What has posterity done for us?

Why is humanity finding it difficult to take action on climate change? Most governments in the developed world were elected on platforms that included promises to pursue aggressive policies on greenhouse gas emissions. Broadly speaking, the reality has not matched the promises made. The reasons for this are multitudinous and no one should ever underestimate the difficulties of weaning advanced societies off the use of cheap and convenient access to fossil fuels. But in addition to the standard reasons for slow progress we can see a large number of obstacles that spring from human psychology. In particular, some of the resistance to aggressive action on climate seems to spring from mental attitudes that may have helped us survive as a species in the past. Politicians may intuitively recognise the existence of these barriers. So they continue to say that climate change is the most important problem facing humanity at the same time as adding new runways to the local airport or sanctioning the development of new coal-fired power stations.


I want to suggest two classes of reasons why action is so slow:

  1. At some subconscious level most people believe that climate change is not as dangerous a threat as commonly supposed.
  2. The desire to protect future generations – and current generations who live far from us – is much less well entrenched in human thinking than we piously assume. Similarly, many of us distrust the collective consensus and do not believe it will persist for the three or four generations necessary to turn the world economy successfully away from the use of coal, gas, and oil.

The phrase ‘What has posterity ever done for us?’ is usually assigned to Groucho Marx. However the evidence is that this comment, or something like it, was first used by an obscure Irish eighteenth-century politician who may have been the model for Mrs Malaprop. The phrase may now be ridiculed, but it contains a worrying truth.

1) The threat is not as dangerous as is usually thought a) Optimism bias Human beings seem to have a psychological predisposition towards optimism. The phrase ‘optimism bias’ refers to the tendency to assume that matters will turn out well. In the planning of a new construction project, for example, the costs are routinely underestimated. The UK Department for Transport website states that ‘there is a demonstrated, systematic, tendency for project appraisers to be overly optimistic and that to redress this tendency appraisers should make explicit, empirically based adjustments to the estimates of a project’s costs, benefits, and duration.’

In the case of climate change, we may unconsciously have a similar view. Although the results from scientific work seem increasingly worrying, many of us may simply be saying at the back of our minds that it will really all turn out OK. Inherent optimism may have helped our ancestors and ourselves cope with present adversity and future threats. It does not help us deal with a long-distant and uncertain set of risks from rising temperatures.

b) Central estimate bias Humans tend systematically to over-estimate the tightness of the distribution of likely outcomes from uncertain events (in other words, the width of the ‘bell curve’). Ask an individual a question on a subject about which they know little and then request an estimate of the probability that his or her answer is nearly right and people will routinely be far more certain than they should be. Examples might be a question that asked how many species there are on the planet or the number of books published a year. People don’t generally know the answer but will nevertheless be far more confident than they should be about the correctness of their estimate.

This phenomenon helps us to be usefully decisive. Rather than endlessly discussing which way to go to hunt today, perhaps our ancestors found it useful to have an exaggerated certainty. This phenomenon allows leaders to get groups to engage in purposeful action. Unfortunately this human attribute is not helpful when it comes to climate change. The world faces a high degree of uncertainty about the impacts of warming, with a very wide distribution of possible outcomes. It may be 1.5 degrees of temperature rise or it may be 5.

The books about climate change from Nigel Lawson and Bjørn Lomborg are particularly good examples of the natural tendency to assume that probability distributions of likely outcomes are highly compressed. Both authors write that the eventual temperature rise is going to be about 2 degrees and are highly over-confident about the certainty with which we might know this

c) Assumption of exaggeration in those trying to persuade us Scientists are seen as salespeople trying to ‘sell’ their research findings. Correctly or otherwise, ordinary people seem to believe that the conclusions in scientific papers are biased by the need to impress the journalists that cover the topic who then amplify the results in order to attract attention from their readers. The general population tends to discount the findings, assume them to be exaggerated and distorted by the need to show increasingly bad outcomes. It is also likely that the population assumes that striking results are more likely to get the authors future research funding.

I think it is probable that pressure from the press does slightly distort scientific research and, being human, scientists may sometimes amplify their concerns in order to attract attention. But the huge majority of climate change work is carefully designed and extremely robust. Most people in the general population don’t know about the process of peer review. Nor can they comprehend the pressure on scientists only to publish material that will withstand critical examination: flawed or exaggerated results or presentation can damage a researcher’s reputation for ever.

d) An underlying faith in smoothly adjusting and self-correcting processes The latter half of the twentieth century brought a profound change in the way that people in developed countries saw their world. Effective markets meant that prices generally quietly and unobtrusively adjusted supply and demand so that crises of availability became rare. Although there are good counter-examples, such as the severe depletion of Atlantic fish stocks, markets have been generally very good at dealing with temporary disruptions. For example, it’s possible that a smaller percentage of people have starved to death than at any comparable period in the last thousand years. It seem to me that our pre-industrial ancestors would have understood catastrophic climate change much better than we can.

Until the present collapse of large parts of the banking system, trade and financial flows seemed superb at avoiding the awful effects of natural disasters and other extreme events. We have gradually lost the sense that food or raw material shortages can get worse and worse. So an escalating and near-irreversible climate change threat – a classic ‘commons’ problem, as is over-fishing – is not fully comprehended by the modern mind-set. The liberal capitalism of the last twenty years has been so successful that it has blinded us to potential threats from environmental collapse. The examples of such crises in the past – from Easter Island through to soil degradation in the Dust Bowl years – are now all too easily ignored.

The dominance of the economist’s model of the world is under threat from the deepening recession. The invisible hand is now looking a little arthritic. But for the last thirty years it has provided the standard ideological framework in Anglo-Saxon economies. We are all, in the words of Keynes, the slaves of some defunct economist. But the discontinuities, non-linearities, and tipping points of climate change require us to reprogramme our minds. It will take many years.

e) The lack of an observable enemy CO2 is invisible, innocuous except for its absorption of certain frequencies of infra-red radiation, and it is a natural part of the carbon cycle. It sustains living systems and helps maintain the planet at a habitable temperature. These are not the usual characteristics of an environmental enemy. Although the US and China are often blamed by the rest of the world for the volume of their pollution and are called enemies of humanity, we all know that responsibility is actually dispersed far more widely across the globe. Depletion of the ozone layer was an easier problem. A small number of manufacturers were making CFCs for a limited number of uses. It was possible to begin the process of phasing out their use.

But with CO2, the enemy is much less easy to locate and pin down. Human societies have always sought to identify enemies, whether it be racial minorities, foreigners with different ideologies, or people who simply don’t fit in. Greenhouse gases are not only invisible, which makes identifying enemies difficult, but they are also all-pervasive. We do not even know where to start – some say we should ban leisure flying, others suggest we need to stop burning coal, increase forest cover, or turn down the thermostat. Compared to the usual cry of ‘repel the barbarians’, this doesn’t make for effective warfare on CO2.

2) The desire to protect future generations is not well entrenched a) Getting rich is a better way of protecting your own descendants Effective human societies have developed systems for profiting from individual selfishness and combining this characteristic with laws and regulation, as well as a limited reliance on unselfish generosity. It is not through benevolence, said Adam Smith, that the baker provided us with our meal. Although altruism is a substantial component of individual moral systems, this generosity tends to be restricted to our families and those around us. Famously, of course, we are more interested in ensuring the prosperity of our genetic descendants than the world in general. Protecting the world for our grandchildren’s generation is often said to be the primary reason for doing something about climate change. But, being realistic, most of us have very little interest in doing something for individuals yet unborn in countries of which we know little.

We do appear to be concerned for our own grandchildren, and society smiles on this devotion. How do we as individuals look after own relatives best in the future climate crises? Is it through lobbying parliaments for real actions to reduce emissions? No. The uncomfortable fact is that we are better advised to accumulate as much wealth as possible – even if it means using large amounts of fossil fuel – and then bequeathing our descendants enough wealth to avoid some of the impacts of global warming. Particularly in countries with a weak commitment to collective action to fight social problems, such as the UK and the US, we will see the rich head for the high ground to give their children homes that will not be flooded. The important conclusion is, I think, that a real commitment to valuing the lives of people remote from us in time and in place similarly to our families and friends is clearly difficult to achieve.

b) High discount rates This is a similar but not identical issue. Non-economists may not have picked up the strongly felt dispute between Stern and the economics establishment about how we should value the future. Simplifying the respective positions, Stern said that a person today is worth the same as a person in the future. Therefore, if we had to make financial sacrifices today to gain a reduction in the costs of climate change tomorrow, we should not put an interest rate on the money we ‘lend’ the future. We should invest a billion today as long as the benefit is greater than a billion in fifty years’ time.

Nonsense, said the economics profession almost with one voice. Economic growth will ensure that someone living in fifty years’ time will be much richer than us. Why should the poor of today subsidise the rich of the future? We should charge interest on our ‘loan’ to the richer people of 2060 and only make sacrifices today if the result yields a good return on the money (let’s say 3% interest a year). This is usually called the ‘discount rate’. Economists are usually happy if the rate for social investments, such as roads or schools, is about 3% or 4% a year; and they want climate change investments to match these requirements.

This is all very well for society as a whole, but individuals generally have much higher figures in mind. Until the present financial distortions, many people would generally be happy to borrow from their future income stream (by getting a personal loan for example and paying it back over five years) at vastly higher interest rates. This gives us one of the most difficult problems in climate change policy-making: why should people who as individuals have high discount rates (as evidenced by their willingness to borrow from the future at usurious interest) vote in a government that wants to lend to the future either at no interest (Stern) or about 3% a year (other economists)? When humankind – rich and poor – has such a strong preference for present-day consumption, how can we make the necessary investments in low-carbon energy that will take decades to pay back?

c) Confidence in collective action Let’s assume we can get round the first two problems in this section – the lack of real interest in remote people in time or place and individuals’ high discount rates. We still have a huge issue to face. For climate change policies to work, they have to be pursued for generations on end. The rich seams of coal underneath our feet will have to stay unburnt for ever for our climate change mitigation policies to work, even though the fuel is cheap to extract and burn. If we sacrifice our standard of living today by, for example, agreeing to the development of expensive offshore wind power, what reason do we really have to believe that future generations won’t ignore our generosity and simply revert to fossil fuels? Many of us will have doubts about the continuing commitment of people in the future. Trust in the sensible actions of people in a hundred years’ time to continue our sacrifices productively will not be widespread. Capitalist and quasi-capitalist societies like China have productively used selfish individualism to bring about economic progress. As is well known, this appears to have brought about a widespread decline in what is loosely called ‘trust’. By trust we seem to mean faith that others will hold to promises and reciprocate generosity. Unfortunately, it therefore seems that liberal individualism may well have made long-term collective action (where we need to trust in the sacrifices of generations to come) less rather than more likely.


I often find the picture I have tried to paint a deeply depressing one. Action on climate change seems to me to run counter to many of the most powerful currents in liberal societies around the world, particularly those run or guided by economists. In the end, action on climate change may never be successfully instigated by the sophisters and calculators.

If I had to guess whether humankind could possibly ever agree to take substantive action on climate change if the worst effects only really began in a hundred years’ time, I would be pessimistic. We would have to rely not on economic or even tradition moral arguments, which have all the weaknesses I have tried to identify above, but on what is essentially a religious faith – a view that respect for the Earth demands that we allow it to stay largely as it is. There’s no doubt that this is an important force in human thinking, even among people without conventional theism. After all, we do all seem to care a lot about a few thousand polar bears of no economic value.

However, I don’t think this impulse is powerful enough. It is of course an unfortunate truth that the rationalism of today is usually unimpressed by religious arguments of the ‘polar bear’ type. This is another example of how liberal and scientifically rational societies are extremely poorly equipped to deal with the unique difficulties of dealing with future climate change.

I don’t want to end on a pessimistic note. Paradoxically, the primary reason for hope is that the deleterious impacts of climate change are already apparently visible. Drought in China, Australia, Spain, and the western US may or may not be due to global warming. But humankind has another important psychological flaw – a tendency to think that coincident events are causally related. People think that today’s extreme weather events are caused by climate change. This is very useful to those who push for concerted action. You are much more likely to push for change if you believe that you can already see the possible effect on your family. Many of the issues in this note disappear. The earlier the symptoms of change begin to affect the rich countries of the world, the more likely we are to see real action soon. The cynic might almost hope for some real disasters as soon as possible. Without them, we’re unlikely to see any meaningful political action.