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Nappy changes, oil changes, and climate change

By Stephan Lewandowsky - posted Tuesday, 27 November 2007

You ask a toddler if they would rather have a lolly now or that big shiny new toy in a few minutes. You can bet that the toddler will take the lolly now and forego the delayed bigger reward. You ask a nine-year-old if they want a new computer game right now or a snazzy new laptop a week from now, and many of them will happily wait a week for the bigger prize.

This ability to forego an instant fleeting pleasure for a greater reward later is called “delay of gratification” and it has been identified by psychologists as a sign of maturity and adulthood. As we grow up, we become capable of weighing the costs and benefits of present and future actions and we learn to consider our long-term interests. In fact, psychologist Walter Mischel at Columbia University has shown that our ability to delay gratification during childhood predicts our social competence and academic abilities as adults. The more we learn to regulate our desires as children, the more competent we are as adults.

Accordingly, most adults who purchase a new car will willingly pay for an oil change every six months because they realise that the small cost incurred now will prevent the much greater and unavoidable expense of a new engine at some future point. We might hedge and delay or grumble, but we will eventually get that next service done before too long.


This fact is so obvious that if we came across a corporate fleet manager who is running all their cars without oil changes or maintenance, just to improve the bottom line for a year or two, we would shudder at their economic mismanagement. And their boss would probably fire them.

The same simple, clear, and inescapable logic applies to climate change. In fact, this logic has applied to climate change for several decades now, as most of my fellow scientists know all too well. Some 20 years ago, we could have dealt with climate change for the price of an oil change. Ten years ago, the price had gone up and it would have cost us a new engine. Right now, as revealed by the UN’s top scientific panel in their report last week, we are in for the cost of a new car. And if we do nothing for another five years, our planet will undergo unstoppable remodeling with us no longer in the driver’s seat.

In light of those facts, seeking to expand an economy by unabated continued reliance on fossil fuels is, simply put, infantile. It is only the toddler who wants the lolly now, only the nine-year-old who cannot wait a week for a laptop, and only the fleet manager who makes a buck by saving on the oil change who would think that our country’s record on climate inaction represents good economic management. Anyone who services their car regularly will instead recognise that our leaders’ persistent refusal to tackle climate change represents a case of serious economic mismanagement.

As a consequence of this mismanagement, the issue that is facing us now is not just the pain over the rapidly increasing costs of dealing with climate change; instead, the issue is also for people in their 20s to decide whether they want the Great Barrier Reef to be devastated by coral bleaching before they get to see it.

The issue is for people in their 30s to decide how they will explain to their children that 80 per cent of Kakadu wetlands disappeared on their watch.

The issue is for people in their 40s to decide how they will cope with the rise in food prices after the northern boundary of WA's wheat belt has inexorably moved south.


The issue is what to do when entire countries will be threatened by rising sea levels. The issue is how to bear the total price tag of US$20 trillion ($20,000,000,000,000) which represent current estimates of the cost of climate inaction for the remainder of the century.

And the issue is for all of us to think of answers when our grandchildren ask us why we did not force our politicians to act more like adults and make them look after our future the way we know how to look after our new cars.

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First published in the West Australian on November 22, 2007.

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About the Author

Professor Lewandowsky is an Australian Professorial Fellow and a cognitive psychologist at the University of Western Australia.

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