Self-interest and time perception may be the most significant obstacles to climate change action, according to a new study. Researchers at New York University (NYU) have determined that the long-term goals of preventive action are not sufficient incentives for nations who fail to cooperate in the face of global warming. The findings suggest that emphasizing the short-term gains may be the only way to spur a concerted effort against the climate shift that threatens to unravel infrastructures and economic systems worldwide.

Published in the journal Nature Climate Change, the new study sought to evaluate how human psychology can restrict global, comprehensive strategies against climate change. The researchers were particularly interested in how a reduced interest in delayed gratification impairs international cooperation. According to senior researcher Jennifer Jacquet of NYU’s Environmental Studies Program, this psychological phenomenon could be among the most significant impediments to early action against global warming. After all, most positive and negative outcomes cited in the climate debate will not materialize for another generation.

"People are often self-interested, so when it comes to investing in a cooperative dilemma like climate change, rewards that benefit our offspring – or even our future self – may not motivate us to act," she explained in a press release.

To investigate how the human mind processes instant gratification vis-à-vis delayed gratification, Jacquet and her colleagues set up an experiment together with researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and two Max Planch Institutes in Germany. In the experiment, each participant was given 40 Euros to “invest” in a joint action against climate change. The available investment options yielded three different outcomes: a profit of five euros to be paid out the next day; an identical profit accrued over six weeks; and a larger profit to be distributed across a number of fictional climate projects, such as planting oak trees for future generations. Although the net profit of the third option far exceeded those of the other two, participants were reluctant to commit their fictional capital to a long-term cause, as the stimulated projects would not benefit them personally.

"We learned from this experiment that even groups gravitate towards instant gratification," said co-author Christoph Hauert, a UCB mathematician specializing in game theory.

For this reason, policy makers and advocates of early action against global warming may need to shift their focus from long-term disasters to short-term conveniences.

Source: Jennifer Jacquet, Kristin Hagel, Christoph Hauert, Jochem Marotzke, Torsten Röhl, Manfred Milinski. Intra- and intergenerational discounting in the climate game.Nature Climate Change, 2013