Bioethics Blogs

Cross Post: How psychology can help us solve climate chang

Time to cooperate. Hands by Shutterstock


The Paris agreement on climate change calls for a global responsibility to cooperate. As we are often reminded, we urgently and drastically need to limit our use of one shared resource – fossil fuels – and its effect on another – the climate. But how realistic is this goal, both for national leaders and for us? Well, psychology may hold some answers.

Psychologists and economists have long explored the conflict between short-term individual and long-term collective interests when dealing with shared resources. Think of the commons dilemma: the scenario in which a field for grazing cattle works well when everyone cooperates by sticking to one cow each, but which leads to the so-called “tragedy of the commons” if more selfish drives take over.

It is useful to think about overuse of fossil fuels and its effect on the climate as a similar dilemma. If we were to think of this from a purely economic perspective, we would likely act selfishly. But psychological research should make us more optimistic about cooperation.

Appeal to moral sense

Are you more likely to overuse a shared resource when it is framed as an ethical concern or a business transaction? Research shows people behave less selfishly when it’s framed ethically, or if we emphasise what people will gain rather than lose by reducing their use of fossil fuels.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.