When It Comes to Climate Change, Better a Sucker Than a Free-Rider

by Jake Giessman

Us  Climate  Change

Even though my students are a bright bunch, their group work can sometimes be less than the sum of the parts. I'm sure you remember this from your own school days: two group members clowning around while one tells them what to do and the fourth quietly tries to get everything done.
It happens in the professional world, too. Organizational psychologists use the term free-rider effect to describe the decision of some team members to slack off because they know their partners will make up the difference. Then comes the sucker effect, when said partners dial back their effort in order to avoid being the suckers who do all the work.
Now apply this at a wider scale. As a nation and as a species, we are increasingly aware of what could be our biggest group assignment ever. The Brookings Institution reports that 62 percent of Americans accept the scientific consensus that global climate change is taking place. Implicitly, this 62 percent believes that we must change our consumption and production patterns in order to prevent the worst forms of climate change from happening. So why haven't we seen a radical shift in behavior?
One might say it's the free-rider effect: We hope that somebody else will address the issue. I tend to think, however, that it's the sucker effect. We suspect that even if we radically change our own lifestyles, everyone else will just go on living high on the hog. 

We are reluctant to trade the American Dream of prosperity for a more climate-conscious lifestyle because, hey, it might not make a difference and, besides, nobody else is doing it. Why should we be the virtuous fools? Instead, we make minor changes and hope for the best.
Such thinking may have serious consequences. This summer, Bill McKibben wrote in both Orion and Rolling Stone about the 2009 Copenhagen conference, where world leaders agreed that we can't afford to let global temperatures rise beyond another 2 degrees Celsius, thus limiting us to emitting 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide (CO2) by 2050. This will require a major revolution in green energy, in consumption patterns, or in both.
In case that doesn't seem daunting by itself, the Carbon Tracker Initiative reports that our known global petroleum reserves could burn past the Copenhagen CO2 limit five times over and, further, that these underground assets are already valuated in the price of oil company stocks, derivatives, and—one could argue—government bonds. 

We have already speculated on the revenues from burning these fossil fuels; to not burn them could cripple everything from your retirement fund, to corporate balance sheets, to national economies. Which citizenry or shareholder group will volunteer to be the sucker that loses its assets in order to benefit the rest of humanity?
I don't want to get carried away, of course. In the September issue of WIRED, Matt Ridley of rationaloptimist.com describes a widespread tendency toward what he calls apocaholism. Indeed, as a child I was just as scared as everybody else about the Cold War going nuclear. That never materialized, and if one sees climate change in the style of Peter Diamandis—as a grand challenge that we will win through technological innovation—climate catastrophe may not materialize either. 

Knowing, though, that technological innovation is at the root of climate change, this kind of optimism seems misguided.
Through my teacher training, I've learned to manage both the free-rider and the sucker effect by keeping groups small, by assigning specific roles to members, and by formally evaluating individual contributions. These, however, are not tools available on a global scale. When it comes to climate change, the only thing I can think to do is to be a sucker—to forego advantages that are mine for the taking.
Being a sucker is not as glamorous as being a martyr. Martyrs, after all, effect big changes through their sacrifices. As a sucker, my lifestyle would likely have no measurable impact on either climate health or other people's behaviors. But it's the right thing to do. It might go against our instincts, but isn't this a time we should all say better a sucker than a free-rider?

Jake Giessman is a teacher in Columbia, Missouri, and a guest blogger for New Dream.