IPCC report: Difficulty of carbon emissions cuts ‘in the mind’

Support for climate policies determined by ’emotional factors’ says UN panel, highlighting political challenge

(Pic: Lingaraj/Flickr)

(Pic: Lingaraj/Flickr)

By Gerard Wynn

Human societies from governments to individuals may have to switch to more thoughtful analysis in daily decisions, instead of intuition, if they are to tackle the problem of climate change, a UN climate report said.

People often rely on a combination of past experience and gut instinct, said the report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), quoting behavioural psychologists.

As a result, societies from policymakers to individuals give more weight to short-term outcomes they are sure about, discounting long-term uncertainties, and worrying more about not making losses than accruing gains.

Such intuitive thinking weighs against action to tackle climate change, where costly carbon cuts now will accrue uncertain benefits long into the future, for example in fewer droughts and heat waves and slower sea level rise.

“A strong focus on short-term goals including immediate survival may have been helpful as humans evolved, but may have negative consequences in the current environment where risks and challenges are more complex and solutions to problems such as climate change require a focus on long time horizons,” the IPCC report said.

“In the context of climate change, protective or mitigating actions often require sacrificing short-term goals that are highly weighted in people’s choices in order to meet more abstract, distant goals that are typically given very low weight.”

“Most people are averse to risk and to uncertainty and ambiguity when making choices. More familiar options tend to be seen as less risky, all other things being equal, and thus more likely to be selected.”

As a result, people who rely on intuitive thinking will take decisions based on past experience, which may not help them address climate change, whose future impacts may be beyond human experience.

“There is substantial empirical evidence that people’s support or opposition to proposed climate policy measures is determined primarily by emotional factors and their past experience rather than explicit calculations as to whether the personal benefits outweigh the personal costs.”

“Surveys conducted in Alaska and Florida, regions where residents have been exposed more regularly to physical evidence of climate change, show greater concern and willingness to take action.”


The IPCC reviews the latest published science on climate change every five to six years. Sunday’s report was the last instalment of the latest report, focusing on policy options to cut emissions, and compiled by some 235 authors.

They found that countries should roughly halve global carbon emissions by 2050, compared with present levels, which are still rising, to avoid the most dangerous climate change.

They said that “business as usual” was not an option, given expected temperature rises of 3 to 5 degrees Celsius without efforts to curb emissions, implying dangerous sea level rise, floods and droughts.

For tackling climate change, intuitive thinking falls short, leading to an under-estimate of the risks.

That problem could explain the well documented difficulty the world is having in curbing carbon emissions, from devising suitably ambitious climate policies to making more rational, individual purchases.

For example , too high a focus on intuitive thinking leads to a well-documented loss aversion, where people place a bigger focus on avoiding a loss than making a gain.

Loss aversion has been used to explain a surprisingly low uptake of energy efficiency technologies, whose small up-front costs are paid for many times over through energy savings over their lifetime.

“Currently there is a reluctance by consumers to adopt energy efficient measures, such as compact fluorescent bulbs, energy efficient refrigerators, boilers and cooling systems as well as new technologies such as solar installations and wind power,” the IPCC report said.

“Due to a focus on short-term horizons, individuals may underestimate the savings. They are likely to discount the future … so that the upfront cost is perceived to be greater than expected discounted reduction in energy costs.”

One answer is a more deliberative approach, involving a more considered weighing of risks and benefits.

“There is a growing recognition that decision-makers often rely on intuitive thinking processes rather than undertaking a systematic analysis of options in a deliberative fashion,” the IPCC report said.

More sophisticated, deliberative decisions are helped by making information available, doing the sums for the decision maker. For example, complex cost-benefit analysis can quantify the net outcome of particular policies for decision makers.

Similarly, for households, more detail on long-term benefits of particular purchases may help.

“To encourage households to invest in energy efficient measures, messages need to be conveyed that communicate information on energy use and savings from undertaking these investments. Recent research has indicated the importance of highlighting indirect and direct benefits.”

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