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

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 effected 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. —> Read More