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By Global Public Square staff
China has brought us a new English word: "Airpocalypse."
The northeastern city of Harbin was paralyzed last week by terrible smog and air pollution. Visibility was down to just a few meters. Highways and schools were closed, the airport was shut down. Pedestrians could barely get around. The images are a vivid reminder of the impacts of industrial growth, especially when powered by dirty fuels like coal, which accelerates not only pollution but also climate change.
The latest report from the United Nation’s scientific panel says it is “extremely likely” – more than a 95 percent probability – that human activity was the dominant cause of the temperature increases of the last few decades. Another study, published in Nature, showed that we are on track to reach unprecedented highs of temperature by 2047. Findings showed the coldest year in the future would be warmer than the hottest year of the past.
So, if the science is not really in dispute, why is it so difficult for us to actually do something about it? There’s a clever explanation. To understand it, we need to tell you about one more study. This one is a game –but one played with real money.
Six participants get 40 euros each to invest in a “climate account.” Every round, these players get to pick one of three options – either they put 4 euros, 2 euros, or zero money, into the account. The investments are anonymous, but the participants can see the total amount going into the pot.
Here's the objective. If, at the end of ten rounds, the pot of money grows to 120 euros – which is about 20 euros a person – then the team has successfully averted "dangerous climate change" – in other words, it wins the game. Each participant gets a 45 euro prize in addition to the money they each have leftover. But if the pot does NOT grow big enough, the team loses the game, and they don't get the prize – and remember, this is real money, so the players have a real incentive to win.
The game was played with three different sets of rules. In the first scenario, the 45 euro award would be handed to the participants the next day. Seven out of 10 groups won the game. In Scenario 2, the cash would be paid out seven weeks later. This time, only four of the 11 groups succeeded. In the third, the prize money would go toward planting oak trees, which would sequester carbon, and thus provide the greatest benefit to future generations.
What happened? Zero of 11 groups reached the target.
The study was published in Nature Climate Change this week. The report's lead author, Jennifer Jacquet of New York University, expanded on the findings when we spoke with her.
First, people instinctively seek instant benefits. They don't want them later and certainly not when the rewards would be reaped by future generations. Second, it was important that the participants were anonymous. If their contributions were known, they'd likely be shamed into contributing more.
It's a simple idea, but it highlights why dealing with climate change is hard, and also why many economic reforms are hard. People are very reluctant to accept short term pain for long term gain. To apply that to climate change: what immediate incentive do nations have to say, tax carbon or invest in infrastructure that would make cities more resilient to storms and floods?
No matter what the strategy – adaptation, clean energy, carbon taxes – someone has problems with them and few actually get done. Similarly, look at entitlement or pension reform. These involve specific costs today for broad benefits in the out years. And they’re all very hard.
It wasn't always thus. The great sociologist Daniel Bell once wrote that the best way to describe the Protestant ethic that produced capitalism and the industrial revolution and the Rise of the West was one phrase, two words – delayed gratification. But there are few Calvinists left today, and the spirit of our age might be better described with one word change – instant gratification.