Things I’ve Worked On: The Social Pyschology Approach to Climate Change

The most fascinating social psychology questions present 1 of 2 types of dilemmas:

  1. Dilemmas that focus on the stakes of the participant’s action.
    • Would you break a man’s leg to ensure the safety of your family for 1 year?
    • Would you break a man’s leg to ensure the safety of your family for 50 years?
  2. Dilemmas that focus on the responsibility of the participant for his action
    • Would you use electric shocks to teach a person if told to do so? (See the Milgram experiment)
    • Would you use electric shocks to teach a person without instruction?

Why do questions such as these intrigue us? I think the answer is because they exceed our abilities in comprehension. They create cognitive biases, i.e., gray clouds in our mind where we are unable to interpret the objective effects of our actions.

In the context of an issue such as global warming, this limitation to human nature is very troubling. Global warming creates pollution that is so removed and so culturally accepted that it appears that the effects of our actions are neither substantial nor our fault alone. The unfortunate truth is that anthropogenic climate change is real, and we (first-world citizens) are the most responsible for it. So how do we combat this aspect of human nature? Well, we have a blueprint, and it’s based on these two dilemmas.

Solution to Dilemma 1: Raise the stakes of the participants’ actions.

The good news (and by that, I mean really really bad news) is that global warming is raising the stakes itself. Thus, to some extent, this dilemma will solve itself naturally.

The bad news is that the people who are feeling the effects of climate change the worst are not necessarily those who contribute the most. Therefore, we need to figure out a way to make the effect of climate change proportional to the contribution. Because this is the 21st century, there is really only one medium through which to achieve this: money. Furthermore, the distribution of money will have to involve both intranational and international components.

Intranational Solution

Some level of scarcity is generally needed in order for a product to warrant a price; however, the absence of pollution on a year-to-year basis appears to have no ceiling and thus no scarcity. In reality, there is a very real ceiling to pollution (and we have determined it). Thus, the first step to solving dilemma 1 is creating a cap-and-trade scheme. That is, put a cap on yearly carbon emissions, and producers can trade emissions allowances within this paradigm.

International Solution

Cap and trade is a very popular country-level solution, but it isn’t enough. In the United States, we are still indebted to the global poor for bearing the brunt of a problem that they did not create. Their crops are being affected and their homes are being ravaged by phenomena we are mostly responsible for creating. Thus, we need an international entity to distribute funds fairly.

Unlike the World Bank, any sort of sustainability-centered entity would have to have no capitalistic flavor to it, and funds would have to be generated and distributed in a totally different way. Here’s my proposed structure for the World Sustainability Fund (WSF):

  • Members, led by the United States and China (whose participation would be essential), would be required to implement a cap-and-trade scheme, submit it to oversight by the WSF, and pay a nominal fee.
  • In order to receive funds, a country would need to be a founding member or have been a member for three years.
  • Two types of caps would exist: Cap 1 would be proposed by the countries themselves and Cap 2 would be proposed by the WSF based on the country’s population.
  • Members would use Cap 1 to run their national cap-and-trade programs.
  • The distribution of funds would be relative to the performance of Cap 1 in comparison to Cap 2 (and likely the population).
    • i.e., if (C2 / C1) > 1, the country would be a net gainer, and if (C2 / C1) < 1, the country would be a net loser.


Emissions Cap 1 Pop. (% Total) Cap 2  C2 / C1
Country 1 600 505 100 (11%) 93.5 0.2
Country 2 50 45 100 (11%) 93.5 2.1
Country 3 300 250 500 (56%) 476 1.9
Country 4 50 50 200 (22%) 187 3.7
Total 1000 850 900 850 1.0

Solution to Dilemma 2: Put responsibility in the hands of participants.

Pollution is the result of economic transactions, which entail a consumer and a producer, both of which need to be held responsible. In the US particularly, there seems to be this belief that producers should solely carry the burden of pollution arising from the production of goods. That is, if there is a cost to the consumer transferred through higher prices, the policy is no good.

This is absolute hogwash. Consumers are the ultimate arbiters of consumerism–not culture and not producers–so they should be the ultimate bearers of responsibility. This is a point both American conservatives (who use passing costs as an excuse for no regulation) and liberals (who say passing costs just won’t happen or won’t be substantial) seem to miss. It’s NOT the worst thing in the world if consumers pay more. In fact, it’s probably a good thing. Ultimately, pollution is just like any other cost, except it isn’t being adequately paid for. Once an adequate carbon scheme is imposed, whether this cost does or does not get passed down  to consumers is simply a mechanic of the market economy, based very much on the allocation of responsibility in a transaction. The defense of the consumer is so clearly a product of our American political system, and it’s the most significant obstacle to meaningful emissions policy.

I’m not necessarily breaking new ground with this post or factoring in political feasibility, but I am putting the issue of climate change into a context that is very digestible. Through this, I think it becomes pretty clear that both of these dilemmas have to be addressed to achieve a real and fair solution.

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