People are often highly motivated to avoid threats. If you are walking down a dark, isolated city street, you are vigilant for unexpected sights and sounds and probably pick up the pace to get back to a populated area as quickly as possible. If you step into the street and see a bus bearing down on you, you jump back. If a large unfamiliar dog is growling outside your front door, you stay inside.
This week, we were updated on another serious threat. According to the recent United Nations report on climate change, if the nations of the world do not take drastic action soon, there could be serious consequences in the next 25 years. Yet the president of the United States did not even comment on the report after it was released, and a leading candidate in Brazil’s presidential election has promised to withdraw the country from the Paris agreement.
If people are motivated to avoid threats to their existence, why is it so hard to get people to act on climate change?
Unfortunately, climate change involves a combination of factors that make it hard for people to get motivated.
First, acting on climate change represents a trade-off between short-term and long-term benefits, which is the hardest trade-off for people to make. Decades of work on temporal discounting point out that we overvalue benefits in the short term relative to benefits in the long term. People don’t save enough money for retirement, preferring to spend money now rather than having it in their old age. People overeat in the present, despite the problems that obesity can cause in the future.
Ignoring climate change in the short term has benefits both to individuals and to organizations. Individuals do not have to make changes in the cars they drive, the products they buy, or the homes they live in if they ignore the influence their carbon footprint has on the world. Companies can keep manufacturing cheaper if they don’t have to develop new processes to limit carbon emissions. Governments can save money today by relying on methods for generating power that involve combustion rather than developing and improving sources of green energy, even those that are more cost-effective in the long run.
Second, climate change is a nonlinear problem. People are really good at making judgments of linear trends. If you spend $5 a day on coffee, then it is easy to think about the influence that has on your weekly budget, without needing a spreadsheet.
When a function increases slowly at first and then accelerates, though, that causes problems, because people extrapolate that function linearly. A few cigarettes are probably not deadly. Instead, it is the accumulated damage from years of smoking that leads to significant health problems. For many years, then, smokers may engage in their habit without obvious consequences until suddenly there is a significant problem. As a result, the health problems appear to sneak up on people when they’ve been building all along.
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