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."
JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:
Now that it's 2023, we are one year closer to a handful of important climate goals. 2030 is the deadline for the U.S. to cut its greenhouse gas emissions in half, and 2050 is the global deadline to get to zero emissions. But those deadlines can feel so distant. Most of us are focused on today, tomorrow, maybe next year. As part of our series Finding Time, Rebecca Hersher from NPR's Climate Desk has more.
REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: This human relationship to time - our focus on the present - is one reason that a lot of experts will tell you that climate change is a tricky problem. Anthony Leiserowitz is the director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
ANTHONY LEISEROWITZ: I consider climate change the policy prompt from hell because you almost couldn't design a worse fit for our underlying psychology or our institutions of decision-making.
HERSHER: 2030 or 2050, it's too far in the future. You and I aren't thinking that far out, and neither are most of our elected leaders.
LEISEROWITZ: 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. So they tend to operate on a much shorter time cycle than this problem - climate change - which is unfolding over decades.
HERSHER: But do not despair. This is a problem, yes. But it does not mean that humans or human societies are somehow incapable of reducing greenhouse gas emissions or protecting people from the effects of a hotter earth. Jennifer Jacquet is an environmental scientist at New York University.
JENNIFER JACQUET: We do all sorts of things that we're hard-wired against.
HERSHER: Scuba diving, sitting at desks, typing on computers, saving for retirement.
JACQUET: We do all sorts of things that we weren't evolved to do. And why is it that we choose to focus on these evolutionary quirks for why we can't solve climate change?
HERSHER: Jacquet and Leiserowitz both say the key is to turn this weakness into a strength - reframe the future problem as a present one, and find solutions that aren't always obvious at first glance. For example, says Leiserowitz, climate-driven disasters are getting more common.
LEISEROWITZ: These are real, and these are affecting Americans all across the country in incredibly powerful and visceral ways.
HERSHER: That is obviously bad, but it also brings climate change into the present. It makes it a right-now problem instead of a next-decade problem. And there are also ways to make the benefits of addressing climate change feel more immediate. Jacquet says some of the incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act are good examples.
JACQUET: If you will buy an electric car, we will give you a kickback. If you install solar panels on your house, we will make that profitable. They're trying to speed up the sort of benefits of cooperation.
HERSHER: Because cooperation is the only way to really address climate change at scale. That means individual people doing things like driving electric cars, sure. But the big payoff will come from people who demand, right now, that the leaders of government and companies cut emissions. Rebecca Hersher, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.