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The fundamental *political* challenge of climate change

- November 4, 2013

Activists from Avaaz.org dressed as aliens roam the halls of the Bella Center during the UN Climate Change Conference 2009 in Copenhagen December 10, 2009. REUTERS/Bob Strong

Activists from Avaaz.org dressed as aliens roam the halls of the Bella Center during the UN Climate Change Conference 2009 in Copenhagen, December 10, 2009. Would a bunch of cute kids have been more effective? (REUTERS/Bob Strong)

The New York Times’s Justin Gillis reported this weekend that a leaked draft of a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests that climate change will lead a reduction in the world’s food supply at about the same time that the demand for food is likely to increase.  The net result when supply goes down and demand goes up: price increases and/or shortages.  The good news is that there are steps that can be taken now to preserve future food production capacity.  Seems like a simple enough solution: we know what to do now to prevent this avoidable problem later.
Unfortunately, there is a political hitch, and it can be found in the “now and later” aspect of that last sentence.  Or, to put it more specifically, as Gillis notes:

The document also finds that it is not too late for cuts in emissions to have a strong impact on the future risks of climate change, though the costs would be incurred in the next few decades and the main benefits would probably be seen in the late 21st century and beyond (Bold added).

Social scientists have a way of thinking about trade-offs between benefits (or costs) today and benefits (or costs) tomorrow, which is encapsulated in the idea of a discount rate. The discount rate is essentially the difference between how much you value something today and how much you value it in the future. So for example, if I offered you $100 today or $101 10 years from now, most people would prefer the $100 today. The idea of the discount rate is to figure out just how quickly this perceived future value dissipates when compared to present value. For example, most people would probably take $1 million 10 years from now instead of $100 today. But would they take $500? $200? $110?
There are a lot of reasons why people might prefer something today instead tomorrow. It may be the case that the value of the good in question actually decreases over time. So to go back to the 10 year example, we actually expect inflation to erode the value of money over time. So $110 in 2023 will almost definitely buy less than $100 in 2013. But it may also be the case that people that people prefer to enjoy benefits now more than later. This may in part be due to the simple desire to enjoy benefits now, but it may also be based on uncertainty as to whether one will actually be around (or be in a state) to enjoy these benefits in the future.
And herein lies the crux of the problem with policies that will need to be paid for today to prevent problems tomorrow: there are always likely to be some people today who won’t be around tomorrow to enjoy the “benefit” of the avoided problem but will need to pay the cost today. Climate change problems such as food shortages in the late 21st century and beyond are therefore especially challenging because there are an awful lot of people around today who will be gone long before the late 21st century.
But the problem is even more challenging for two additional reasons. First, politically, we know older citizens tend to be more politically influential than younger citizens in most democracies. They vote at higher rates. They have – on average – more wealth, which can be transferred into political influence. Thus, before we even take account of anyone’s political preferences, we know that the people with the most influence politically are the least likely to be personally affected by climate change problems at the end of the 21st century simply because they are less likely to still be alive.  This is not to say no one cares about the world in which their grandchildren will grow up, but simply that we need to think about how people value benefits that are going to be enjoyed by descendants – or just future inhabitants of the planet generally – and not by themselves. Or, put another way, proponent of climate change legislation ought to hope people place a lot of value on benefits enjoyed by their grandchildren. (Of course this is even more complicated than it appears at first glance, as part of today’s “cost” might be less money to leave to one’s descendants.)
So it would seem to be the case that politically, the best hope for policy to address climate change would be to simply wait until the problems are more imminent and therefore “on the radar screen” of enough citizens. (Alternatively, waiting until perceived problems get worse would have a similar effect upon building support for costly policies today.) But here the science gets in the way. As noted by Gillis, for the cuts in emissions to be effective, they will have to be implemented in the next few decades, precisely when when the logic of discount rates suggests that political support for climate change will be weaker.
Thus we find ourselves in a troubling paradox for proponents of climate change policy: politics and science seem to be aligned in a dangerous way. Whenever policies entail costs today for benefits later, the farther those benefits (or avoided costs) lie in the future, the less likely they are to be implemented today, especially when older voters hold more political sway. But to the extent that science doesn’t cooperate by allowing problems to be solved later, then the chances of those problems being effectively solved decreases.
What’s the takeaway? Getting support for policies that entail costs today that must be born by people who will not be alive to see the benefits presents a very tricky sort of political challenge (see also: dealing with long-term national debt). Treating this as simply a scientific problem, therefore, is unlikely to lead to its resolution.  Indeed, it may be that reminding people how much they love their grandchildren is ultimately as important as knocking a few more percentage points off levels of statistical uncertainty.