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2015-09-30 | News

Award winning dissertation, in brief.

Dr Kerri Brick recently won the prestigious Economic Society of South Africa (ESSA) prize for the best doctoral dissertation submitted in 2014. The Environmental Policy Research Unit (EPRU) fellow, based at the University of Cape Town’s School of Economics, submitted a thesis based on four papers which explore how people might respond to different aspects of the challenges which climate change presents society.

Working together, or looking after self?

Brick and her supervisor, fellow EPRU behavioural economist Prof Martine Visser, used a ‘public good’ experiment to test whether people are likely to work for the greater good of the community when tackling carbon emissions, or if they’ll act in their own self-interest.

The gaming experiment was designed to reflect the kind of incentives that countries’ negotiating teams might be faced with at international climate talks - like the United Nations climate summit set for Paris this December.

Their results suggest that climate negotiators can use equity principles (such as historical ‘polluter pays’ principle, or that there should be equal percentage reduction of emissions) in a self-serving way - so as to reduce the reduction target allocated to them. This, the researchers agree, is an important take-home message as South Africa’s government-appointed negotiating team prepares for the climate summit.

Communication to rally communities together

The second paper is based on a lab experiment which tests whether communication (a proxy for stakeholder participation) is effective in getting communities to work together to cut their carbon emissions.

Brick and Visser found that communication did improve cooperation among groups. However, with communication, two contribution strategies emerged: free-riding (where players contributed nothing to reducing emissions) and perfect-cooperation. The results signal the importance of stripping away anonymity (for example, through mandatory reporting) and for enhancing accountability (for example, through fines for noncompliance).

Urban subsistence farmers stick to traditional methods

Next, Brick and Visser wanted to test how urban food gardeners in poorer neighbourhoods in Cape Town will adapt their farming strategies in response to greater climate variability. The authors used a series of field experiments where farmers chose between farming practices which are high or low risk, and bring different returns.

They found that risk-averse farmers were more likely to stick with traditional and familiar farming methods. Brick said that poorer households, in particular those without access to insurance and therefore a way to minimise risk, might opt for lower risk but also lower return agriculture. The implication is that they do not benefit from innovations in farming practices. 

Flooding in informal settlements

Finally, Brick and Visser worked with a community in the extremely impoverished and flood-prone informal settlement of Khayelitsha, outside Cape Town, to see which strategies they would adopt to minimise the risk of damage from the rising waters that flood the area every year during the winter rainfall period.

They found that those individuals who were more risk averse adopted the most effective strategies. But these also happened to be the most costly. For example, slanting the roof to assist rainwater runoff was expensive but worked well in terms of keeping homes dry.

The implication is that people’s attitudes towards risk have an impact on the decisions they make when responding to living in a climate-altered city.

EPRU will publish more detail about each of these papers within the next few months. Read more about the behavioural economists here.