Efforts to fight climate change will fail, Nobel Prize-winning economist says

Oct 6, 2019 | 8 comments

By Chunka Mui

I want to scream “You’re not helping!” every time I read a story like this one, which recently ran in USA Today: “End of civilization: climate change apocalypse could start by 2050 if we don’t act, report warns.”

I certainly worry about what might befall us and our children by 2030, 2050 and 2100 — three often cited milestones (such as herehere and here). But, I want to scream because I fear that such warnings about far-in-the-future calamities make it much less likely that what we do anything today to mitigate or adapt to the challenges we face.

That’s because, ironically, while such climate scenarios are intended to mobilize public opinion towards urgent action, they likely hurt that very cause.

To understand why, consider the pessimism of Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning behavioral scientist: “I really see no path to success on climate change,” he told George Marshall in Marshall’s bracing book, “Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change.”

Daniel Kahneman, left, accepting the 2002 Nobel Prize.

Kahneman fears that climate change is a hopeless problem for three reasons:

First, it lacks salience. It is too “abstract, distant, invisible and disputed” to capture our attention. Without attention, there is no action.

Second, dealing with climate change is typically thought to require people to accept short-term costs and reductions on living standard in order to address higher but uncertain future losses. Such sacrifice is not in our nature. One University of Chicago poll found that while 72% of respondents believed that climate change is happening, half were unwilling pay even $1 each month to help address it.

Third, climate change seems uncertain and contested—“even if there is a National Academy on one side and some cranks on the other.”

By focusing our minds on what might happen 10, 30 or even 80 years from now, far-off doomsday scenarios reinforce the abstract and distant nature of climate change. They widen the window of scientific uncertainty both the outcome and costs, and therefore enhance the opportunity for rebuttal and confusion.

“The bottom line,” Kahneman concluded, “is that I’m extremely skeptical that we can cope with climate change. To mobilize people, this has to become an emotional issue. It has to have immediacy and salience. A distant, abstract and disputed threat just doesn’t have the necessary characteristics for seriously mobilizing public opinion.”

Kahneman’s pessimism is unfortunately well supported by other researchers—and applies not just to climate change but to the broader challenge of why we, individually and as a society, underprepare for slow moving, predictable disasters. As solidly laid out by Robert Meyer and Howard Krunreuther in “The Ostrich Paradox: Why We Underprepare for Disasters”:

“Our ability to foresee and protect against natural catastrophes has never been greater; yet, we consistently fail to heed the warnings and protect ourselves and our communities, with devastating consequences.”

So, are we doomed? Perhaps. But, remember the observation of Arthur C. Clarke, in what has become known as Clarke’s First Law:

“When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”

Let’s hope that the distinguished Daniel Kahneman is “probably wrong.” Also, take a lesson from Winston Churchill on the gathering storm of World War II: “Having got ourselves into this awful plight in 1939, it was vital to grasp the larger hope.”

Chunka Mui is a futurist, innovation advisor and keynote speaker. He is the author of four books on innovation, including the New York Times business best seller, Unleashing the Killer App: Digital Strategies for Market Dominance. 


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