The majority of people are focused on the present and not the future. If you have a flat tire, it's more important to fix it than to figure out if you should use an electric car. Living by the beach is more enjoyable than figuring out when your house will be underwater due to sea level rise.
Climate change is a difficult problem due to the human relationship with time.
Anthony Leiserowitz is the director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
Companies and governments that have the power to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions can be more focused on the present than individuals are.
Many companies focus on quarterly earnings and growth. Long-term climate change is worse because of short-term behavior such as leasing land to drill for fossil fuels.
Political leaders have incentives to think short term. Every four years, the President is re-elected. Every six years, members of the Senate are re-elected. Climate change is unfolding over decades, but members of the House get elected every two years, so they tend to operate on a shorter time cycle.
There are deadlines for politicians. The administration wants to cut emissions in half. Humans need to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions completely in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
Our collective focus on the present gives us hints about how to use that focus to inspire action.
There are ways to show how quickly climate change can be addressed. An elected official might get more votes if they support policies that reduce emissions. Even if the goal of protecting future generations is more important, the promise of a benefit in the next election may be more important.
The psychology of collective action, including on climate change, is based on the idea that the benefits that we get today are more important than the benefits that will accrue in the future.
The Inflation Reduction Act, passed last year by Congress, is an example of using our focus on the present to drive climate conscious behavior. Financial incentives are included for people who install solar panels.
The benefits are being sped up. That's correct. That's great. The way we think about things is influenced by that.
Climate change makes itself more and more obvious in our daily lives as we focus less on the present and more on the future. A hotter planet is having an effect on everyone. It's not a problem of the future.
Leiserowitz has been leading an annual poll on climate change for more than a decade. He says support for climate policies is growing at the local level.
In a September 2021 poll, the vast majority of respondents said they supported local governments giving money to make homes more energy efficient, to increase public transportation and to install bike lanes. The majority of respondents were in favor of investing in renewable energy.
Widespread public support for climate policies can help push politicians to act quickly, because scientists warn that greenhouse gas emissions need to drop dramatically, and immediately, to avoid runaway warming later this century.
Leiserowitz says that we have big societal choices to make. It's in the present. It's going to be critical that people work together to demand action.
Our periodic science series " Finding Time" takes a journey through the fourth dimensions to understand what makes us tick.