much power.  Sadly, planetary disruptions like climate change mean time is of the essence.

SustainLandDev
SustainLandDev

We Do Care!

The mission of Archangel Ancient Tree Archive (http://www.ancienttreearchive.org/) is to:

Propagate the world’s most important old growth trees before they are gone.

Archive the genetics of ancient trees in living libraries around the world for the future.

Reforest the Earth with the offspring of these trees to provide the myriad of beneficial ecosystem services essential for all life forms to thrive including releasing oxygen, sequestering carbon dioxide, providing beneficial aerosols and medicines: essentially a global warming solution.


In addition to our everyday activities, our major accomplishments over the past year include:

  • Cloning ancient Champion Coast Redwoods and planting them in six different countries around the world
  • Establishing the world’s 1st cloned Champion Redwood and Sequoia grove in Oregon to assist migration during climate change
  • Global media messaging reaching over two hundred million people in one hundred fifty countries
  • Rolling out an international organization by beginning to establish a registered charity in Europe
  • Initiating an effort to write K–12 educational curriculum inspired by the book The Man Who Planted Trees: Lost Groves, Champion Trees, and an Urgent Plan to Save the Planet

RosanaLeite
RosanaLeite

When the water gets to the neck, people learn to swim.

TheSteelGeneral
TheSteelGeneral

@RosanaLeite no. people will drown, throwing their hands up, and scream, we did the best we could, while they haven't.

dilip
dilip

Wrong! Sorry if that is a bit abrupt but there it is ! "It will take decades before the carbon dioxide we emit now begins to have its full effect on the planet’s climate."  If that was really the case 'fracking' would not occupy the importance in the economy that it does at present. Fracking is an act of desperation. Each well needs between 1 million to 5 million gallons of fresh water. (The equivalent of 3.5 million to 17.5 million litres!) The sad part about it is that the water used for fracking cannot be used again for any useful purpose including agriculture, it is not economically viable. About 80% of the water that is used returns to the surface with the oil or natural gas, and then (ideally) has to be sequestered for the next two thousand years. What happens to the twenty percent of the contaminated water that remains in the ground is anyone's guess, but horrific stories of devastated prime farm land seem to indicate that it is nothing good. If any nation can think that fouling our fresh water sources so that they can never again be used is worth the fuel, things have reached a sorry state.



DallasSnellSr.
DallasSnellSr.

Just as natures slug leaves behind a trail of slime mankind creates trash and toxic pollution.  Why does a slug leave a trail of slime?

DallasSnellSr.
DallasSnellSr.

Since mankind is part of Nature and our nature is found on this planet we can say global warming is a natural event. Period. 

James_P
James_P

@DallasSnellSr. That's a very narrow view of looking at the situation, Dallas. I presume by your comment that you'll be perfectly fine with leaving a f**ked up world to your grandkids?

StevenEarlSalmony
StevenEarlSalmony

The AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population was founded in 2001. Since that moment I have seen it as a moral imperative to continue the work I’ve been doing for many years now: getting the message out and explaining to as many people as possible that human overpopulation of the Earth is occurring on our watch, that it poses profound existential risks for future human well being, life as we know it and environmental health, and that robust action is required starting here, starting now to honestly acknowledge, humanely address and eventually overcome.

beancrisp
beancrisp

FACT: Human activity does not cause or affect climate change.

solvealltheproblems
solvealltheproblems

NOT BUYING IT.  Most studies at universities use student participants - young people in their teens and twenties. In this demographic, self-centredness is 'developmentally correct' behaviour.  I would be more interested in the results of a study comparing these results to the same experiment run using subjects who are parents. 

AnthonyGumbrell
AnthonyGumbrell

America (which is us) is hugely wasteful. We can cut carbon emissions right away by curtailing waste. The Europeans know this and have been doing it for years. Americans are exceptional i.e. puerile. Americans actually enjoy inefficiency and waste. It is called conspicuous consumption and conspicuous waste. Monster trucks, huge SUVs, and humvees driven for personal transportation, i.e. just to get from point A to point B, are prime examples. In Europe where gasoline may cost from $8 to $10 per gallon it is a whole different deal. The squandering American wasteful party needs to be over. Americans are like spoiled children who want corporal punishment because they are so selfish and immature.

ConwaytheContaminationist
ConwaytheContaminationist

@AnthonyGumbrell Well, I, for one, don't own a monster truck, a SUV, or a Humvee. I drive a clapped out old Ford sedan that's pretty good on gas, and easy for me to fix.

I do agree that most Americans are mindless drones addicted to consumption, which is obtuse.

TheSteelGeneral
TheSteelGeneral

@ConwaytheContaminationist @AnthonyGumbrell oh, YOU don't own a monstertruck! The problem is solved!!! nobody owns a monster truck so ... we're SAVED

karenatwork1
karenatwork1

But even the money argument doesn't add up as we can enjoy immediate benefits and savings of about $5,000 per person per year right now just by going green. Logic favours going green right now  for enormous savings, better health and longevity.  Sheep take a long time to change direction.

TheSteelGeneral
TheSteelGeneral

@karenatwork1 their resistance is EMOTIONAL not logical:
"But .... I CAN'T do what that LIBRUL black is telling me to do because .... it don't FEEL right!!! AAAARGH!!"