In the Long Run, Who Is Ultimately Affected By Climate Change?

05/28/2015 01:45 pm ET | Updated May 28, 2016
Daniele Zanni/Flickr

I keep reading papers about cognitive theories and climate change that strike me as, by and large, wildly optimistic about the lessons of behavioral economics, neuro-economics, as well as evolutionary psychology to provide a basis for changing people's behavior. "Wildly optimistic" because authors seem to me to be oversold on these approaches and seduced into thinking the problem of climate behavior is just that we have failed to see some key switch that these theories uncover. Wish that it was so easy! Of the three, behavioral economics is the only one that has delivered anything approaching a set of empirically reliable findings but they are incredibly piecemeal and constitute nothing approaching a comprehensive alternative to the "standard" model.

All of that said, I am struck again and again by two features of our constitution that make things so hard. One is this: we are much more responsive to appeals in terms of the local effects of climate as opposed to universal effects or effects on others. That is a problem if you live in an area that is comparatively unaffected by prospective climate change (and lots are especially in the developing world given its location and adaptive wealth). But the trouble goes beyond making the salient effects of climate on the "other" real for "us" when the other lives far from our environs. For the real other affected by climate change are those of future generations -- and not just the next generation or the one after that.

To see the problem, imagine (if you don't have any yet) your grandchildren. Think of providing for their well being in your will. Now do the same for their children. And their children. And so on. See how soon you become indifferent even if they are your genetic descendants. I can only keep it up for 2 generations. So the first problem is that it is very hard to feel anything for those who will be most affected by our actions. The second cognitive problem is the challenge of climate is (at least in part) one of dealing with a low risk, high cost outcome. If I tell you there is a non-zero chance of truly cataclysmic ecological collapse, you ought to pay heed as a rational action -- however low the probability, as long as it is not zero, the high cost will swamp it out creating an obvious choice to act to avoid it. But we are not making that obvious choice. Here is why (I think): we actually face low probability, high cost alternatives every day -- when I cross the street I may be run down by a car. When I fly, the plane may crash. When I eat out, I may get botulism. And on and on. Now all of these may cancel each other out. If I have to travel, all kinds of travel carry potential (low probability) deadly worst case scenarios. They have different probabilities, but that difference gets washed out by the size of the cost -- especially if you attach an infinite cost to the loss of your own life! So I suspect we are just not very good at making such assessments -- even when doing so could count for a lot.