To know what you can accomplish, you have to know who you are. To confront climate change, we, the members of Team Humanity, should do more to grasp our strengths and weaknesses as decision makers.
Many on the Team assume that cooperation is our primary strength. Therefore, they believe, the United States should stick with the Paris accords and honor its commitment to financing them. Never mind that Paris has no teeth and that the 1997 Kyoto treaty, which actually did, drove nations to quit the coalition before paying for their carbon pollution in actual money.
As a psychologist who studies systemic change, I observe that Team Humanity amasses impressive lists of climate solutions, yet rarely thinks about how likely it is that any one of them can be implemented. For example, given human nature, what is the probability that we will put an international price on carbon versus achieving an energy breakthrough like clean nuclear power?
With the climate crisis looming, it is time to place our bets.
Many people put their chips on cooperation, which depends in part on altruism. Altruism within and between groups, known by researchers as "parochial altruism" (and by the rest of us as tribalism), is the act of being unselfish toward our own groups while at the same time being aggressive toward other groups.
For thousands of years human beings have feared strangers from other tribes. Our very brains reflect this. When our group is threatened by an outgroup, our brain patterns for empathy and concern for the ingroup are strong, while our tendency to aggress against the outgroup grows stronger. What does this mean for solving global problems like climate change? Researchers on parochial altruism have little hope that we can overcome it. Humans do have an intuition to cooperate, but this tendency is not strong enough to advance systemic causes like world peace. The experts confirm what we already know from recent political experience: Team Humanity is still tribal.
Cooperation also depends on trust. Even when people do not share a common group loyalty, they can sometimes work well together. Unfortunately, research suggests that this tendency is unreliable. Although Team Humanity should collaborate to solve complex global problems, doing so requires a commitment from diverse stakeholders that is difficult to achieve. Experts conclude that the nations of the world will not be able to work together and solve systemic problems like climate change because Team Humanity simply does have enough of the needed attitudes and skills.
Research on the failure of past societies bears out these concerns about cooperative decision-making. Historically, many—some experts say most—societies have failed to husband their natural resources and have subsequently collapsed. Societies fail to make the right environmental decisions for a whole sequence of reasons—failure to anticipate a problem, failure to perceive a problem, failure to attempt to solve it after it has been identified (this is probably where we are now on climate), and failure to succeed in attempts to solve it (how hard have we tried so far?)
A related weakness is the cognitive biases that undermine humans' ability to make effective collective decisions. For example, when leaders attempt large scale change, they find it hard to convince people to address distant problems that require current sacrifices. Based on his and others' research in this area, Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman has expressed pessimism that humanity will find a path to success on climate change.
Climate leaders must overcome parochial altruism to step outside their own sector and its interests. They must learn to lead as cosmopolitans and globalists. They must figure out how businesses and governments can cooperate to develop and implement broad environmental policies, and how countries and regions of the world can work together. Social scientists think this is a very tall order.
Bringing these findings to the climate conversation, we can see the challenge that faces superordinate groups like the United Nations and the European Union. Competing nation states faced with the depletion of the global commons may not be able to cooperate to fix the problem.
Yet, although the decision-making prowess of Team Humanity may be less than we imagine, there is still hope. Fortunately, our limited ability to cooperate is not our only attribute. Team Humanity has many other decision-making virtues. These include creativity, openness to experience, intellect, competitiveness, assertiveness, and aggressiveness.
These virtues are found in abundance among our innovators and entrepreneurs. Perhaps we should pass them more chips?