The challenge of insignificance for climate change scientists

Josh Brown


May 20th, 2015

At what point does rational debate turn irrational? Josh Brown examines how individual incentives are distorting rational arguments on climate change policy.

The free-rider problem is one that is widely seen to define issues such as climate change policy, though it is not the only problem. Climate change policy can also be seen to occur behind what public choice theory call a Veil of Insignificance.

The veil is a concept that comes from the study of voter behaviour. The theory holds that voters, when faced with the probability that their vote will not change an election outcome, tend to base their decision on other sources of utility – sources like ideology or attention seeking which lead to expressive voting, that could be at odds with their choice if they were to be instrumental. This comes directly from a feeling of insignificance, one which leads to expressions of attitudes rather than preferences in their behaviour. Although the bulk of this theory focusses on electoral voting, the principle remains the same for an issue like climate change – as a cost-benefit analysis for individuals constrained by notions of insignificance, behaviour is driven by expressive sources of utility.

Given this –

“Why should I reduce my carbon emissions when my emissions are insignificant compared with the costs I face?”

I am certain that many of us have heard this argument before, even though we are, per capita, some of the highest polluters of CO2. The argument clearly displays the dilemma for individuals of having a feeling of insignificance, as utility from potentially being instrumental in stopping serious climate change is minute.

Therefore, climate scientists need to be able to make an argument made within the constraint imposed by the veil of insignificance. This could include market mechanisms such as increasing the costs of no action, attempted unsuccessfully through the carbon tax; or decreasing the cost of action, now occurring with access to cheap solar panels (though cheap oil prices and big coal and energy lobbyists are jeopardising this).

However, the veil suggests that increasing the perceived significance or cultivating expressive sources of utility from such things as altruism or nationalism are also viable targets for special interest groups. This is where notions of social capital come into play. Independent feelings of contribution and purpose in behaviour have been shown to be powerful motivators in businesses. They are also, importantly, independent of any form of monetary payoff, disutility, or relative political cost (unlike the implementation of market redistributive schemes). Therefore, if a special interest group wants to try and gain support for a specific climate related outcome, there is a large incentive to try and target expressive forms of utility by stimulating emotional responses throughout society – in effect, an advertising campaign. This would have two effects. First, it has the potential to generate feelings of communal significance by attaching utility to the expressive behaviour rather than the instrumental – thereby diminishing the insignificance factor. Second, it could enhance an individual’s utility from simply acting on climate change, independent of their behaviours actual impact. This is somewhat trickier, but, as mentioned, having a sense of purpose is a powerful motivator.

Thus, it seems that an issue like climate change is one where governments and lobby groups have a vested interest in shaping the attitudes and beliefs of individuals through loud and emotive advertising campaigns. This ultimately results in strong, polarised campaigns that have the potential to disenfranchise individuals from the debate completely. Therefore, the greatest challenge for climate change scientists appear to be in navigating this propaganda minefield, whilst also providing accurate and convincing arguments that the public can accept. What this means for us in the public is that we need to be aware of the veil. Scepticism and an open mind in the climate debate is healthy, but moderation appears to be key to seeing through the advertising.

The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ESSA Committee or the Society's sponsors. Use of any content from this article should clearly attribute the work to the author and not to ESSA or its sponsors.

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