The Prospect Theory of Gain… Why Climate Change isn’t a Single Issue Matter
Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize for his “Prospect Theory of Gain”, the theory that losing a benefit and ending up better off is still worse than winning in the first place. Take a prosaic example: the National Lottery call you up to say they made a mistake yesterday and you’ve won £2 Million, not £3 Million. But you’re still £2 Million better off right? And then you find out the fellow down the road got a call too, and he won £2 Million: not the £1 Million he was told yesterday. Who feels happier? Both of you have £2 Million you never had before, the exact same sum down to the last penny: but, of course, it’s you that’s unhappier. Economists call this the Endowment Effect: precisely the same economic outcome can produce radically different reactions for purely emotional reasons. After all, the fellow down the road is probably cock-a-hoop with joy…
And all this is way more than a light-hearted parlour game: the angst of meeting a (purely relative) loss, animated by the green-eyed envy of seeing another’s (relative) gain, can have drastic consequences on how we go about dealing with some of the major challenges facing us across the planet today.
Take Climate Change for example…
The UK is committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050: there are no deep coal mines left in Britain and only four functioning coal-fired power stations all of which went offline for various periods this year and last, meaning that for the first time since the industrial revolution there was no coal-fired generation at all. All well and good you might say, unless you’re a coal miner or work in a coal-fired power station. But over in China, they’re still mining and burning coal like it’s going out of fashion (which in fairness, it is), and China’s emission rates are still going up from a 2016 base of 20.09%, compared with the UK’s more modest 1.55%, which isn’t such good news at all. But, unlike Trump’s America, China and the UK are both signatories to the Paris Climate Change Accords so, despite such variances, they’re still working to a common objective that can be expected to benefit them both (and Trump’s America too come to that).
So, here’s the question: who’s left feeling worse off between China and the UK? Daniel Kaheman would say it was the UK, because the UK suffered a loss in mining revenues, and the gain of cleaner air starts to look a bit tarnished as a result. On the other hand, China made a gain, so despite the fact, both are working towards a common beneficial objective, the irritating angst of relativism starts to kick in, meaning China must be to blame for the problem, which it just so happens is another of Donald Trump’s sound bites…the Planet just happened to get in the way of the angst.
That may all sound familiar in an increasingly polarised world, but does any of it really make sense?
Of course it doesn’t…and that’s because dealing with the challenges of climate change isn’t just a single-issue policy. One competing issue can’t be discounted against another: its not like someone setting out on a drinking spree, determined not to think about the hangover until it hits him tomorrow morning. The common purpose is everything and there’s no discounting to be done when it comes to the future of our planet: either everyone wins, or everyone loses. It’s as simple (and as complicated) as that.
Or to put it another way…burning coal is just the flip side of cleaner air: land on one side and you start to lose the other. So why focus on just one side at all? Burning less coal means breathing more clean air, so in the UK we’ve just had the equivalent of a call from the Environmental Lottery telling us we haven’t won small after all (as we may have thought), we’ve won pretty big. China’s news, at least for the short term, is not so good: but there’s no need to think of it as a trade-off, not when both countries (and many more) are moving forward to meet the challenges of climate change together.
If we can just raise our eyes from the complex politics of relativism, we might just find we’ve all won big.
Red Ribbon is committed to identifying and building on investment opportunities that are fully in compliance with its core Planet, People, Profit policy: not only offering above market rate returns for investors but also protecting our Natural Capital through innovative programmes like the Eco Hotels Project.
We certainly need to raise our eyes from the short term and often highly political tangles of day-to-day politics, creating short-term obsessions that can so often blind us to the importance of longer-term strategic planning.
That’s why at Red Ribbon we’ve put Planet, People and Profit at the heart of our common vision for the future, and it’s not a lesson any of us are going to lose sight of.