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A woman walks away from a bus stop during heavy rain (Getty Images)
A woman walks away from a bus stop during heavy rain (Getty Images)

PoliticsOctober 24, 2018

Step two: ignore step one and accept people do give a toss about climate change

A woman walks away from a bus stop during heavy rain (Getty Images)
A woman walks away from a bus stop during heavy rain (Getty Images)

The refrain that climate change is difficult to get people to care about it or, worse, that nobody cares can’t be allowed to go answered, writes David Hall

There’s a rumour going around that “not many people care about climate change”. Fortunately, Danyl Mclauchlan isn’t quite right about this. Unfortunately, his being wrong doesn’t make climate action much easier. But if you’re going to bang your head against a wall, it may as well be the right wall. So let’s do some digging.

Polling shows that the majority of New Zealanders do care about climate change. A 2018 Horizon Research poll found that 64% of respondents believed that climate change was a problem, while 30% thought that it was a problem for later or not one at all. That’s a hefty minority who don’t appear to care about this looming catastrophe, but a minority nevertheless. In a well-functioning democracy, it’s the majority who gets their policy preferred.

Global surveys lean the same way. A 2015 Pew Research Centre global survey found that, across the nations surveyed, 54% say it is a very serious problem, while fully 85% say it is at least a somewhat serious problem.

So people do care about climate change. The real problem is that people’s concerns aren’t translating into action. As the IPCC’s Special Report on 1.5 °C confirmed last week, the world is well off-track for ensuring a safe, stable future climate. The effects are already with us, and will intensify within our lifetimes, and especially the lifetimes of our children. Which begs a rather different question: why do people act like they don’t care about climate change, even when they do?

Eita, Tarawa, Kiribati. Kiribati’s future generations are at risk of potentially lethal sea level rise. Image: Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images.

A few years back, the psychologist Robert Gifford distilled the large literature on climate psychology into what he calls the “dragons of inaction”. These are the facets of the human mind that hold us back from doing something.

Some dragons can actually stop us from caring about climate change, such as political loyalties, mistrust of scientists and elites, numbness to information, and plain old ignorance. Other dragons cause people to repress their concerns about climate change, such as denial, reactance, and the instinct to defend the status quo (known as system justification).

But the vast majority of the “dragons of inaction” are not inconsistent with caring. Rather, they leave us in a state of cognitive dissonance – which is a state that I suspect most readers will recognise. We care about climate change and yet, here we are, carrying on with our high-carbon lifestyles: our ridiculous traffic jams, our unnecessary flights for work and leisure, our coal-powered milk dryers, and so on. We are discomfited, because we know better, but we persist in a state of marginal tragedy by contributing to a problem that we wish we weren’t contributing to.

So what are these dragons that hold us back? There is our discounting of the future (more on this shortly). There is optimism bias – that is, our tendency to believe that things will work out for us, even if not for others. There is our weak sense of self-efficacy: the hunch that our efforts as individuals don’t matter. There are our beliefs in salvation, by God or Elon Musk. There are our diverse values and commitments, which cause disagreement within ourselves as well as among others. There is our tendency to compare ourselves to other people, then to do no more than they do. There is the fallacy of sunk costs – that is, our reluctance to give up financial assets and lifestyles that we’ve long invested in. There are our estimations about the effectiveness of climate policies, and our unwillingness to endorse any policy that – occasionally with good reason – we think won’t work. There are the risks associated with climate action itself, such as our fears that our actions won’t succeed, or that public money will be poorly spent, or that we’ll embarrass ourselves. Finally, there is tokenism, where we act but only by doing the bare minimum.

In all these cases, caring about climate change co-exists with inaction. We care, but we fail to act, or we fail to act with seriousness, because the “dragons of inaction” stand in our way. We need to slay the dragons – but how?

Some dragons aren’t as terrible as they seem. Take, for instance, our tendency to discount the future. In Danyl’s words: “Our brains are hardwired to prefer upfront benefits and deferred costs over upfront costs and deferred gains.” And yet this tendency is subject to substantial cross-cultural difference. A 2012 study, for example, found that Americans discounted the future far more than Koreans. Other studies reinforce this. Already, this looks a lot less like “hardwiring” when circumstance exerts such an influence.

Furthermore, future discounting changes quite dramatically when we shift from monetary to environmental value. Indeed, a 2003 study of climate change attitudes by Laurie Hendricks and others found that almost 50% of people didn’t discount delayed outcomes at all. Subsequent research corroborates this, lending itself to the conclusion that people discount future environmental harms at low levels, or on a decline where only the short-term is discounted and the long-term not at all. The thought is that when people shift from financial to environmental questions, they move from calculative to ethical reasoning, and thereby rely on a richer sense of judgment.

Still, discounting has certainly played a significant role in climate politics, because it was built into our institutions. In his influential and pioneering analyses of the costs of climate change, the American economist William Nordhaus used a relatively high discount rate of 5.5%, declining to a 4% average over the century as a whole. In years since, this has proven controversial. The British economist Lord Nicholas Stern used a far lower discount rate of 1.4% for his 2006 advice to the UK Government, on the moral grounds that we should not so heavily discount the wellbeing of future peoples. In a legendary exchange, Nordhaus chastised Stern for this, accusing him of taking “the lofty vantage point of the world social planner, perhaps stoking the dying embers of the British Empire, in determining the way the world should combat the dangers of global warming.” But Nordhaus, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics just a few weeks ago, faces heavy criticism for the role that his high discount rates might have played in delaying climate action, by convincing policy makers that it made economic sense to delay mitigation costs for as long as possible.

Note what’s going on here. This isn’t so much about how our brains are wired. It’s about the considered choices of economists and policy makers, which are then enshrined into our institutions. These choices involve ethical considerations, but also sometimes questionable assumptions about human nature. Nordhaus insisted that his high discount rates were justified because they reflected people’s “revealed preferences” for financial risk; in other words, they reflected what people do, not what people could do, or should do. On this view, political ambition takes the back seat. Yet as Hendricks warns, “policies based on standard economic theories may not match the preferences of a significant proportion of the population.” Today, the favoured view among climate economists is a declining discount rate, which gives increasing weight to future generations. Gradually – all too gradually – this prior is feeding into policy choices.

Electricity power pylons stand in Rangipo Desert near the State Highway 1 Desert Road on May 6, 2016 in Waiouru, (Photo by Hagen Hopkins)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau began The Social Contract with a classic chicken-and-egg problem. It takes good people to create good law, but it also takes good laws to create good people. Or, let’s flip this on its head: Bad rules and regulations make people behave like arseholes, and arseholes are the last people in the world you can trust to fix a broken system. So how do we break out of this vicious cycle?

The first thing is not to focus on only one side of the equation. Psychology isn’t the whole story. Our institutions and systems are an indelible aspect of climate change – for good and for bad.

Many of these systems – our transport systems, our energy systems, our food systems, our global supply chains – are set up to fail from a climate change perspective. They produce massive amounts of greenhouse gas emissions in their ordinary operations. We might care deeply about climate change, but we can’t easily opt out of these systems, nor change them as individuals. Changing systems is hard graft, because in the course of our daily lives, we depend on them and reinforce them through our dependency.

Here’s an example: it’s obviously possible to care about climate change as well as your grandmother. Yet can it really be said that you no longer care about climate change because you drive your gas-guzzling car to visit her when she’s on her death bed? This isn’t about being uncaring. It’s about being human, being torn between conflicting commitments, and being tangled up in webs of our own making.

We should be allowed to care about incompatible things. We should also be allowed to resent the fact that our transport system is designed such that many of us have no low-emissions options.

Reforming these systems is possible; indeed, we’re already in the process of doing so. Too little too late, to be sure, but change is occurring, domestically and internationally. Still, it isn’t easy to jump from one system to the next, because dominant systems have energetic defenders, not only those who profit from them but also those who rely on them. That’s why there are good reasons to be pessimistic about our chances of stabilising temperatures at 1.5 °C. The transition to a low-emissions economy will be hard because changing systems is hard. It is socially and politically demanding.

On the upside, if we change our systems, then our psychologies – for all their flaws – can come along for the ride.

Over the millennia, human beings have found many workarounds for our dragons of inaction. History is arguably a better guide here than psychology. Why do people build pyramids or cathedrals, when neither the builders nor the decision makers will be around to see the finished product? Why do people go to war, when the upfront costs (your life, your husband, your taxes) are so steep, and the deferred gains (God, nation, Queen) are so nebulous?

The answers lie in aspects of political life that Western policy makers are mostly reticent about these days: religion, patriotism, hierarchy, coercion, communalism, and so on. But you can be sure that when the costs of climate change seriously kick in, these old ways of doing politics will stage a comeback. The real question is whether democracy can save itself first, by providing some pre-emptive solutions. A good place to start is changing the rules of our institutions, such as our discount rates, our fiduciary requirements, and our conceptions of value.

Danyl is right to observe that change could come from all quarters. Legal activism and political protest is bound to play a role. I would also include the growing expectation that public and private actors report and disclose their climate risks for investments and assets. Also the emergence of what Jon Elster described as “Ulysses contracts”, where we tie ourselves to certain masts – such as superannuation schemes or declining caps on global oil supply – in order to avoid the siren call of our impulses. And I hope that we’ll see smarter leveraging of co-benefits: for example, if we reduced excessive fertiliser use for the sake of freshwater, we could significantly reduce agricultural emissions without even uttering the words “climate change”.

Eco-entrepreneurialism will play a role too, including the race for a market-busting synthetic meat. Indeed, we are already on the tipping point for one such technological shock, as solar PV, wind and battery technologies decline in costs and start to outcompete fossil fuels. The influential Carbon Tracker Initiative predicts that a “market leapfrog” will occur in the 2020s, causing fossil fuel demand to peak and investors to flee from fossil fuels assets currently valued around US$25 trillion.

But it is worth highlighting how this energy transition is occurring. Governments, for all their culpability in contributing to this crisis (especially through fossil fuel subsidies), are already carrying the costs and risks of change. As Mariana Mazzucato and Gregor Semieniuk have shown, the renewable energy boom has been driven substantially by public investment, especially by providing capital that is patient, mission-oriented and tolerant of risk. New Zealand’s Government is currently recalibrating our research and investment sector – through the Green Investment Fund, the Provincial Growth Fund, the Sustainable Wealth Initiative, the Endeavour Fund and more – to accelerate such change.

Our governments will be a part of the story, because they’re already part of the story. This isn’t to suggest that our policy makers have always made the right policy choices with the right level of haste, because I don’t believe that. What I do believe is that, despite the narrow political window, reform is ongoing – and without decisive political backlash.

This shouldn’t be surprising. UMR polling shows that 62% of New Zealanders want the government to do more about climate change, compared to 10% who think less. Their polling also shows that, in principle at least, more New Zealanders than not are willing to paying more for petrol and electricity in order to deal with climate change. Of course, any carbon pricing policy that relies upon ordinary people being fleeced by fossil fuel companies is never going to win hearts and minds – a point that few commentators seem to grasp in the recent debate of petrol prices. But a well-designed policy that, for instance, recycles tax revenue into a “climate dividend”, or reinvests money into climate adaptation projects, might align with most people’s concerns.

My view is that we’ve only barely begun on the path to well-designed policy, internationally and domestically. The Zero Carbon Bill has promise, but let’s see where it lands. The point is that if climate policy has legitimacy, integrity and a standard of care for those it affects, then there are no laws – political or psychological – to say that people aren’t cognitively capable of bearing a burden for some greater good. It is a question of degree, purpose, and success.

Again, look to history to see what is possible. When Britain wound down its slave trade in the late 18th century, its economy was thoroughly invested in the practice. Slave-harvested sugar from the West Indies alone accounted for nearly 5% of British national income. The slave trade itself was a giant industry, involving sailors, shipbuilders, blacksmiths, merchants and financial houses like Lloyds and Barclays. Yet in a messy and imperfect fashion, Britain reduced its dependence on slavery, driven by a decades-long campaign that combined an idiosyncratic leadership with sustained public pressure. The economic convenience of slavery gave way, just as the convenience of fossil fuels eventually will too.

Human nature is tough to change – that’s a truism. It’s our nature after all. But adaptability is at the heart of human nature. We achieve this through language, rules and technologies. This is the stuff that differentiates us from other animals.

It might well be our fate to only properly adapt as a matter of circumstance, when the shit really hits the fan. Yet as the IPCC Special Report confirms, the shit is already hitting the fan. Globally, people think this too: 51% of people already believe that climate change is harming people around the world now. In New Zealand, a recent report for Treasury estimated that, over the last 10 years, climate change-related floods and droughts have already cost the New Zealand economy at least $840 million.

In this context, future discounting becomes increasingly irrelevant. The costs become clear and present. Short-termism may well be an institutional failing of democracies, but, as David Runciman writes, “when the fictions of environmental disaster turn to fact, democratic politics can be expected to snap out of it. That is one of democracy’s strengths: chaos and violence brings out the best in it.”

In the meantime, let’s try to avoid it coming to this. Every form of change – whether individual or systemic – helps to break us from the bind we’re in.

Keep going!