The Last Experiment

Feature / by David Zax /

It’s up to social science to make us act in an environmentally conscious way. But can we trick ourselves into saving ourselves?

Nudges, however, will get us only so far. Even if behavioral economists could instantly revolutionize our energy choice architecture, it wouldn’t be enough — at best they could reduce our carbon emissions by just better than 10 percent. Thaler himself calls them “while we’re waiting” measures. “The first thing we should do is have a tax,” he says, ideally a plain carbon tax, but cap-andtrade measures could work too. “That’s politically difficult.” Tax-based mitigation requires legislative action and active popular support. And here’s where behavioral economics becomes less useful. Rather than duping people into mindlessly beneficial behavior, climate-change policy must also embrace what makes people behave mindfully. And that demands a wholly different psychological approach, like that of Elke Weber.

Weber, a professor of psychology and management at Columbia University and, in 2004, a cofounder of Columbia’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED), asks not what can keep us from making bad climate decisions, but what keeps us from making good ones. In 2006 Weber published a paper that asked why global warming does not scare us. It is, she argues, because global warming occurs slowly; because it is often discussed abstractly and statistically; and because people perceive it as something that will happen far off in the future and in distant lands. The result is that for many people, global warming simply fails to evoke a visceral, emotional reaction. And without powerful emotions, there cannot be powerful responses.

Weber has a cheerful, somewhat melodious voice with gentle Germanic tinges, so it is a bit jarring to hear her state the implications of her research: “If you accept the fact that maybe people worry about it insufficiently, then the obvious conclusion would be: Let’s scare them more.” She doesn’t advocate anything drastic —  no reeducation camps in the Arctic showcasing drowning polar bears — but simple, modest measures. For instance, American educators might emphasize the effects of climate change in the United States, rather than hoping to rouse empathy by describing what might happen to someone somewhere else. Colorado ski areas, for example, will suffer at the same time that Pacific islands will be swallowed whole by the sea. While it may seem silly or even perverse to play a violin for the projected melting on the ski slopes of Vail, the fact is that many more Americans will visit — and become emotionally attached to — Vail than they ever will Tuvalu. If Americans are to respond, it is best to hit them where it will hurt.

Not everyone, not even Weber’s own colleagues at Columbia, agrees. CRED is a place where anthropologists back from Brazil or the Swiss Alps might mingle with economists and climatologists, while the occasional historian passes through. With about 20 research projects, the center contains scientific multitudes, and sometimes they contradict each other.

David Krantz, also a psychologist and a codirector of the center, is a good example. While he agrees that many people need help making decisions, he argues that “repackaging the science so that it’s more dramatic and more short term” — so it’s scarier — won’t provide that help. What social scientists need, Krantz argues, is an understanding of the circumstances that enable people to consciously make the right choices. He has found, for example, that people are often freely willing to cooperate if they can identify with a group (through messages designed to, say, evoke civic responsibility); that people become much more serious about a problem if they have an active role in solving it, instead of being passive recipients of wisdom from above; and that people will think long term so long as they are primed to think that way at the right moment (as in the case of families who save for their children’s college education).

The important point is not that Krantz and Weber disagree; indeed, their core insights — that the key to enacting effective climate policies is to get people into the right mode of thought — are the same. It’s just that their lines of research have simply identified different preferred modes. In the end, though, it doesn’t matter terribly who is right. Even if the strategies are contradictory, it can’t hurt to try them all. What’s needed, many at CRED stress, is a “portfolio” of solutions. All too often, they say, we just try one thing and think we’ve fixed the problem. There is a phrase for this, current in decision science literature: “single-action bias.” Elke Weber coined it.

Tags climate governance policy social science

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