Need collective action on climate change? Reward people up-front

Contributor: Will Bugler

For many people the value of taking action to mitigate and adapt to climate change impacts is obvious. Speak to people in the south of England where villages have been cut off for almost a month by some of the worst flooding in decades, or Australians who are suffering another intense heatwave even as the forest fires that destroyed 2,000 homes are still fresh in the memory. Despite these examples (and many others like them – see the timeline below) of the effects of climate change, convincing people to take bold action on the issue remains difficult. A team of researchers sought to examine why this is and have shown that without obvious reward in the short term, people are reluctant to act on collective problems like climate change.

When thinking about issues of collective risk people can often rationalise the problem well. Hypothetically most people agree that action on climate change is a good idea. However policy-makers have found that converting this rational into meaningful collective action is extremely difficult. When it comes to every-day decisions about where to allocate resources people place greater value on immediate, endorphin-inducing material reward. Shall I spend my money on a new TV or shall I invest it in sand bags that may protect my home against a 1 in 100 year flood event? Well it is the world cup year after all… better have the plasma screen. Sand bags just aren’t exciting: until your home floods.

Manfred Milinski, led a team of researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology, in testing the theory that short term reward is simply too tempting, when set against longer-term considerations of quality of life. The study, which was published in the journal Nature Climate Change, set out to test a theory that was proffered by Nobel Prize winning economist Thomas Schelling in the mid 1990s. Shelling proposed that action on climate change requires sacrifice by today’s generation in order for future generations to gain the reward, providing little incentive to act.

The researchers tested this theory by using an experiment that is modified from a test commonly used in behavioural economics called the ‘public goods game’. For the experiment the researchers gave each ‘player’ $40. Players formed groups of 6 so each group had a combined $240 to invest. For ten rounds players decided how much to keep and how much to invest in projects to fight climate change. Participants were told before hand that groups which donated more than half of their total fund would be able to avoid dangerous climate change impacts and would be paid an additional $45 per participant. They were also told that if the group donated less than half of their total fund, all players hand a 90% chance of losing all of their money.

The game was played using three scenarios. In the fist players from groups that had successfully avoided climate change were paid their $45 reward on the day after the experiment. In scenario 2 they were paid seven weeks later and in scenario 3, the money was not paid to the players, but was instead invested in climate protection for future generations.

The results were clear: in scenario 1 seven out of ten groups achieved their target for contributions, while in scenario 3 not a single group gave enough to avoid climate change. Altruism alone is simply not enough to drive action. Moreover, the immediacy of the reward was also found to be important. In scenario 2 four out of ten groups achieved their target, with groups donating an average of $83 (the scenario 1 average was $108 and in scenario 3 it was just $57).

“We learned from this experiment that even groups gravitate towards instant gratification,” explained Christoph Hauert study co-author and an expert in game theory from the University of British Columbia.

The findings of the study have very real policy implications. It strongly suggests that policies that are designed to get people to change their behaviour to sacrifice time, money, or another good (whether real or perceived) in order to mitigate or adapt to climate change, will be far more successful if they offer real, tangible and immediate benefit.

“It’s not enough simply to point to the benefits future generations will enjoy”, says Jochem Marotzke from the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology, one of the authors of the study.”Climate protection will only be effective if the people making the effort will also be able to obtain a short-term material benefit from doing so.”

There have been examples of this in climate mitigation policy around the world, for example the successful German (and later UK) feed-in-tariff scheme that pays people to generate electricity from renewable sources. However there are relatively few examples of such policies to encourage people to help their communities adapt to climate impacts, even though the medium to long-term financial (and emotional) case for doing so is extremely compelling.

The need to find ways to prompt action to adapt to climate change is pressing for governments, businesses and society at large. There appears to be a stark difference between our ability to understand climate change as a threat, and the small day-to-day decisions that govern our lives. While immediate, material reward may not appeal to the better part of our collective character, it may be the best, and fastest way to influence our actions.


This article first appeared on the Acclimatise News Network and can be seen here. For more information on the study see here.

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