Heidelberg University

Global Change and Globalization

Research group IV:

The psychology and neuroeconomics of ageing societies managing complex climatic systems: Hotter and greyer.

Joachim Funke, Department of Psychology, Timo Goeschl, Christiane Schwieren, Research Centre for Environmental Economics, Johannes Schröder and Karola Güttler, Clinic of Psychiatry.

Over the next fifty to hundred years, two important secular trends will jointly confront the societies of Europe and other parts of the industrialized world. One is the process of global climate change that will bring about as yet only partially understood alterations in environmental conditions. This process coincides with a demographic transition towards ageing populations. Both processes are already evident today, but are expected to accelerate over the coming decades. One of these two secular trends, climate change, is amenable to be managed through mitigation and adaptation activities. To enable climate change to be managed, however, requires at least two conditions to be fulfilled.

  1. Popular understanding of complex climate change dynamics: Global environmental change processes represent extremely intricate and highly non-linear dynamic systems which are difficult to understand and to anticipate for both, the general public and the scientific community. In democratic systems, however, populations need to develop – at the individual level – some notion of understanding the complex dynamics of climate change. This is a prerequisite for a meaningful political debate on appropriate strategies to take place and for democratically legitimate decisions to arise from the deliberative process.

  2. Willingness to fund climate change management: Populations need to muster the will to incur sacrifices in order to fund the costly implementation of those strategies that can combat climate change. In the long timescales of climate processes, these strategies will generate significant benefits by reducing the damages from fundamental changes. To be effective, however, these sacrifices will have to be incurred with a long lead time and in all likelihood be of macroeconomic magnitude, consuming between 1 to 8 percent of GDP per year of the most highly developed nations on Earth (Stern 2006).

Both of these conditions, popular understanding and willingness to sacrifice, interact in significant ways with the ageing dynamics of the industrialized world. On account of their accumulated wealth, these populations will be the only ones on the planet capable of making the sacrifices required. At the same time, the democratic decisions about sacrifices worth making to solve a global long-run problem that is difficult to comprehend will be those of ageing populations.

Will these ageing populations be cognitively overwhelmed by the problem or will they be better able to see through the complexities by relying on the ‘wisdom of old age’?

Will these ageing populations rationally conclude that in their lifetime they have little to fear from climate change, and therefore little to gain from preventing it or will they be more likely to recognize the ethical obligation towards those generations coming after them?

Will the ageing populations of the North realize that their own offspring will be better off in a hotter world being fewer, but all the richer or will the concern for the next generation also extend to a young group of nonrelatives in the South that are more numerous, but all the poorer?

It is kown that the weight of older people in the decisions about climate change policies will increase through time: As a result of demographic decline, the share of individuals of 60 years or more will increase and they will wield an increasing share of political and economical power. But the nature of this development – deleterious or beneficial – is unexplored. It is the nature of these conjoint processes of climate change and ageing populations that is the focus of the present interdisciplinary effort. Understanding of complex climate change processes, humans tend to simplify complex structures for making predictions of future states. In psychology, human ability to identify and control different dynamic systems is analyzed by means of computer-simulated scenarios. Subjects have to identify the causal structures and to control such scenarios for a given simulation period. During their exploration and control, one can measure (a) the quality of acquired knowledge by means of knowledge assessments, and (b) the quality of control by means of deviation from predetermined setpoints. The scaling of scenarios (i.e. their complexity) can be adjusted flexibly to different research purposes. One important confounding factor which has to be considered in respective studies is the potential impact of age on the prediction of future states. Elderly people have less life expectancy than younger people – a fact which is likely to significantly influence their view on future scenarios.
It is therefore necessary to develop an experimental set-up that combines these important areas within a design, allowing for an analysis of differential aspects of the various motivations and reasons for behavioral differences between old and young people. The questions will be approached on basis of an analyses of the respective data of the interdisciplinary longitudinal study of adulthood (ILSE), a large, population-based study which comprises two representative birth cohorts (either born from 1930–1932 or from 1950–1952). In particular the attitudes towards preservation of the environment and value of public goods can be analyzed which respect to education, social class, social activities, altruism but also personality traits, physical health and mental status, and cognitive abilities. In addition, comparison of the respective variables between the two birth cohorts can elucidate changes over time. Furthermore, it will help to disentangle cohort and age effects. On basis of the experimental findings, it is intended to develop two neuropsychological tasks which can be used in the forthcoming IV. examination wave of the ILSE and/or in neuroimaging experiments. The project will provide information on the effects of complexity, connectivity, intransparency, polytely, and dynamics on human understanding of climate induced biological change. Typical errors in this process of understanding the complexity of climate change can be extracted; also, training to understand complex dynamics better can be based on such results. In this context consideration of age as an independent factor will add important information for economic and political systems. Therefore, projects on climate change will profit from this psychological research.

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