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Climate scientists experiment with connecting people in the present with people in the future


Climate scientists experiment with connecting people in the present with people in the future

A new study describes the shape of intergenerational altruism, and suggests a simple way to activate it—at least among half the population.
April 9, 2024

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Just thinking about future generations can make people more willing to make sacrifices on their behalf, according to a new study. The findings suggest new strategies for climate communication—although the effect does not appear in men.

Climate action requires people today to make sacrifices for the well-being of future generations, demonstrating a concept known as intergenerational altruism. Until now, researchers have had little reliable way to measure intergenerational altruism, and it hasn’t gotten much attention in investigations of how moral values shape climate action.

Making sacrifices for people who will live in the distant future is difficult because they are unknown and unfamiliar to us, similar to the way it is difficult for people to make sacrifices on behalf of people who are physically far away, says study team member Gustav Agneman, a behavioral economist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim. Hence the lack—so far—of decisive climate action.

“The question is then, how do we reduce the perceived social distance to people who will inhabit the planet 500 years from now?” Agneman asks.

In the new analysis, Agneman and his colleagues drew on online survey data from 1,615 adults in Sweden. At the heart of the study was a hypothetical exercise in which participants were asked to allocate fictional resources across the generations: What proportion of the resources should go to people living today versus people alive in 2100, 2300, and 2500?

Some participants were first informed about the number of descendants they could expect to have over the next 250 years, based on the number of children each participant planned to have. This “reminded them that their descendants (in case they plan to have children) will be amongst those otherwise anonymous ‘future generations,’” Agneman explains.

Then they were asked to do the intergenerational allocation exercise, and finally queried about their support for four climate policies that would increase the cost of airplane travel, food, fuel, or clothing now in order to maintain a livable climate for future generations.


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Other participants—the control group—were asked about their support for the climate policies first, then asked to do the intergenerational allocation task, and finally informed about their number of projected descendants.

By comparing the two groups, the researchers were able assess the impact of the intergenerational allocation task on climate policy support.

Overall, participants tended to allocate most of the resources to the current generation, and rapidly plummeting amounts to people alive at each subsequent time point, the researchers report in the journal PNAS Nexus.

Participants who allocated more resources to future generations—that is, those who exhibited higher levels of intergenerational altruism—also expressed more support for climate policies that would cost them in the here and now.

Participants who were asked to do the intergenerational allocation task first tended to be more supportive of climate policy compared to the control group. This suggests that just thinking about future generations can help ignite the spark of intergenerational altruism.

But when the researchers probed further, breaking down their sample by gender, things got more complicated. The impact of the intergenerational allocation task on support for climate policy was significant for women and non-binary people, but not for men.

(The number of participants identifying as non-binary was too small to analyze separately; their average level of climate policy support was more similar to that of women than of men, so the researchers grouped them with the women for this analysis.)

“Beforehand, we did not anticipate the gender differences to be as pronounced as they turned out to be,” Agneman says. “This analysis was exploratory, but it was impossible to ignore the patterns: male participants were not at all affected by the intergenerational dilemma, while the experimental treatment substantially increased climate policy support among female/non-binary participants.”

Similar studies need to be conducted in other countries to determine how generalizable the results are, says Agneman. In addition, larger studies are needed “to disentangle the mechanisms that account for why participating in the intergenerational dilemma raises climate policy support,” he suggests.

Source: Agneman G. et al. “Intergenerational altruism and climate policy preferences.” PNAS Nexus 2024.

Image: ©Anthropocene Magazine, AI-generated image.


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