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Climate Change Action Hampered by Shortsightedness, Schelling Was Right

Addressing Climate Change, Not for OUR Benefit, but THEIRS
Addressing Climate Change, Not for OUR Benefit, but THEIRS

Our ability to make decisions today, such as addressing climate change, for a future that we may not even live to see, better conditions for our children or even grandchildren, is hampered by the fact that our collective brains can’t handle that kind of reward.

Ask someone today if they would give you $1 for a piece of cake tomorrow, and the answer might very well be “Yes.” Ask that same person to give you $1 for two pieces of cake next month, and the answer might be “Maybe.” Ask that same person, again, for $1 for 500 pieces of cake for the grandchildren of everyone in a neighborhood 3,000 miles away, fifty years from now, and the answer is probably “Are you kidding me?” [Now, if I have $3 to make 503 pieces of cake and invested it wisely, I could make 5,000 pieces of cake with that kind of money after fifty years.] Sadly, when it comes to addressing climate change, this is exactly the kind of decision that people are faced with.

Thomas Schelling, Nobel Laureate in Economics 1995, wrote an essay regarding how people manage collective risk, and the same principles apply in today’s fight against climate change. Every time you mention green power, such as renewable energy installations, fuel-efficient vehicles, cleaning up or shutting down dirty power plants, or stopping fossil-fuel extraction, the short-sighted response is “but it will be so expensive!” That’s the third scenario, the 500 pieces of cake fifty years from now. According to Schelling, human beings simply don’t understand rewards that don’t come within a short period of time. Sure, some people might be able to put in their dollar for a reward a few years from now, but decades? Unfortunately, according to social experiments run by researchers at the Max Planck Institute, Schelling was absolutely right about human ability to address climate change, as well, another collective risk problem.

Unfortunately, if we’re going to get people excited about, and ready to invest in, addressing climate change, the reward system just isn’t going to work. There has to be some other carrot. [No one wants imaginary carrots.] There are some world governments that provide incentives for electric vehicles, green energy projects, and the like, could that be a step in the right direction?

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