Climate change and status quo bias

One perpetual question in climate politics is whether radical political change is necessary to achieve climatic stability, or whether the necessary energy transition can be achieved in a ‘stealthy’ technocratic way.

This question is linked to the general question about radical versus incremental change, which is in turn touched upon in Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape:

“This bias relates to what has come to be known as ‘the endowment effect’: people demand more money in exchange for an object that has been given to them than they would spend to acquire the object in the first place. In psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s words, ‘a good is worth more when it is considered as something that could be lost or given up than when it is evaluated as a potential gain.’ This aversion to loss causes human beings to generally err on the side of maintaining the status quo. It is also an important impediment to conflict resolution through negotiation: for if each party values his opponent’s concessions as gains and his own as losses, each is bound to perceive his sacrifice as being greater.” (p. 75 – hardcover)

When it comes to political change, there are at least two rational reasons to favour the status quo. Firstly, through radical change we risk losing things that we currently possess and which have value. For instance, if we radically altered our political system to take into account the interests of future generations, it may stop serving some of the functions it serves effectively now. Secondly, there is the danger of unwanted side-effects accompanying change. In addition to losing old capabilities, we may take on new problems.

All told, I think our collective status quo bias is far too strong. We want to keep economic growth happening, maintain our lifestyles, and generally avoid large-scale political change. Unfortunately, by trying to keep our own lives as similar as possible to the past, we are condemning the Earth to a future unlike anything humanity has ever seen. If we are to tackle the problem of climate change, we need to find ways to effectively drive the transition away from fossil fuels. The psychological potency of loss – which Harris and Kahneman highlight – may be one mechanism for that. By highlighting everything that is put in jeopardy by climate change, it may be possible to drive people to reform their lifestyles and institutions in ways that limit its severity.

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