Climate Change, Individual Preferences, and Procrastination

In Sarah Kenehan & Corey Katz (eds.), Climate Justice and Feasibility: Normative Theorizing, Feasibility Constraints, and Climate Action. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 193-211 (2021)
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When discussing the general inertia in climate change mitigation, it is common to approach the analysis either in terms of epistemic obstacles (climate change is too scientifically complex to be fully understood by all in its dramatic nature and/or to find space in the media) and/or moral obstacles (the causal link between polluting actions and social damage is too loose, both geographically and temporally, to allow individuals to understand the consequences of their emissions). In this chapter I maintain that both categories of obstacles now play a secondary role: many people have a clear understanding of the physical and social dynamics involved in climate change. The main reason why so few manage to reduce their ecological footprint is an ethical short-circuit that does not allow most people to reveal their “true” climate-related preferences in their daily choices. This short-circuit manifests itself in two phenomena that can be analysed through the lens of moral psychology. First, as the possibility of anticipated utility approaches, individuals further discount expected future utility and may even reverse their preferences (due to the so-called immediacy multiplier, in addition to the better known and discussed future utility discounting). Second, individuals struggle to order their preferences transitively when presented with the opportunity to obtain small net marginal utilities in the short run. The intertemporal and collective structure of the climate problem creates fertile ground for both phenomena, which means that even those who are sincerely convinced of the need to contribute to climate change mitigation end up trapped in loops of procrastination, both first and second level. If, however, we can understand the origin of these phenomena, then we will be able to devise counteracting solutions that will speed up individual mitigation efforts. I will therefore briefly propose three ethical/public strategies to break the procrastination loop: pre-commitment; increasing the costs of marginal postponements; reducing the disutility of action that is likely to be postponed.

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Fausto Corvino
University of Gothenburg


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