State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Behavior, policy, and climate change

Climate change is often discussed as the ultimate market failure: in the absence of laws that change incentives, decisions to maximize individual self-interest will not produce the socially desirable outcome of reducing carbon emissions and preserving the climate system. The role of individual and institutional behavior in bringing about the necessary changes is rarely discussed outside this context. However, behavior came up repeatedly and in several different ways in the presentations at the recent GROCC meeting, so I just want to consider these ideas briefly.

Helen Howes from Exelon discussed smart-metering (a means of providing information about electricity use to help consumers make wiser decisions) as a tool for reducing carbon emissions from electricity service. In his presentation on green buildings, William Sisson of United Technologies talked about integrated planning, which requires changes in established interactions between various businesses that make up the building sector, as well as conservation behaviors by users of buildings. Albert Bressand alluded to the recently lifestyle survey from the Pew Research Center, which found Americans are happiest living in suburbs or small towns, relatively carbon-intensive settings. These are all examples of self-interested decisions that produce carbon emissions and contribute to climate change.

Climate decisions are not monolithically bad, however. After all, the EU, the state of California, and many cities around the world have been able to agree on climate change measures that will benefit the collective while imposing costs on individual group members. David Krantz, who directs the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia presented research that looks at why some groups are able to cooperate in ways that maximize the interest of the group over the interests of the individuals. Part of the answer appears to be that in social contexts, the best interest of individuals includes social goals as well as individual ones. This suggests that tools to expand affiliation or identification with larger groups may encourage decisions that do not sacrifice the well-being of the group as readily to the interests of individuals.

This research may have implications for negotiations and policymaking at all levels of society.

Ignacio Campino, a GROCC participant, made an interesting analogy that casts some light on the notion of climate change as a critical inflection point for humanity. He described the challenge of climate change as an evolutionary one. While no one is yet projecting the extinction of the human species as a result of climate change, there is certainly the possibility of a drastic reduction in the Earth’s carrying capacity. In this sense, climate change demands that we as a species use our collective intellectual capabilities to manage our own social evolution. I find that when I think about it this way, it seems less vexing that 20 years have passed with what sometimes seems like minimal progress in international negotiations.

It seems clear that international and national policy measures are necessary to produce the behaviors, including massive investments in mitigation technologies that can reduce carbon emissions as drastically as we need to. The game of chicken between the United States and the large developing countries will continue until one side (the US) is willing to make what it sees as sacrifices. In the meantime, changes in the behaviors of individuals, businesses, states and communities are helping to make larger scale agreement appear feasible, and creating conditions for those policies to have a chance at succeeding.

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15 years ago

I think this post brings up some really valuable points. As noted, the situation regarding action to mitigate climate change in the US is neither black nor white. The progress at regional, state and municipal levels is real. While federal legislation is still further than we’d like, the discussion is opening up. I like the perspective of a social evolution, with open participation for all, through improved communication and understanding. It will be interesting to see whether we can join forces to meet the risks that climate change represents. Optimism may be a good tool to bring along.