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.

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Yasuní. Just a brave first step.

Given that some of the richest mineral and oil deposits are placed in important biodiversity reserves, the countries that posses the deposits faces the difficult decision of to exploit it or not.   The complexity of the decision is increased in poor, undeveloped countries. Despite there is always some discussion, the answer tends to be the same. The money is more important. Even the most progressive governments sacrifice their nature in order to get fresh incomes. There was a very honorable exception to this rule: Ecuador.

The initiative.

Since 2004 Ecuador faced an increasing pressure to exploit the oil deposits in the Yasuní. The Yasuní, a natural reserve with extraordinary biodiversity is also home of the Tagaeri and the Taromenan, two indigenous groups that live in voluntary isolation. In 2007 the Ecuadorian government came out with an innovative alternative. The Yasuní–ITT.

Ecuador was willing to keep the oil (about 846 million barrels) underground, with this proposal the territory itself would be preserved and the emission of about 407 millions of tons of CO2 would be prevented; in exchange, Ecuador was asking to the World, but, most of all to the rich countries, to pay 3.600 million dollars, approximately half the value of the oil they would not exploit. A trust fund was created to collect the money, and its administration was assumed by the United Nations1.

There were, of course, encountered points of view around the project. Still, this innovative idea was a whole new vision of the conservation and incorporated concepts such as shared responsibility and climate justice. It was more ambitious that any other environmental protection measure taken so far, and it was the first national scale project built in the spirit of a post-oil economy.

The response.

The initial response to the initiative was generally positive. People in countries facing dilemmas similar to the Yasuní-ITT proposed this project as an alternative to the exploitation, and some developed countries like Germany and Italy expressed his support. Unfortunately the project concurred with the most important economical crisis that the World faced in 80 years, so this was a serious barrier for the fundraising. It’s also important to note that the initiative had a much more shy response among the countries that are responsible for the bigger part of the CO2 emissions.

Without a question the crisis harmed the negotiations and made more difficult for the potential contributors to take action, but the crisis isn’t a valid excuse for the rich countries apathy.

The errors.

Despite its positive aspects there had been mistakes in every step of the project. The first and most important was the B plan. Correa announced that the initiative was the A plan, and that in the possibility that the goals of fundraising were not fulfilled they would proceed with a B plan, consistent in the full exploitation of the oil deposits. This B plan makes some people think that Correa was not serious about the project. Just a few weeks after the Yasuní-ITT presentation, Ecuador took the first steps to the creation of the so called Pacific Refinery. A 2009 intern document from Petroecuador (Ecuador’s state oil company) showed that this refinery would be the destination of the Yasuní’s crude2 . The B plan was the most important obstacle to the fundraising and is the most important cause of the Yasuní-ITT failure.

The B plan and other mistakes eventually provoked that some key characters –like Roque Sevilla former ITT commissioner or Alberto Acosta important sponsor of the initiative- took distance from the project and Correa’s administration. The succession of deadlines that were set by the government (each deadline involving an evaluation of the continuity of the project) made the initiative looked much like a blackmail. This lack of coherence provoked a series of advances and retreats among the countries interested in collaborate with the project, and eventually fully eroded Ecuador’s credibility in this matter.

When he was announcing the end of the Yasuní-ITT, President Correa blamed the World for the failure. In my opinion the accumulation of mistakes by his administration is the main cause of this outcome. In short terms Ecuador failed in the task to sell the Yasuní-ITT to a World that was, as always, reluctant to big changes.

The future.

One task that Ecuador’s government made pristinely well was to sell the Yasuní-ITT initiative to its own countrymen. The response that Correa’s decision had raised shows this success. There are millions of Ecuadorians that think that the Yasuní should be preserved even if the fundraising goals hadn’t been fulfilled, there are thousands that are willing to resist the government’s decision. There is still some hope for the Yasuní.

Hopefully, some decades from now, we will remember the Yasuní-ITT as the first step in the difficult but indispensable road to a post-oil economy.

1 Yasuní-ITT official website (http://www.yasuni-itt.gob.ec/quees.aspx)

2 July 30th 2011. Plan B, ‘el mayor obstáculo’ para que se concrete apoyo a Yasuní. El Universo.