We can no longer hide the fact that human systems have become as integral and defining a component of this planet’s processes as are biological, atmospheric, hydrologic, and geologic systems. We all know that.

The following is an abstract of a paper from participants in the symposium, “Innovations in Environmental Policy,” sponsored by the University of Illinois.

More than fifty years, judge and judicial philosopher Learned Hand, asserted that a reasonable person takes any precaution that is less burdensome than the probability that some harm will occur multiplied by the magnitude of the harm. Presumably, a reasonable society does the same. That society should be willing to undertake precautions to avoid catastrophic events, even if they are unlikely to occur. Over the past few decades, however, social and cognitive psychologists studying human judgment and choice have learned that reasonable people sometimes fail to make reasonable choice.

Cognitive limitations on human judgment and choice can lead people to make decisions that produce unwanted outcomes. Psychologists worry that these limitations can similarly lead entire societies into a massive social trap that society is unlikely to resolve through conventional approaches.

The first few decades of the new millennium will witness massive shifts in rainfall patterns, a rising sea level that threatens to inundate coastal communities, and a dramatic increase in the frequency and severity of storms. These horrors could make many heavily populated regions virtually uninhabitable and turn valuable farmland into deserts. Coping with adverse climate change has the potential to drain the resources of wealthy nations and dash the prospects for economic improvements in poor ones.

Global climate has multiple causes, the principal one is the combustion of fossil fuel that have been the lifeblood of the industrial revolution that has brought prosperity to many nations and the promise of prosperity to the rest of the world. Ironically, because of the potential impact of fossil fuel consumption on the global climate, fossil fuels might also become the principal cause of poverty in the next century.

Hopefully, the recognition of the adverse consequences of global climate change will lead to the development of an international consensus to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels. Just as many nations refrain from violating standards against aggressive use of military force or violation of human rights, even when doing so would be expeditious, the next century might witness the development of an international environmental ethic as a response to global climate change.

Several psychological phenomena of judgment, however, support a more pessimistic prediction of humanity’s ability to respond effectively to the threat of global climate change. 

First, because the scientific community lacks a consensus on the degree of climate change that the planet will experience, society is unlikely to achieve a consensus on the need to undertake costly preventive measures. 

Second, even if a consensus emerges that the problem requires costly solutions, other psychological phenomena suggest that people will still be unwilling to undertake such solutions.

WHY, then?

1) People become attached to their current level of prosperity; they feel entitled to what they have, which makes any solution that requires significant cutbacks in the economic status quo unacceptable.

2) The human brain has only a limited ability to process the infinitely complicated array of stimuli that people face. As a consequence, people develop shortcuts and rules of thumb to make judgments that are generally quite accurate but can lead to error. Uncertainty over the consequences of fossil fuel combustion for the global climate creates a psychological impediment to undertaking precautions to reduce the risk of global climate change.

3) People see environmental hazards as either mammoth threats that society should eradicate at any cost or as trivial hype they should ignore.

4) Although many factors produce this all-or-nothing reaction to environmental threats, one of the most significant is the human tendency toward consistency in beliefs. People process new information in ways that are consistent with their existing beliefs about the world, making belief structures relatively stable and resistant to change. This tendency is arguably rational, yet it leads to some counterintuitive consequences, such as the phenomenon social psychologists refer to as biased assimilation. Biased assimilation is the tendency to embrace evidence that supports one’s beliefs and reject evidence that is inconsistent with one’s beliefs. One consequence of biased assimilation is that mixed evidence on a topic about which people have strong beliefs will not only fail to moderate people’s views but will tend to make these views more extreme. Unlike air and water pollution, global climate change is a somewhat intangible harm that can only be understood in the context of scientific theory. Biased assimilation predicts that many people will remain skeptical, and this skepticism will make it unlikely that governments will regulate or tax carbon emissions.

5) Even if a scientific consensus emerges, society might still be unwilling to undertake expensive precautions to reduce the likelihood of a catastrophic change in the world’s climate. Psychologists and behavioral economists have discovered that people are reluctant to undertake activities that change the status quo for the worse. People treat a potential loss from the status quo as more significant than a potential gain from the status quo. People also make riskier choices when faced with losses rather than gains. This tendency makes people relatively unwilling to sacrifice benefits they already possess to obtain other benefits.

Each of these psychological phenomena impedes society’s ability to undertake precautions to reduce the risk of global climate change.

The path will not be a smooth one, however, as scientists will surely continue to generate conflicting evidence on the dangers posed by global climate change, thereby making it difficult to form a consensus on the issue. Furthermore, even if a consensus emerges that global warming poses a serious threat, people will be reluctant to endure economic losses to reduce the risk of global climate change. In addition, the tendency to make risky choices in the face of loss suggests that people will prefer to gamble that global climate change will not occur. Even if most countries decide that global climate change is a threat that is worth undertaking significant losses to avert, the cognitive phenomena associated with loss will make an international agreement to reduce fossil fuel consumption difficult to negotiate.

The psychological phenomena described in this article seem to be preventing countries from taking reasonable precautions against the risk of global climate change. As predicted by the research on biased assimilation, there is a lack of consensus in many of the countries that should be leading the world in efforts to reduce rates of consumption of fossil fuels.

The best source of a remedy for global climate change is not the conventional remedies for commons dilemmas but a dramatic effort to eliminate the commons dilemma itself. Government-led investment in alternative energy sources is more sensible than pursuing a program of regulation or taxation or hoping consumers will shun fossil fuels. Rather than try to fight psychological (and economic) pressures to continue consuming fossil fuels, the development of alternative means of generating electricity takes advantage of people’s innate desire to develop and advance their condition and that of their children.

In the past, when technological exigencies have arisen, the United States has been able to marshal its best scientists to make miraculous scientific advances. The United States was able to construct an atomic bomb, develop the polio vaccine, and send humans to the moon, all under severe time constraints. Global climate change represents a similar exigency. Rather than spend public resources promoting green electricity or negotiating the next round of global climate change treaties, the United States should commit itself to developing a cheap alternative to fossil fuels. Instead of trying to conquer the social and cognitive limitations of the human mind, such a program would take advantage of human motivation, determination, and imagination. The alternative is to convert every barrel of oil and every ton of coal into carbon dioxide and hope that the pessimistic climatologists are mistaken. 

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