Americans and Climate Change: Incentives
"Americans and Climate Change: Closing the Gap Between Science and Action" (PDF) is a report synthesizing the insights of 110 leading thinkers on how to educate and motivate the American public on the subject of global warming. Background on the report here. I’ll be posting a series of excerpts (citations have been removed; see original report). If you’d like to be involved in implementing the report’s recommendations, or learn more, visit the Yale Project on Climate Change website.
All right, I realize that nobody is reading this, but dammit, I started posting it and I’m going to finish. It’s a shame, really — this is one of the most interesting chapters. It looks at a variety of professions — scientists, journalists, educators, politicians, businessfolk, and environmentalists — and examines the kind of career incentives that discourage active engagement on climate change. It’s quite eye-opening. Today I’ll just post the intro (super-short!).
It is tempting to reduce the challenge of promoting action on climate change to matters of communications and strategic positioning. Yet this will usually only take us part of the way. Translating awareness into action depends on identifying — and selectively modifying — the deeper incentive structures at play in our society. Harnessing climate change objectives to the material incentives to modify energy supply and use patterns is an important part of the equation. But a more thorough domain-by-domain analysis of career and organizational incentives yields additional levers for fashioning a broad-based set of strategies.
We found value at the Conference in digging below the communications layer to the stratum where incentives shape behavior. We did not limit this to career incentives, though that became a focus given the professional identities associated with most of our eight working groups. Career has become arguably the most identity-defining feature of life in modern democratic capitalism, and career incentives almost universally argue against investing time in the climate change issue — whether understanding it, communicating it, or doing something about it. Climate change is not in most people’s job description. That’s both an obvious problem and a vastly underestimated one. In modern America, job demands have grown to be all-consuming. One takes a big risk in freelancing beyond their bounds and losing focus on who is paying you and for what. Employers hire for focus and reward focus.
Part II of this report discusses the incentives in each domain in some depth, so here only highlights and commentary are provided. The conversation about incentives is one that could usefully be broadened — to others in the same domains and beyond them to other domains that were not represented at our Conference.
Such discussions — of how incentives have impeded action to date — need not devolve into a negative exercise in hand-wringing. If conducted with candor and diligence, the insights obtained can profoundly shape the depth of the subsequent search for solutions.
Incentives often seem implacable, by their very nature. Some are so interwoven into the fabric of our society that it is almost impossible to imagine altering them. Many participants at the Conference were ready to diagnose their own incentive structures, but then recognized the long odds against changing them and preferred to focus on other, more feasible next steps.
Even where incentives appear changeable, one can be forgiven for asking whether, given the urgency of the climate change issue, resources would be better invested in more tangible, near-term activities — like communications campaigns. By the time one succeeds in modifying incentives in something as slow-changing as the university system, for example, won’t it be too late to keep greenhouse gas concentrations at an acceptable level? (What level is that? See the discussion of goal-setting below.)
And yet it is worth remembering that not all incentive structures are laws of nature (some are!), but rather are often designed and administered by human beings. Some of these human beings, therefore, may be susceptible to the entreaties of determined change-agents. This will usually be a high-level activity appropriate for change-agents already in positions of institutional power, or those best situated to influence those in power. In other cases, however, such high-level emissaries may be less important than altering information flows. The way individuals calculate a response to their incentives may be amenable to new information. This, for example, is an implied rationale for Conference Recommendation #34 calling for the business community to be afforded greater access to new information about the opportunities in low-carbon technologies.