You’re a selfish jerk. It’s nothing personal — it’s just probably true. I’m likely a selfish jerk, too. And this is why our descendants are going to be dealing with the impacts of climate change: Because whatever we do about it now, it isn’t going to help any of us much, and it might be an inconvenience. And, as a group, humans are terrible about making sacrifices, especially ones we won’t benefit from.
I know it’s not fun to face this. But there’s good evidence. A group of scientists just published a paper on an experiment that modeled how good people are at averting future climate change, Bryan Walsh reports at TIME. The researchers put people in groups and gave each person $55. The participants had 10 chances to invest that money, in small increments, into a climate fund. If, as a group, they invested $165, they’d all get $60. And, oh yah, would have “averted climate change.”
No one participant could reach the $165 goal by themselves, so everyone needed to trust that others would invest, too. And there was also another condition. Some groups would get the reward the next day. Some would get it seven weeks later. Some wouldn’t get the reward in money, but in oak trees, planted to sequester carbon.
How’d they do? Badly. Even among the groups that had to wait just one day to recoup their investment, three out of 10 failed the cross the threshold and avert climate change. None of the groups who were rewarded with trees made it.
This was a stylized experiment, but, even then, humanity did not comport itself well. And, when the stakes are higher — i.e. in real life — we’re not doing so hot either. So … how do we fix this? The researchers, Walsh writes, suggest that “we’re likely better off tailoring solutions that work with our selfishness and brief attention span.” Basically, build the knowledge that people are jerks into any plans we make. Alternatively, we could take some of the money being invested in carbon capture technology for coal plants and invest it in developing a cure for selfishness. But that sounds hard. And what’s in it for me?