A quick note on an important challenge.
Reading recent reports on the already-arrived impacts of climate change, I suspect I’m not the only one who’s asking: “what will it take to get people to take more action against this existential threat?”
I say more action, because we’ve made some progress. My beloved EIA website is down for some reason so I can’t find the exact numbers I want but I believe more than 30 states now have “renewable portfolio standards:” requirements that a specific percent of the state’s energy be met through renewable sources by a specific time, e.g., 33% in CA by 2020. Energy derived from solar and wind still comprise tiny shares of our national consumption, but much larger shares of our marginal additions (I’ll add the numbers when the EIA site is back up).
That’s progress, but not nearly enough. So allow me to wax philosophical, or more precisely, psychological, for a moment. There are two equally valid ways to think about the breakdown here.
One, humans just have a basic screw loose and, as a broad species, we just don’t have the brainpower to provide ample stewardship over our environment. We’re thus congenitally doomed.
The “broad species” part is important. There are of course those who understand the threats better than others and advocate for solutions. But they lack support because most people, though they believe climate change is real, rank it pretty low on the list of things they worry about.
Which brings me to the second way to think about this, perhaps one that yields some insight: when it comes to the future, most people have a very high discount rate. They want what they want now, with little regard for future consequences. Even if you can convince them that things we’re doing today means their beachfront property will be underwater some years from now, they’d rather enjoy it today and worry about that other unpleasantness later.
In economic terms, a high discount rate means you’d be willing to pay less now for more later compared to someone who discounted the future less than you. If your discount rate is 10%, you’d be willing to put aside only about $15 now to get $100 in 20 years. If your discount rate is 2%, you’d put aside $67.
The problem then becomes, what will it take to get more people to place a higher value on the future such that they be willing to put aside more today to get something they’re currently undervaluing in the future?
One answer is: fuggetaboutit—see “screw loose” section above. In this case, society’s best move may be ideas like renewable standards that set goals for the future based on low-discount rates. Of course, the problem hits when that starts to impose costs on the high discount rate set who, given their majority, can simply revoke the standards.
Another answer is to get people a lot more worried about the future by proving to them that its leading edge is already here and it’s not pretty. That’s the spirit of recent climate work tying volatile weather, drought, and rising sea levels to existing environmental degradation. There’s some evidence that high discounters—and remember, they’re the majority—write that off too: “hey, the weather goes up and down, right?”
A final thought—my preferred idea—is to start really, really small. That is, while most people discount as I’ve discussed, the polling data show that majorities are at least a little worried about the impact of climate, and that’s almost surely going to grow along with its impacts. So implement a very small tax on carbon, one that is far below the social cost, but one that’s priced to account for people’s actual, negatively biased perceptions of that cost. Get that in place, and we can build on it.
Like I said, just a thought.