A collective-risk dilemma experiment published on 31 October in the journal PLoS ONE has shown that wealthier people are less likely to financially contribute to mitigating climate change. Participants of the study with fewer resources were prepared to contribute significantly more for the greater good, sometimes up to twice as much. Moreover, in the group of the richest participants, about 80% behaved in a selfish manner.
The researchers from the Universitat Rovira i Virgili, the University of Barcelona, the University of Zaragoza and the Carlos III University of Madrid studied how certain groups of individuals respond to a common threat― in this case, climate change. Contrary to expectations of the poor exploiting the rich, disadvantaged individuals actually contributed more than their “fair” share towards mitigation and the richest contributed less. Other studies have observed similar “selfish behaviours” in the richest participants.
The so-called lab-in-the-field experiment involved more than 320 individuals divided into 54 groups of six. In each of the ten rounds, each group was given a total of €240, which was either distributed evenly among members (€40 each) or unevenly in the range of €20–60 each. Participants were then required to contribute a chosen amount to a common fund with the aim of reaching a specific goal ― an action against climate change ― and allowed to keep any leftover money. All participants were aware of how much money the others had at the start and how much each member had contributed after each round.
Interestingly, participants with fewer resources contributed significantly more to the common fund compared to those with more wealth. An unsupervised learning algorithm was then used to classify participants according to their individual behaviour. The algorithm found that the poorest participants fit within two “generous clusters” and the richest into a “greedy cluster.” This type of “inequality between actors” is known to be widespread in relation to climate change mitigation.
The authors conclude that inequalities may lead to unexpected problems in climate change mitigation, mostly related to environmental justice. Simply being aware of climate change did not play a role in the average contributions to the common fund; therefore, policies focused on awareness may not be the best approach. Instead, ensuring “correct interpretation of the perceived effects” may be best. Further, they suggest that by creating time-sensitive goals and rewarding individuals of the population for performing certain favourable actions, what they refer to as “Monetizing Nature,” may improve overall cooperation. For example, tax back for purchasing an electric vehicle or maintaining a rooftop garden.
The authors write, “Climate change mitigation is a shared global challenge that involves collective action,” and propose, “educating about fairness and reinforcing climate justice actions addressed to vulnerable people instead of focusing on understanding generic or global climate consequences.” In other words, teaching people about global climate consequences does not lead to equitable contributions; therefore, policies should be focused on socially desirable outcomes and teaching the importance of fairness
(1) Vicens, J. et al. Resource heterogeneity leads to unjust effort distribution in climate change mitigation. PLOS ONE (2018). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0204369