‘It’s not enough simply to point to the benefits future generations will enjoy’
By Summit Voice
“It’s not enough simply to point to the benefits future generations will enjoy”, said Jochem Marotzke, with 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, for instance by exporting climate-friendly technology.”
The experiment was based on an essay by Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling, who wrote in 1995 that it was today’s generation which would have to make the efforts for climate protection, while future generations would gain the benefits. People of the present have little motivation actually to do anything. For better or worse, people attach greater value to immediate material rewards than to investing in future quality of life.
The research team wanted to find out if this gloomy theory could withstand experimental scrutiny, so they set out to answer a simple question: Would you rather have €40 or save the climate?
When the question is put in such stark terms, the common sense answer is obviously: “stop climate change!” After all, we are well-informed individuals who act for the common good and, more particularly, for the good of future generations. Or at least that’s how we like to think of ourselves.
To get closer to the answer, the researchers asked participants to play a modified public goods game, commonly used in behavioral economics, when participants receive a certain amount of money and are invited to donate a proportion of it over a number of rounds. The donated money is doubled and this amount is divided equally between the players. Anything which was not donated goes directly in the player’s pocket. The most profitable behaviour in such games is to donate nothing at all and simply benefit from the altruism of the other players.
In this game, the rules were changed to include a positive long-term climate-change outcome. Each player received a starting fund of €40 and, playing over ten rounds, was able to decide how much of it to keep or donate.
The donated money was invested in a climate change advertising campaign and was thus a simulated investment in climate protection. There were also bonus payments: Those groups which donated more than half of their total fund were symbolically able to avoid dangerous climate change and were paid an additional €45 per participant. If the group donated less, all the players had a 90 percent probability of losing their endowment.
Three scenarios were devised to model the fact that the benefits of saving the climate are only felt in the future. Players from successful groups were paid their endowment either on the day after the experiment (scenario 1) or seven weeks later (scenario 2). In scenario 3, the endowment was not paid out to the players at all, but was instead invested in planting oak trees and thereby in climate protection. Over their lifetime, the trees will absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and their wood will be a valuable building material for future generations.
However, not one of the eleven groups which was offered the prospect of planting oak trees achieved the donation target. On average, just €57 were paid into the climate account instead the objective of €120 — less than half of the target amount.
In the first scenario, seven out of ten groups were successful, the participants donating on average €108, while the players in the second scenario still donated €83 (four out of ten groups were successful).
“The result of our experiment paints a gloomy picture of the future”, said Manfred Milinski, with the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology. “We were unfortunately able to confirm Schelling’s prediction – it’s a disaster.”
Climate change is the largest public goods game that has ever been played and the whole of humanity are its players. The problem is that while we are now making the payments, the fruits of our efforts will only be enjoyed very much later and they will be shared among the whole of humanity. We ourselves or our children will thus benefit only very slightly from any restrictions we place on our lives today and our motivation actually to do something is correspondingly low.