What It Takes To Cooperate With Future Generations On Climate Change


Simply cooperating in everyday life is hard enough, but cooperating with future generations is a whole other challenge — and one that makes addressing climate change so difficult.

Why people are willing, or unwilling, to make present day sacrifices for future generations is the topic of a new study called “Cooperating With The Future” from researchers at Harvard and Yale. Published Wednesday in the journal Nature, the study looks at how people weigh decisions that are dependent on the continued help of subsequent generations, such as climate change and resource management.

“There has been a great deal of work on how people cooperate with those they see every day — their colleagues or friends,” Martin Nowak, director of the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics at Harvard, said in a statement. “But an open question is how people cooperate with future generations. How do you make altruistic decisions today that benefit people tomorrow?”

The research has implications for policymakers across the world trying to determine the best way to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. The United Nations has been the leader of global efforts so far, but the original Kyoto Protocol failed to achieve significant GHG reductions. As leaders look toward a new treaty in 2015, the study offers both encouraging and discouraging insights. A number of countries have set up carbon trading schemes, such as Australia, much of Europe, and parts of North America, but without a global effort it will be harder to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. However, what starts locally can often lead to more comprehensive measures, such as may happen with the proposed EPA state-level carbon limits for power plants that are expected to lead to regional mitigation efforts.

The study looks at the behavioral reasons behind some of these trends.

Even if you want to cooperate with the future, you may not do so because you are afraid of being exploited by the present.

“In some sense, this illustrates why the free market fails to solve problems like climate change,” Nowak said. “Even if you want to cooperate with the future, you may not do so because you are afraid of being exploited by the present.”


David Rand, an assistant professor of psychology and economics at Yale said that even in a society where most people care about the future, its unlikely that sustainability will be achieved without regulation.

“The selfish minority will over-exploit and ruin things for the future,” he told ThinkProgress. “So some kind of regulation is really essential — you can’t just leave things to the free market and hope that it will work out.”

Rand said the results of the study suggest that a substantial majority of people are willing to bear costs to benefit future generations and that in a situation where it’s clear that reducing consumption will benefit others, democratic voting allows a cooperative majority to restrain a selfish minority. Without the necessarily democratic and institutional framework in place, this greedy minority can upend the prospects of future generations. However if people are bound by votes and democratic process to a common behavior, sustainability is much more achievable.

Nowak told the Boston Globe this this might help explain why non-binding international agreements like the Kyoto Protocol, which depended on countries opting in, are more prone to failure. He told the Globe that we may be willing to pay higher taxes or change our lifestyles as long as we don’t feel others are getting away with something.

Those selfish people who are unregulated can continue to over-consume.

Rand echoed Nowak’s statement, saying that when some people’s behavior is regulated by the vote but others can do what they want, the situation is only slightly better than a totally unregulated case. This is because those selfish people who are unregulated can continue to over-consume, he said, and also because people are less likely to vote for sustainability when they know others will be free to exploit the resource.


“An implication of this is that voting can likely be much more successful at implementing sustainable policies at the local and national level where outcomes are binding than at the international level where its much harder to generate binding agreements,” said Rand. “When agreements aren’t binding, there’s little hope that they will make much difference.”

To study the cooperation of future generations, the researchers used participants from across the U.S. and divided them into groups of five that were told there was a common pool of 100 units of an unnamed material that they could each take up to 20 units from. As long as at least 50 were left in the pool, the resource would be fully replenished and the next group — or generation — of five people could play.

When left to their own devices most people took the sustainable amount of 10 or less, but someone always took more and within a few generations the resource was depleted. However once a democratic voting system was established in the next stage of the experiment, allowing the players to vote for each group member’s allocation, the resource was sustainable over at least 12 generations (the end of the game). The value each member got in this version was established by taking the average of the five votes on what share each group member felt was fair.

“I believe that our findings could be quite relevant for the mitigation of climate change,” Oliver P. Hauser, an author of the study and PhD student at Harvard, told ThinkProgress. “Most important, in my opinion, is that we should not be pessimistic about the future.”

Hauser said that mechanisms to assist people in harnessing their cooperative tendencies were crucial for success, and that institutions are an essential component of that process.

With the Obama administration taking action on climate change through executive measures in the void of Congressional movement, there have been a number of recent studies pointing out that carbon regulation is actually the most efficient and economical way to mitigate GHGs. This study adds to the case by showing how a nationwide plan would have a positive social and behavioral benefit.


In an op-ed in the New York Times last week former Bush Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. compared the current climate bubble to the financial bubble of the last decade. His recommendation: a carbon tax:

The solution can be a fundamentally conservative one that will empower the marketplace to find the most efficient response. We can do this by putting a price on emissions of carbon dioxide — a carbon tax. Few in the United States now pay to emit this potent greenhouse gas into the atmosphere we all share.

The surprising observation is that while there is a minority of people who don’t want to cooperate, the majority of people vote altruistically.

A recent report from the Citizens Climate Lobby found that a national carbon tax would be beneficial in a number of ways, including large carbon dioxide emissions reductions, more American jobs, more disposable income, and better health.

“Democracy is a powerful institution,” Nowak said in a statement about their study. “When we implemented this system, virtually every resource was saved. The surprising observation is that while there is a minority of people who don’t want to cooperate, the majority of people vote altruistically. They are not voting to maximize their own benefit, and that’s what allows for cooperation with the future.”

“There is a huge literature on the evolution of cooperation, but this is the first step toward asking what we can do to cooperate with future generations,” he continued. “The largest problems we face today are occurring on a global scale — how can we behave altruistically such that something is left for future generations?”