Climate Change: A Social Dilemma

In this piece, we uncover one of the behavioural challenges – the social dilemma in climate action.

Climate Change: A Social Dilemma
Photo by Susan Q Yin / Unsplash

Climate change is a unique challenge in distinction from other environmental risks. The magnitude of climate change remains unparalleled in terms of global and time scale. It spans centuries. The process involves numerous complexities and is thus perceived as a distant risk geographically, temporally, and spatially. In comparison, climate change varies with different environmental issues as it aggregates slowly and remains invisible primarily. Since it is not felt directly, it becomes challenging to trigger a direct risk response. Notable advancements have been made in identifying psychological factors as drivers and obstacles to public engagement and climate action. In this piece, we uncover one of the behavioural challenges – the social dilemma in climate action.

Previous research has highlighted climate change as a social dilemma on an unprecedented scale. Anthropogenic activities have become the primary cause of climate change. To foster climate action and avoid the collective cost, efforts are required from individual to global level. This action poses two choices – a cooperative choice and a non-cooperative choice. A cooperative choice results in low-emission behaviour, while a non-cooperative choice results in high-emission behaviour. A non-cooperative choice leads to immediate personal gain for individuals. Thus, it results in a rational choice for individuals to choose non-cooperation.

Characteristics of a Dilemma in Climate Change Scenario

1.     Preventing Loss

In the dilemma of cooperative choice, cooperation does not provide additional benefit but only helps give a socially optimum outcome, such as preventing a loss (Ostrom, 2009; Hasson et al., 2010). According to Kahneman & Tversky's prospect theory (1979), individuals lean toward overvaluing losses and undervaluing gains. Thus, the importance of loss avoidance/prevention may be a component in promoting cooperative choices in climate change mitigation dilemmas (Raihani & Aitken, 2011).

2. Emissions- a by-product

The distinctive feature of the climate change dilemma is that the objective is not to 'harvest' from the emission budget but to be a behavioural by-product of pursuing the objectives (Horton & Doron, 2011). For instance, when choosing to take a flight, the objective is not to 'harvest' from the emission budget but rather to reach a distant place in a reasonable time with convenience. In this scenario, individuals might not be aware of the consequences of this choice on the collective outcome of climate change. In 2011, Gifford identified lacking awareness- ignorance to be a barrier for people while acting on climate change. Burke (2001) illustrates that most individuals are unaware of the collective cost of mitigating the climate change dilemma. Furthermore, the situation can be a pure decision problem autonomous of social interdependence (Burke, 2001). Hence individuals may not transform from a 'given situation' (personal outcomes) to an 'effective situation' (collective or long-term effects).

3. Size of the collective

In a dilemma, the collective can be diverse in the form of countries, companies, local regions, the entire population, or individuals. At the individual level, the whole population is a collective (Horton & Doron, 2011; Milinski et al., 2006). Any individual can 'harvest' from the emission budget. Numerous studies have shown the importance of the size of the collective to induce cooperation in a situation of a social dilemma. Although it is not easy to determine the effect of the size of the collective on the cooperative choices as it depends on the unique features of the situational dilemma (Ostrom, 2004). Group identity can affect the number of people in a collective to motivate people to cooperate. A study by Ellemers and colleagues (1999) found that people identify themselves more strongly with a smaller minority group than with an influential group with the majority (Ellemers et al., 1999). However, these findings are from an experiment which compared tiny groups (e.g., the largest group size included eight people). It is also important to note that large and diverse groups as a collective form several characteristics in a social dilemma: the increase in anonymity, low personal significance, social uncertainty, and social distance (discussed below).

4.     The anonymity of the decision-makers

Direct/indirect reciprocity is prevented with the anonymity of the decision-makers leading to a decline in social cooperation (Kerr, 1999). A dilemma such as climate change mitigation involves privacy and anonymity in decision making; how much meat a person consumes and how much energy one use in his home remains highly private, which leads to a drop in cooperative behaviour.

5.     Social uncertainty

Due to the collective interdependency in social dilemmas, personal outcomes rely on the choices made by others. Therefore, it becomes difficult to predict the likelihood of gaining a socially optimum effect with certainty. Thus, social dilemmas hinge on high social uncertainty (Raihani & Aitken, 2011). As mentioned earlier, in a dilemma caused by climate change, social uncertainty remains at its peak due to the diversity and large size of the collective. Consequently, the possibility of opting out of a cooperative choice multiplies. The way to reduce social uncertainty is by increasing the communication amongst decision-makers; however, the communication approach is challenging to implement with large collectives in a dilemma.

6. Personal insignificance

Because of the vastness of the dilemma of climate change prevention, choices undertaken by an individual have a negligible impact on the world's environmental conditions. The dilemma can be categorised as personally insignificant as a single individual's cooperative actions might not substantially transform the outcomes (Aitken et al., 2011). Thus, the aspect of personal insignificance has been shown to impact cooperative choices negatively in social dilemmas (De Cremer & van Dijk, 2002). Research on social dilemma games showed that as the individual saw his contribution as small or insignificant to a public good, the chances of his cooperation to contribute to the public interest also decreased (Kerr, 1992).

7. Spatial trap

Another factor in the dilemma is a spatial trap. The effects of climate change are perceived to happen in places spatially distant from the decision-makers. This is called a spatial trap (Osbaldiston & Sheldon, 2002). Industrialised countries are the highest emissions (e.g., IPCC, 2013), whereas the negative consequences of climate change are borne by the subtropical developing countries (IPCC, 2014). This spatial trap fosters free-riding and non-cooperating tendencies in decision-makers as the developed countries face the least of the collective cost of climate change (Lorenzoni et al., 2007). Furthermore, distant risks are underestimated (Gifford, 2011). Therefore, the problem of climate change becomes a likely remote collective cost which is perceived as low risk in contrast to threats in immediate proximity.

8. Temporal trap

Despite the scientific evidence of a globally warming climate, the severe impacts of these changes are projected to occur in future (IPCC, 2014). Thus, short-term personal gains versus long-term collective growth form a conflict in the climate change dilemma (Osbaldiston & Sheldon, 2002). Non-cooperative decisions are also fostered by the temporal trap (Horton & Doron, 2011; Lorenzoni et al., 2007). When the outcomes of the distant future are discounted for the present personal payoffs are known as temporal discounting (Gifford et al., 2011). The temporal trap in the climate change dilemma implies that the consequences of climate change will affect the distant future generations and not the present age, regardless of whether they choose to be cooperative or non-cooperative.

9. Social distance

Due to spatial and temporal traps, the ones affected by climate change and facing the collective costs are socially distant from the decision-makers in the developed countries who are generating those costs (Spence et al., 2012). Social distance encourages psychological discounting, i.e., little significance is given to collective outcomes (Jones & Rachlin, 2006). Thus, the decreased value given to collective effects results in a decline in cooperative choices (e.g., Kollock, 1998).

10.  Environmental uncertainty

The complexity of climate change increases uncertainty and precision about the negative consequences at different regional levels and time scales (Lorenzoni et al., 2005). Additionally, the deterrence of climate change through actions cannot be predicted in the correct form (Meinshausen et al., 2009). Thus, environmental uncertainty gives rise to a rationale for non-cooperation. In specific, non-cooperative choices are fostered because of the high uncertainty of collective cost; the collective cost may not be met by the individuals' generation (see temporal trap); and it is uncertain if mutual cooperative choices can result in socially optimum outcome for everyone in a dilemma (Hasson et al., 2010; Horton & Doron, 2011).

The dilemma caused by climate change is highly complex. Anthropogenic climate change is a by-product of a multitude of human behaviour. Addressing the negative consequences of anthropogenic climate change demands confronting behaviours of people that drive momentous environmental change in improving and reorienting attitudes towards the environment and the relationship between humans and nature (Stern, 1992). Based on the literature, it is evident that any factor alone cannot predict individual action towards environmental issues and climate change. Various aspects and circumstances play a part in fostering climate action resulting in cooperation. We need interdisciplinary lenses to understand climate action.


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