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Why Is It So Hard to Tackle Climate Change?

By: :: Published: December 8, 2014

The recent climate agreement between the U.S. and China announced by President Obama and President Xi Jinping on November 11, 2014 took the world by surprise. Both nations have agreed to substantially cut carbon emissions under the new joint plan, which is the result of nine months of negotiations.  

The surprise announcement has been the focus of much media attention over the past month, and new outlets are using plenty of strong adjectives to describe the agreement between the world’s two largest economies: “landmark,” “ambitious,” and “historic,” to name a few. This enthusiasm is understandable, since this is the first time that China has committed to reducing its total emissions, beginning in 2030. The agreement also includes new emissions targets for the U.S.

But amidst the excitement, there is an undercurrent of unmistakable frustration among climate scientists. Rather than lauding the achievement of this new climate agreement, many experts are instead asking, “Do these pledges go far enough?”

These scientists are voicing a sentiment that has grown louder as numerous climate conferences, talks, and summits have come and gone and failed to deliver on their promises. From where they sit, progress has been disappointingly incremental, despite high hopes for major international agreements at much-hyped events, like the COP 15 at the Copenhagen Summit in 2009.

For those who have dedicated their careers to studying the science of climate and working toward solutions to tackle this issue, the failure of international actors to take meaningful action to address climate change is maddening, especially since the evidence for takingaction is so strong. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report warns of “severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts” if carbon emissions are not halted fast.  UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said in response to the report’s findings, “Science has spoken. Time is not on our side. Leaders must act.”

The risks associated with unmitigated climate change are substantial. According to the IPCC, “unmitigated climate change would, in the long term, be likely to exceed the capacity of natural, managed and human systems to adapt.” If the looming threat of what will happen if global leaders fail to act isn’t enough of a motivator, also consider the significant potential health, environmental, and economic benefits that would stem from a meaningful global effort to curb harmful emissions and transition to cleaner and renewable sources of energy.

So, if the international community understands and acknowledges both the benefits of tackling climate change as well as the sizable risks of inaction, the decision to act should be easy, right?

Unfortunately, no. The complexity and uncertainty of climate change is such that, in addition to the multitude of political, economic, and other challenges to consider, there are also a number of cognitive biases that make it an especially difficult problem to solve. The obstacles in terms of collective action are numerous, as laid out by George Day and Paul Schoemaker in their 2011 MIT Sloan Management Review article “Innovating in Uncertain Markets: Ten Lessons for Green Technologies.” In addition, common human biases are likely to get in the way. Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel-prize winning psychologist who studied decision biases is “deeply pessimistic,” saying, “I really see no path to success on climate change.”

Four cognitive biases that make climate change especially challenging include:

  1. Confirmation bias: The issue of climate change has been polarizing and highly politicized. This is compounded by confirmation bias, which drives us to seek out information that is consistent with our existing views, rather than data that may challenge or refute those views. Instead of looking for information for the sake of gaining more knowledge, we look for information that supports our established opinions.
  2. Optimism bias: Even when there is ample evidence to the contrary, we have a hard time believing we are at risk of experiencing a negative event such as illogically predicting sunny skies ahead of an outdoor picnic. When we envision how our planet will look a century from now, we see it through rose-colored glasses. We don’t picture whole cities or nations underwater or imagine a world struck by famine due to the impact of climate change on water supply and agriculture.
  3. Delayed vs. instant gratification: Showing restraint and exercising self-control is difficult to do – especially when the payoff isn’t in the near future. We all encounter this everyday, when we decide what to eat or how to spend our money. The famous Stanford marshmallow experiment highlighted the bias toward instant gratification: children were given a marshmallow and told they either could eat it immediately or wait fifteen minutes and get a second marshmallow.  Most ate the single one immediately; those who waited tended to do better later in life. Renewable energy projects present a similar dilemma on the loss side: despite significant payoffs down the road, the immediate cost and necessary sacrifices are a major deterrent.
  4. Loss aversion: A tendency to avoid sure losses by taking unwise risks fuels imprudent behavior. Rather than taking a more rational expected utility approach to risk, and pay the small upfront loss to avoid future disaster, people will often gamble and go hope for the best. Politicians are furthermore reluctant to incur significant economic losses in the short-term to due to re-election pressures, even though this is what it will take to address climate change.

Cognitive and motivational biases are often powerful, leading us to act irrationally and make decisions in suboptimal ways. Conventional solutions to complex global problems such as climate change, which are never simple, are made significantly more challenging due to deep-seated individual and political biases. Ultimately, however, climate change is a problem that we will have to solve – and one that is well worth the full force of human ingenuity, determination, and creativity. 


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