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John A. Nevin


Global warming poses unprecedented dangers to humankind, and it is a product of human activities: Production and consumption of fossil fuels, accompanied by steadily increasing levels of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.  Some of the predicted consequences of warming are already upon us; yet more catastrophic effects will be experienced in the future.  Two behavioral processes operate to maintain fossil fuel use: 1) Delay discounting studies suggest that relatively lesser-valued outcomes (e.g., driving private cars) that are available now are likely to be preferred to the value of a sustainable planet for all humankind, to be achieved in the indefinite future; and 2) ongoing fossil-fueled activities are likely to be highly persistent because of the long and rich history of reinforcement for individuals (e.g., comfort and convenience) and for the fossil-fuel industry as a whole (e.g., jobs and profits). One way to counter that persistence is to tax greenhouse gas emissions, which can shift current incentives away from fossil-fuel based energy toward renewables, even though the ultimate slowing of climate change may be remote.  Carbon-tax contingencies are similar to those employed to treat problem behavior; a successful example of this approach is described.

Key words:  Global warming, fossil fuel consumption, carbon tax, delay discounting, behavioral momentum

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