We must pay the bill to stop climate change

Solutions will remain out of political reach without public understanding of the cost

‘In the short term, decarbonisation is going to cost money – lots of money. Why would the public accept this when their leaders refuse to admit it?’ Photograph: iStock

‘In the short term, decarbonisation is going to cost money – lots of money. Why would the public accept this when their leaders refuse to admit it?’ Photograph: iStock

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The majority of people in Ireland are now convinced that human-induced climate change is real. That battle is largely over; people are worried. Yet last week’s Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll reported that most of us oppose taxes and other measures designed to reduce the emissions that cause climate change.

The figures were stark: 82 per cent were against higher taxes on energy and fuel, 72 per cent were against making diesel and petrol cars more expensive, 60 per cent were against reducing the size of the national cattle herd.

Prof Pete Lunn
Prof Pete Lunn

What should we make of this? Are we in collective denial? Are we all hypocrites? Do we think someone else should clean up our mess?

I suspect not, although I think the poll contains important messages. But before getting to these, why did people respond so negatively?

Firstly, the design of the questions probably exaggerated the level of opposition. Ask people whether any tax should go up and most will say, “it depends”. It depends what the extra money is for. It depends whether other taxes are going up or down at the same time. If survey questions don’t provide this context, the default position of many respondents will be to oppose a tax.

Similar logic applies beyond taxes. Negative responses are likely if you ask people whether the size of the national cattle herd should be cut without saying what economic activity will replace it, or if you ask about making diesel and petrol cars more expensive without saying how alternatives will be supported.

Almost all economists conclude, first, that people who produce emissions need to pay much more for the damage they cause

Some decision-making biases probably influenced responses too. One is the “status quo bias”. People, on average, have an inbuilt resistance to change. When survey questions ask people to support or oppose a change, without explaining why the change might be beneficial, opposition generally dominates.

Another repeated finding of behavioural economics is “present bias”. People struggle to make immediate sacrifices that they recognise will eventually make them better off, like taking more exercise or drinking less alcohol. The same may apply to costly environmental fixes. Hence, opposition to green taxes may be high, but weak – most people don’t like them but know deep down they are necessary.

Overall, the isolated nature of the questions and how they interact with these biases may have pushed up the level of opposition recorded. It would be a mistake, however, to take comfort from these explanations. Even if my conjectures above hold, the results of this poll should trouble us.

Why? Because whatever the psychological forces behind opposition to the measures, they were stronger than the forces behind support. These include any sense of urgency about cutting emissions, appreciation of the costs involved, or recognition that financial incentives are part of the solution.

Given the scale and speed of cuts required to carbon and methane emissions, almost all economists conclude, first, that people who produce emissions need to pay much more for the damage they cause and, second, that government expenditure on green infrastructure and technologies must rise rapidly. This consensus among economists is as strong as the consensus among climate scientists that human activity is warming the planet.

Perhaps many people do not see the problem as economic at all [...] If so, they are failing to appreciate the huge costs involved

For the record, as a behavioural economist, I think that my fellow economists generally place too much faith in the law of supply and demand, often overstating the efficiency of markets. I, nevertheless, share their view that a “polluter pays” approach to greenhouse gases is vital.

Which brings us back to the poll. For while the findings can be interpreted in multiple ways, one thing they definitely imply is that the public, on average, is not convinced that we must start paying the cost of polluting our atmosphere. Despite worrying about the climate crisis, people do not buy the predominant economic solution.

Why? Perhaps many people do not see the problem as economic at all, but as an issue of personal behaviour change or tougher industry regulation. If so, they are failing to appreciate the huge costs involved – costs that someone has to pay.

It does not help when politicians (not only in Ireland, almost everywhere) insist that rapid emissions cuts will be good for the economy. In the long run they are probably right, but in the short term, decarbonisation is going to cost money – lots of money. Why would the public accept this when their leaders refuse to admit it?

People know [climate change is] serious, but don’t yet see how this translates into an appropriate response

It is of course easy to criticise politicians for timidity in the face of this unprecedented challenge. Researchers, like me, have a case to answer too. There is a yawning gap in research on climate change.

Psychologists and sociologists monitor attitudes to climate change and study ways to persuade people to “act” – whatever that means. Meanwhile, engineers, agricultural scientists and economists research how to reduce emissions for least cost. Almost no one works across these disciplines, studying whether members of the public understand the solutions, are able to engage with them, or accept them as fair.

Without public understanding, engagement and acceptance, the bold solutions required to stop dangerously heating our planet will remain out of political reach, even if they are technically feasible.

Last week’s poll confirms that it is time to upgrade the climate debate. People know it’s serious, but don’t yet see how this translates into an appropriate response.

We must come clean about the cost. We need to research public perceptions and understanding of the most effective and fair solutions. Without this two-way public involvement, the biggest policy problem of our time cannot be solved.

Prof Pete Lunn is head of the behavioural research unit at the ESRI

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