Three reasons we can’t agree on climate change

It's human nature to delay change to ensure gratification today and mankind simply doesn't play well together

SALMON ARM, B.C. Nov. 24, 2016/ Troy Media/ – What should we do about fossil fuels and climate change?

It’s difficult for society to agree on a course of action for a variety of reasons, including these three:

Instant versus delayed gratification

All of us make choices daily about whether to act for immediate benefit or invest in future benefits. It’s a struggle that crosses many basic lines, including food, exercise, finance and relationships.

Behaviour psychologists show us that when we make decisions to invest in the future and delay gratification, we’re more successful. But for many, perhaps most, the pain of discipline is too high when the opportunity of gratification is at hand.

When we think about this struggle in terms of climate change, we can boil it down to whether we’re willing to accept short-term pain for long-term gain – or, more modestly, long-term sustain.

As an example, the debate about oil transport – through pipelines, on trains and trucks, or in ships – is highly charged.

Those who support these developments see oil and gas exploration as an important economic development that can mitigate the pain of unemployment, decrease personal and national debt, and bring about greater security through energy sovereignty.

Those who oppose such development generally cite the risks to water and to future generations. They liken it to a disease that we shouldn’t treat with short-term painkillers. These folks would rather bite the bullet today and cure the cause so that the pain will be less in the future.

History shows that more often than not we value commodity production and consumption in the present far more than the potential future benefits of conservation, which feel like a missed opportunity today. Consider the massive deforestation in the Amazon basin to produce beef, despite the knowledge that this unsustainable practice carries a huge environmental cost. But conservation isn’t likely to put meals on the table and so the trade-off continues.

We do the same with money. Many of us don’t save because we value our current self more than our future self. Economists came up with a way of accounting for this – it’s called the discount rate. Essentially, it means that money in hand today is more valuable than money in the future. Even having a commitment device like “doing it for future generations” isn’t always enough of a reward for us today.

Tragedy of the commons

Economist William Forster Lloyd first wrote about this in 1833. The tragedy of the commons is an economic theory of a situation within a shared-resource system, where individual users acting independently according to their own self-interest behave contrary to the common good of all users by depleting that resource through their collective action.

The Paris Agreement is a global attempt to overcome the tragedy of our commons – the anthropogenic acceleration of climate change on Earth – by acting collectively for the greater good despite the short-term discomfort we will inflict on ourselves.

But with recent rhetoric from U.S. president-elect Donald Trump that he will cancel the Paris accord, what will other nations do?

A lot of people say if the U.S. isn’t reducing emissions or imposing a carbon tax, why should we? We’ll just be hurting ourselves for no benefit.

This harkens back to my first point – the choice between immediate or delayed gratification.

Warrior mentality

Julia Galef, the president and co-founder of the Center for Applied Rationality, gives a [popup url=”” height=”1000″ width=”1200″ scrollbars=”1″]TED Talk[/popup] that points directly at this: “Why you think you’re right – even if you’re wrong.”

If you want to believe something, you’ll find justification for it to prove your point. Galef points out “our judgment is strongly influenced, unconsciously, by which side we want to win. And this is ubiquitous. This shapes how we think about our health, our relationships, how we decide how to vote, what we consider fair or ethical.”

While it’s possible that the vast majority of scientists studying climate change could be wrong, it’s unlikely.

Still, there are those who don’t accept this perspective – probably because accepting it wouldn’t support their priorities. So tremendous effort is taken to discredit and find technicalities that introduce uncertainty, in order to delay acting on climate.

It reminds me of the decades of experiments to identify smoking as harmful to your health. Yet studies still come out today disputing this, citing George Burns and his cigars as proof.

And so society continues to struggle for consensus, never mind cohesive action, on climate change.

Barry Wilson is a systems ecologist and cumulative effects expert.

Barry is a Troy Media [popup url=”” height=”1000″ width=”1000″ scrollbars=”1″]contributor[/popup]. [popup url=”” height=”600″ width=”600″ scrollbars=”1″] Why aren’t you?[/popup]

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One Response to "Three reasons we can’t agree on climate change"

  1. Avatar
    Kurt Johnson - Social system physicist   November 25, 2016 at 8:18 am

    Dear Editor: Thanks for the article. However, I’m confident it arrives at faulty conclusions. Though ‘the tragedy of the commons’ can be viewed as a consequence of humans acting in self-interest, appearance is deceiving. The article implies our problems are due to a faulty human psyche – the predisposition to act in self-interest – and suggests if we don’t learn to set self-interest aside and work to the ‘common good’ we’ll not solve climate change. Not so.

    All human beings act in self-interest. It’s not a fault but the genius of the universe at work. From atoms to apes the universe, which is nothing but elegant sustainable systems, can be described as operating by leveraging the principle of self-interest, where everything in one way or another is motivated and empowered to a achieve a condition it prefers over alternatives. That’s why chemistry works. Nothing but some humans is asked to sacrifice or ‘delay gratification.’

    No sustainable system in existence gives evidence of conceiving a ‘central plan of achievement’ for itself which (almost) all the actors must surrenderself-interest to achieve. What evidence exists to suggest such a plan for us when it hasn’t for the last 10,000 years?

    The fault is not in humanity. It’s in the plan. Specifically, in our social systems, the systems we build to organize ourselves – the systems we ask ourselves to surrender self-interest to.

    Social systems are fundamental process of the universe. They’re the mechanism that makes it possible to unleash billions upon billions of self-directed, self-interested actors such as atoms or living organisms into a system – unmanaged – and have that system be a sustainable system, or one in which the actions of the actors creates the conditions which enable the system to endure as long as its environment will permit.

    Our social systems contradict the physics of sustainable systems, which is why they and our environment collapse over and over.

    We only need to learn the physics of social systems in order to build viable social systems whereupon it will become self-evident self-interest in human beings is not contradictory but vital to the sustained human experience. And we’ll find out human nature is as it is for letting us play we together and enduringly.

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