‘Time-inconsistency’: the heart of climate mitigation as a policy problem

Reducing our greenhouse gas emissions has been described as the quintessential long term policy problem Hovi (2009) and Sprinz (2009). So what does this mean? What is special or different about long term policy making as opposed to short or medium term policy making?

Today’s policies will not impact the rate or extent of climate change the current generation experiences. We are already locked in. So this is policy making solely for the future. And whilst the climate change impacts are long-term, there are urgencies and irreversibilities within our economies which need strong short term action to avoid triggering runaway climate change. It would also be sensible to avoid building fossil fuel power stations or roads which we cannot use in the future. These are decisions being made now.

Lazarus (2009) writes how psychologists have found that human’s have ‘cognitive tendencies and limitations which produce a “massive social trap” when it comes to long term issues such as climate change:   We are myopic, tending to discount things in the future in favour of short-term reward; we use an ‘availability heuristic’ (or mental ‘rule of thumb’) whereby we largely only respond to things that are imaginatively available to us; and we use a ‘representative heuristic’, we are not compelled to respond to issues where the cause and effect of our actions is not clear.

time image

Even if we were able to access a collective rationality (Levin et al, 2012), the unequal distribution of power in society serves to further work against action for the long term, as it usually comes at a cost to the present incumbents.

These aspects of long-term policy making have been termed a problem of ‘time-inconsistency’, where the optimal policy decisions for the long term are not the optimal policy decisions today (Prescott and Kyland, 1977). It is exactly this conundrum that should be the focus of the climate mitigation policy communities attention. Whilst we are very good at identifying the emissions and cost implications of particular scenarios of the future to time periods of 2050, or even 2100, knowing how to translate these results into policy that effects transformative change for the long term has been far less considered.

Up until recently, scholars have not been able to imagine policy mechanisms that address this problem of time-inconsistency, likely because of the dominance of a reductionist, classical science paradigm constraining our thinking.  However, emerging analysis appears to be starting to make some headway, much of it grounded in principles of complex systems.   I will outline some of these in a follow up post.

10 thoughts on “‘Time-inconsistency’: the heart of climate mitigation as a policy problem

  1. A very clear and embarrassing sketch of our human nature. I wonder if African cultures whose ancestors are very present could help us all develop a care for the world which is ‘out of our time’?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Indeed, and I like the way your comment implicitly motivates for cultural diversity as well as biodiversity. In complexity, diversity is positive and necessary, as opposed to the streamlined efficiency focus of our industrial and reductionist era.


  2. Ja Em, I certainly get this.

    Someone told me or I read that we humans also have a problem in that one generation sees a certain size/volume of of say number of animal, flora/fauna species and thinks this is normal – not experiencing the diversity and density of population that the previous generation did and so get used to seeing less and less and thinking its normal. That is so scary.



    Liked by 1 person

  3. Cant wait for the follow-up post. It is hard enough for me to think about the long-term, when most of my short-term needs are met. How about the guy in Khayelitsha without a job?


  4. So interesting…it makes me wonder how humans will every ‘hold’ the complementary skills needed to be able to plan well. Maybe they can’t ever…which then calls on excellent team-working and so the ability to hear, respect and respond to the knowledges of others. Any thoughts/literature there?


    1. Thanks Lisa. I’m reading Rittel and Webber (the ‘wicked problem’ planning guys) again, who wrote in 1973 that: approaches to wicked problems ‘should be based on a model of planning as an argumentative process in the course of which an image of the problem and of the solution emerges gradually among the participants, as a product of incessant judgement, subjected to critical argument’.

      This points towards process rather than individuals, as you suggest. My sense is that literature on this lies outside the strictly academic realm, and in the strategic and scenario planning / conflict resolution / collective organisation space (Dave Snowden, Adam Kahane, U-theory and the like.


  5. The accountability factor restricts decision-makers as they are accountable in society today, the future decision-makers have to repair the fallout.
    We view all technology as advancement but history is the only judge on how far our technology has damaged the earth, solar system and sadly the developing economies.
    History teaches us just one thing – we can’t change our past. Politics and economics are focused in the now so humanity has to learn to invest in the future.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for the comment. I guess the question is how temper humanity’s focus on technology with equally sophisticated and developed ethical and governance practices, institutions and mechanisms. This might help us with a forward-looking accountability…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s