The climate change and the present bias

                                                                         An Spanish version of this article won the first climate change blogging contest of  the Interamerican Development Bank, and can be found here

Although they are an awesome triumph of evolution, our brains, from time to time, also shows its flaws. One of these weaknesses is that we have serious problems when it comes to making decisions involving the future. We are very bad foreseeing our future preferences, or estimating the real possibilities for us to fulfill our goals. We are also very bad estimating the future value of things or, in any case, we have a bias that leads us to favor immediate gratification.

This temporary inconsistency originates some pernicious and persistent behavior, both personally and socially. At this point we fully understand that climate change is real, that it is consequence of our activities, and that only drastic changes in our practices will allow us to avoid the worst of its effects. Still, this present bias leads us to underestimate the future effects of climate change, and defer urgent and necessary actions.

The importance of climate change as a threat to our future is very present in the public opinion. Surveys like the Eurobarometer or this study from Yale University prove that more and more people understands that climate change is the most important threat for our individual and collective future.

This increase in public awareness has not been turned in new public policies that drives to important emission reductions, neither have motivated the personal shifts that would be expected, except in a small part of the population.

The present bias is part of what makes it so difficult to combat climate change. We are asked to take action and make sacrifices for our future self, but despite how much I love that guy, I rather let him deal with his own problems (and if it is possible, also with mine). The present bias puts us on that path of inaction, in which doubt lead us to not take action, and where we see these problems as foreign and distant ones.

What can we do?

We could apply to this issue some of the tips that psychologists usually give procrastinators.

  • Set clear goals. One of the problems within the UNFCCC negotiations is that they are looking for global reduction commitments, and although this might be the most effective long-term action course, this discussion has paralyzed the countries and prevented them to adopt national or regional emission reduction goals.
  • Look on the bright side. The actions we need can be traumatic for our economies. The long term benefits are difficult to visualize. It would be good to emphasize the immediate benefits of the actions, such as reducing health costs or other economic benefits arising from plans that reduce vehicle traffic.
  • Stop making excuses. We like to justify ourselves, it helps us to live with our decisions or the lack of them. But the absence of broad consensus can no longer be seen as a valid excuse for not taking action. Bilateral agreements or even voluntary reductions increase the pressure on other countries and make it more likely to reach a global agreement. The lack of valid agreements is an increasingly less justifiable excuse for not taking action.

Both personally also socially, we can achieve small wins that allow us to overcome the bias and start a virtuous cycle that leads to the actions we need.