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How our perception of time shapes our approach to climate change

A pile of debris from Hurricane Ian rises behind a line of people waiting to vote in Fort Myers, Fla., in November 2022. Research suggests support for some climate policies increases immediately after climate-driven disasters such as Ian.
Rebecca Blackwell
A pile of debris from Hurricane Ian rises behind a line of people waiting to vote in Fort Myers, Fla., in November 2022. Research suggests support for some climate policies increases immediately after climate-driven disasters such as Ian.

Most people are focused on the present: today, tomorrow, maybe next year. Fixing your flat tire is more pressing than figuring out if you should use an electric car. Living by the beach is a lot more fun than figuring out when your house will be underwater because of sea level rise.

That basic human relationship with time makes climate change a tricky problem.

"I consider climate change the policy problem from hell because you almost couldn't design a worse fit for our underlying psychology, or our institutions of decision-making," says Anthony Leiserowitz, the director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

Our obsession with the present obscures the future

Those institutions — including companies and governments that ultimately have the power to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions — can be even more obsessed with the present than individuals are.

For example, says Leiserowitz, many companies are focused on quarterly earnings and growth. That helps drive short-term behavior, such as leasing new land to drill for fossil fuels, that makes long-term climate change worse.

And there are also big incentives for political leaders to think short-term. "The president gets elected every four years. Members of the Senate get elected every six years. And members of the House get elected every two years," Leiserowitz points out, "so they tend to operate on a much shorter time cycle than this problem, climate change, which is unfolding over decades."

There are deadlines looming for those elected leaders. The Biden administration pledged to cut emissions in half by 2030. By 2050, humans need to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions entirely in order to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change later this century.

Fortunately, our collective focus on the present also offers hints, psychologists say, about how to harness that hyperfocus on the present to inspire action.

To spur action, speed up the psychological rewards for addressing climate change now

For example, there are ways to highlight the quick payoff for addressing climate change. In the political realm, that could mean that an elected official gets more votes because they support policies that reduce emissions. The promise of a benefit in the next election may be more galvanizing than the goal of protecting future generations, even if the latter has more moral weight.

"The benefits that we get today are more salient, and we want them more than benefits that may be larger, but will accrue in the future," explains Jennifer Jacquet, a researcher and associate professor of environmental studies at New York University who studies the psychology of collective action, including on climate change.

Jacquet says the huge spending bill passed last year by Congress, called the Inflation Reduction Act, is another example of using our focus on the present to drive climate-conscious behavior. The bill includes financial incentives for people who buy electric vehicles or install solar panels.

"They're trying to speed up the benefits," says Jacquet. "That's smart. That's good. That plays into how we think about things."

Extreme weather is starting to catch everyone's attention

In some ways, our focus on the present is less and less of a problem as climate change makes itself more and more obvious today — in our daily lives. Everyone on Earth is experiencing the effects of a hotter planet. That makes it a problem of the present, not of the future.

That immediacy is already showing up in how Americans view climate change, according to Leiserowitz, who has been leading an annual poll on the topic for more than 15 years. As extreme weather is becoming more common, he says support for climate policies is also growing, especially at the local level.

For example, the vast majority of respondents in a September 2021 poll said they support local governments providing money to help make homes more energy efficient, to increase public transportation and to install bike lanes. And the majority of respondents supported investments in renewable energy.

There's no time to waste

Widespread public support for climate policies can help push politicians and corporate leaders to act quickly – which is important, because scientists warn that greenhouse gas emissions need to drop dramatically, and immediately, to avoid runaway warming later this century.

"We have big societal choices to make," says Leiserowitz, and those changes need to happen now. In the present. "People working together to demand action by their leaders is going to be an absolutely critical piece."

This story is part of our periodic science series "Finding Time — taking a journey through the fourth dimension to learn what makes us tick."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rebecca Hersher
Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.