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Intra- and intergenerational discounting in the climate game


The difficulty of avoiding dangerous climate change arises from a tension between group and self-interest1,2,3 and is exacerbated by climate change’s intergenerational nature4. The present generation bears the costs of cooperation, whereas future generations accrue the benefits if present cooperation succeeds, or suffer if present cooperation fails. Although temporal discounting has long been known to matter in making individual choices5, the extent of temporal discounting is poorly understood in a group setting. We represent the effect of both intra- and intergenerational discounting4,6,7 through a collective-risk group experiment framed around climate change. Participants could choose to cooperate or to risk losing an additional endowment with a high probability. The rewards of defection were immediate, whereas the rewards of cooperation were delayed by one day, delayed by seven weeks (intragenerational discounting), or delayed by several decades and spread over a much larger number of potential beneficiaries (intergenerational discounting). We find that intergenerational discounting leads to a marked decrease in cooperation; all groups failed to reach the collective target. Intragenerational discounting was weaker by comparison. Our results experimentally confirm that international negotiations to mitigate climate change are unlikely to succeed if individual countries’ short-term gains can arise only from defection.

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Figure 1: Group investments by treatment.
Figure 2: Average group investment and standard error of the mean (coloured range) by treatment over the 10 rounds.
Figure 3: The average number of selfish (providing €0), fair-share (providing €2) and altruistic (providing €4) investments per group of 6 players over the 10 rounds by treatment.

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We thank the students from the University of Hamburg for participation, the students at the University of British Columbia for participation in pilot experiments, T. Burmester, S. Dobler, R. Reilly for their help and the Max-Planck-Society and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada for financial support.

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J.J., C.H. and M.M. designed the experiment; K.H. and M.M. carried out the experiments; T.R. wrote the software for performing the experiment; J.J., K.H. and T.R. prepared the data and statistics; all authors wrote the paper, prepared the figures, and reviewed the paper and results.

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Correspondence to Jennifer Jacquet.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Jacquet, J., Hagel, K., Hauert, C. et al. Intra- and intergenerational discounting in the climate game. Nature Clim Change 3, 1025–1028 (2013).

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