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Short-Term Gratification Proves an Obstacle to Climate Change Progress

Social science suggests misunderstanding and shortsightedness prevent stronger efforts to combat climate change



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When nations that were parties to the Montreal Protocol agreed to completely end the production of ozone-depleting substances by 1992, the agreement led to the restoration of the ozone layer, which acts as a shield to protect all life from the sun's harmful radiation.

Awareness and cooperation were vital to this accomplishment, says a new study examining human behavior and saying that these elements will be crucial to upcoming international negotiations toward mitigating climate change.

The Montreal Protocol is a promising example, said Jennifer Jacquet, a clinical assistant professor in New York University's Environmental Studies Program and the lead author of the study, recently published in Nature Climate Change.

"Almost everything is related to this issue of timing and the way we frame it," Jacquet said.

In their experiment, researchers in the United States, Canada and Germany asked what would happen if participants were given money to invest in a common pool that could help avert "dangerous climate change," a path that would not allow more than 2 degrees Celsius global warming above preindustrial levels.

"Public-goods experiments can provide insights into human behavior, and show that introducing punishment, reputation, or their interaction, as well as the threat of shame or the promise of honor can lead to increased cooperation," the study says.

The ultimate question was whether an individual chose a short-term benefit over a long-term reward that has a higher value, beneficial for future generations. The experiments, which were performed with 192 students at Hamburg University in Germany, were conducted over 10 rounds.

Poor climate information is a given
Groups of six participants each anonymously made a decision that had consequences in the future. Each participant received a $55 operating fund, rounded and converted from euros. The researchers told the participants that the total amount given to the group's climate account would be used to finance an advertisement on climate protection in a daily German newspaper.

The participants also received a minimal amount of information about the climate account, which sought to mirror what the public experiences with media coverage on climate change, to create weak motivation to invest in publishing the advertisement.

The media and recent studies on climate change are increasingly using economics rather than scientific evidence as a frame to describe methods for climate adaptation and mitigation.

In his recent book, "Climate Change in the Media: Reporting Risk and Uncertainty," James Painter identified the increasing use of the language of risk to illustrate the climate change challenge.

Although the shift is happening slowly, "the explicit risk narrative has not yet really caught on with the media or with many climate scientists," Painter, head of the Journalism Fellowship Programme at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University, wrote to ClimateWire. He added that the work of former World Bank chief economist Nicholas Stern and the extreme weather report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were some exceptions.

Short-term benefits bring the most cooperation
In Jacquet's study, if a group reached a target of collecting $165 after 10 rounds, it would successfully prevent the future effects of climate change. In addition, each participant received an additional $62 endowment. If the group failed to reach the target, the effects of climate change coupled with severe economic losses were simulated, and the endowment was lost, with a 90 percent probability.

The rewards of group cooperation, manifested in the $62 endowment for each participant, were given over three different time horizons. The researchers reasoned that the further away in time the rewards of acting for a collective benefit were, the less the groups would cooperate.

"We give the subjects a lot or less money and see if that changes the dynamics," Jacquet said. "It's about human behavior, and when we talk about benefits, it's about money."

There were three time horizons and situations for the allocation of the monetary incentive. In the first situation, seven out of 10 groups reached the target when the participants received their endowment after the first day of investment. When the option was to receive their endowment after seven weeks, only four of 11 groups succeeded. Lastly, if the endowment were invested in planting trees to mitigate climate change, zero out of 11 groups achieved the $165 target.

Over the course of the rounds, participants could anticipate the others' level of cooperation. In attempting to emulate the risk and reward politics of international negotiations, the researchers allowed the participants to see the accrued investments after each round. The strategy aimed to build trust and created an opportunity to evaluate the possibility of achieving the target.

"It further enables the participants to determine whether they should contribute strategically and thus help the group to reach the threshold sum or whether they should prefer the defector's payoff," the study said. Since the target investment was in the future, the experiment allowed individuals to make up for less cooperative participants, but only to a limited extent.

"It doesn't map perfectly with international negotiations, but it speaks to how policy prioritizes benefits and future investments," Jacquet said.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500

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