Overcoming psychological barriers and discounting

Understanding how different actors and social groups conceptualise and act on climate risk can help development professionals and policy-makers develop strategies to shape political positions. As the success of adaptation programmes depends also on the decisions individuals and households make (e.g. on crop selection or disaster risk management), adaptation managers must consider how best to contextualise climate risk information. At the political level, the human tendency to discount the future has been a challenge in implementing climate policy with long-term time horizons that requires investments in the present (Chapman & Elstein, 1995).

If the strength of scientific evidence were sufficient to create the groundswell of collective action needed to shift decision-maker priorities towards ambitious climate action, we might not be facing an impending climate crisis. However, better access to information on the climate crisis has failed to produce this result. Rather, research finds prevailing ideologies, values and social networks influence social group behaviour more (Bulkeley & Newell, 2015). Social groups typically filter out information that does not come from a ‘trusted messenger’ or a member of that group. In research that is particularly revealing for the US, individual support for social hierarchy versus equality is a greater predictor of perception of temperature change than actual temperature change (World Bank, 2015c). Even among those with greater scientific literacy, groups that value social hierarchies and oppose redistributive policies will adamantly oppose climate policies. Certain arguments and messages can trigger this attachment to key groups, such as ‘tax’ versus the more benignly perceived “offset”. Media framing of social and political problems can shape where blame is placed and the perceived solutions.

Looking at the psychology of adaptation, Grothmann and Patt (2005) found farmers in Zimbabwe altered crop options only when forecasts were at the extremes of the spectrum. Linking probability forecasting and complex weather patterns to culturally relevant concepts has proved effective in Zimbabwe and Uganda (Orlove & Kabugo, 2005).

Discount rates are conventionally understood as being determined by revealed time preferences and opportunity costs, whereby the former refers to the degree to which individuals prefer present (monetary) benefits over future benefits and the latter refers to the rewards of one investment against other options. In basic terms, choosing a higher discount rate would mean making less present investment in future outcomes. This has special implications for climate change, given the approximate 50-year time lag between GHG emissions and temperature increases. Climate economists and policy-makers have vigorously debated the socially optimal discount rate, with economists like Nicholas Stern arguing for a 1.4% social discount rate to account for the ethical dilemma of a future climate catastrophe (Stern, 2006). On the other hand, William Nordhaus has argued that the discount rate should be descriptive, rather than prescriptive, in order to more accurately represent the revealed time preferences across society ‒ in the range of 3-5% (Nordhaus, 2007). However, this reduces the value of life of generations well into the future to nearly nothing (Rehmeyer, 2010). While psychology supports the discounting phenomenon, it nuances it by showing risk is perceived emotionally as a feeling rather than as a probability. Additionally, there is still (and will continue to be) significant uncertainty and complexity in the timing, location and scale of climate impacts, which make estimates highly variable.

An increasing number of economists are arguing that this debate should not delay investment on the grounds that the costs of climate impacts are increasing as warming becomes ‘locked in’ and that climate investments have many co-benefits (and thus should be seen as ‘no-regrets’ policies) (Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, 2014). The 2014 New Climate Economy Report, which was produced through the collaboration of over 100 organisations, heads of state, finance, economists and business leaders, makes the case to economic and financial decision-makers that climate action is both compatible and critical for long-term economic prosperity (ibid.).

One consequence of future discounting is that it may magnify risk-averse behaviour in politics, particularly for political leaders who are more vulnerable to shifts in public opinion (i.e. in more representative democracies). This may be particularly true in countries where public opinion is more divided on whether and how governments should take action. This may be addressed in part by increasing the visibility of climate change impacts (as opposed to just conveying scientific evidence), their costs and the co-benefits of policy actions (Howlett, 2014).

Surveys of public opinion around the world suggest public opposition is not the primary barrier to action. A 2015 Pew Research Center poll of 40 countries ‒ including major emitters just as the US, China and Russia, as well as emerging economies in the global south ‒ found that a majority in all 40 countries considered climate change a serious problem (Stokes et al., 2015). A median of 78% approved of their country limiting GHG emissions as part of the Paris Agreement. This was the case even in the US and China. What is more, these results show the general public is not discounting all future climate impacts, as 51% believe they are already being harmed by climate change and 28% believe they will be harmed in the next few years. Latin American (n=6) and sub-Saharan African (n=9) countries registered the most concern about climate change.

While polls can help us understand how climate policies and messages are perceived, they should be considered within the political context of policy-making. Ideological narratives that align closely with social values can be powerful in shaping public opinion towards a particular policy, regardless of views on the issue. Additionally, passive public support for an issue may not overcome organised opposition from vested interests ‒ thus the intensity of support also matters.