All of us find ourselves making choices about our behavior everyday - whether to act for immediate benefit or to invest in future benefits. It’s a difficult struggle that crosses many basic lines – food, exercise, finance, relationships, – the list is very long. Behavior Psychologists have shown us time and again that when we make decisions to invest in the future and delay gratification – we are more successful. But for many, perhaps most, the pain of discipline is too high when the opportunity of immediate gratification is at hand.
When we think about this struggle in terms of climate change, we can boil it down to differences in whether we are willing to accept short-term pain for long-term gain – or maybe more modestly – long-term sustain.
As an example, oil transport through pipelines, on trains and trucks or in ships is highly charged and controversial and opinions are ringing loudly on both sides. Those that support these developments see oil and gas as important economic development that can mitigate the pain of unemployment, increasing personal and national debt and even bring about greater security through energy sovereignty. Those who oppose generally see the risks to water and future generations like a disease we shouldn’t be treating with short-term painkillers. These folks would rather bite the bullet today and cure the cause so that the pain will be less in the future.
History has shown that more often than not we value commodity production and consumption in the present far more than the potential future benefits of conservation - which feel like a missed opportunity today. Consider the massive deforestation in the amazon basin for the last 50 years to produce beef despite the knowledge that this practice is unsustainable and carries a huge environmental cost. But conservation isn’t likely to put meals on the table for rural Brazilians and so the trade-off continues.
We do the same with our money. Many of us don’t save because we value our current self more than our future self. Economists came up with a way of accounting for this – it’s called the discount rate. Essentially, it means that money in hand today is more valuable than money in the future. Even having a commitment device like “doing it for future generations” isn’t always enough of a reward for us today.
Economist William Forster Lloyd first wrote about this phenomenon in 1833. The tragedy of the commons is an economic theory of a situation within a shared-resource system where individual users acting independently according to their own self-interest behave contrary to the common good of all users by depleting that resource through their collective action.
"the tragedy of our commons today is the anthropogenic acceleration of climate change on earth"
The Paris Agreement is a global attempt to overcome the tragedy of our commons, the anthropogenic acceleration of climate change on earth, by acting collectively for the greater good despite the short-term discomfort we will inflict on ourselves. But with recent rhetoric from President Elect Trump that he will cancel the Paris climate accord – what will other nations do? I’m hearing a lot of people say, well if the U.S. isn’t reducing emissions or imposing a carbon tax, why should we? We’ll just be hurting ourselves for no benefit. This harkens back to my first point – the choice between immediate or delayed gratification.
Julia Galef, the president and co-founder of the Center for Applied Rationality, gives a TED Talk  that explains the psychological basis for the Warrior mentality: Why you think you’re right – even if you’re wrong. I recommend you watch it if you haven’t. If you want to believe something, you will go out and find justification for it to prove your point. Julia points out “our judgment is strongly influenced, unconsciously, by which side we want to win. And this is ubiquitous. This shapes how we think about our health, our relationships, how we decide how to vote, what we consider fair or ethical.”
While it is possible that the vast majority of scientists studying climate change around the world could be wrong, it is unlikely.
Despite this, there are those who don’t accept this perspective – probably because accepting it wouldn’t support their key priorities. So, tremendous effort is taken to discredit, poke holes and try to find technicalities that introduce uncertainty to delay acting on climate. It reminds me of the decades of experiments to identify smoking as being harmful to your health and yet there are still studies coming out today that dispute this noting George Burns and his cigars as the proof.