Institutions and Decision Making

The 20th century saw immense social and cultural changes, many of which—such as changes in living patterns and automobile use—have had major implications for climate change. Many societal and cultural changes can be traced to the confluence of individual and organizational decision making, which is shaped by institutions that reward some actions and sanction others, and by technologies. New institutions, such as GHG emissions trading systems, voluntary certification systems for energy-efficient building design, bilateral international agreements for emissions reduction, agreements on emissions monitoring, and carbon offset markets, are critical components of most of the plans that have been proposed to limit human GHG emissions during the next few decades (see Theme 2 above and also the companion reports Limiting the Magnitude of Future Climate Change [NRC, 2010c] and Informing an Effective Response to Climate Change [NRC, 2010b]). Many such mechanisms are already in operation, and these constitute natural experiments, but the scientific base for evaluating these experiments and designing effective institutions is limited (see, e.g., Ostrom, 2010; Prakash and Potoski, 2006; Tietenberg, 2002). Institutional design would likely be enhanced by more systematic research to evaluate past and current efforts, compare different institutional approaches for reaching the same goals, and develop and pilottest new institutional options.

A large number of individual, community, and organizational decisions have a substantial effect on GHG emissions and land use change as well as on vulnerability to climate change. Many of these decisions are not currently made with much or any consideration of climate change. For example, individual and household food choices, the layout of communities, and the design of supply chains all have effects on climate. Understanding social and cultural changes is important for projecting future climate change, and, in some cases, these changes may provide substantial leverage points for reducing climate change. Thus, enhanced understanding of the complex interplay of social, cultural, and technological change is critical to any strategy for limiting future climate change.

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