Mar 16, 2020 - Energy & Environment

With coronavirus and climate change, it’s about time

Animated illustration of the world as a ringing alarm clock.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Time is what keeps everything from happening at once, someone wisely said.

Yes, but: In once-in-a-lifetime moments when everything does seem to be happening at once, like what’s unfolding with the cascading coronavirus crisis, time is a ruthless prioritizer. Acting on the decades-long problem of climate change falls to the bottom.

The intrigue: Peter Atwater, a behavioral economist and an adjunct lecturer at William & Mary, has a framework, called the “Horizon Preference,” for how we perceive the world based on our level of confidence. When confidence is high, we have a “us-everywhere-forever” mindset. When it’s low, it’s “me-here-now.”

  • The former is where much of the world was as recent as a month ago. The economy was doing great, consumer confidence was high and the stock market was (still) going up.
  • This mindset fosters an eagerness to take on big global challenges. Although President Trump shuns acting on climate change, most other world leaders have been underscoring the urgency of the problem.
  • The latter complex — “me-here-now” — is where we all suddenly find ourselves now: grappling with an imminent crisis touching nearly all of us in a myriad of personal and direct ways.
“Our fixation on climate change, our eagerness to attack it, was a reflection of extraordinary confidence. I think our attention on climate change is going to move immediately from strategically preventing it to how we deal with its adverse consequences.”
— Peter Atwater, behavioral economist

Where it stands: Climate change and pandemics are both long-term systemic risks society often ignores, but they have vastly different time frames.

  • “Our time horizons are minutes and hours,” Atwater says. “Eventually, they’re going to restore to weeks and months.”
  • Climate change unfolds over decades, increasing the risk of more extreme weather and inflicting mostly gradual, yet profound and negative, consequences on most of the world.
  • In roughly a week’s time, the coronavirus compelled the cancellation of virtually every major sports and cultural event in America, closed schools, and tanked oil markets and stocks to historic low levels. Much of Europe is shutting down too.
  • COVID-19, the illness stemming from the virus, has killed more than 6,500 people and sickened thousands more around the world.

My thought bubble: How does one prioritize a collection of events like that? The safety and health of family usually trumps everything. Like most other humans, my personal life is being thrown into uncertain territory.

  • Last week my family was finishing up a multiweek trip to Southeast Asia and were missing rumored quarantines by mere miles and hours. Thankfully, they arrived safely back in Washington state, where we’re from.
  • But anxiety, much like the coronavirus, doesn’t know borders. Washington state has been dubbed the “U.S.’s Wuhan” meaning it's being hit hard in a way that's similar to the epicenter of the outbreak in China.
“In a crisis, we immediately eliminate anything that is in any way psychologically distant from us because that requires too much thinking. The priorities become all around ‘me-here-now.’ How does it affect me? Is it immediate? Is it geographically proximate? Is it simple? Can I understand it?”
— Peter Atwater

What’s next: After a dozen years living in Washington, D.C., I put in motion in January plans to move to Seattle next month. I’m looking to expand my Axios beat by scrutinizing the ever-growing aggressive state and company climate plans and, also, to be closer to my family.

What deeply inauspicious timing I’m facing.

  • Because I start paying rent April 1 on a Seattle apartment, I am weighing the prospects of doubling my housing costs if I don't move soon, the deep level of uncertainty around potential travel restrictions in the region and, of course, the heightened risk of getting or spreading COVID-19 while moving.
  • This is just my story. We’re now all dealing with uncertainty that we don’t know when will end.
  • I’m aware and grateful for the flexibilities I have that many others don’t. I can easily work remotely. I don’t have children suddenly out of school. I’m not a health care worker on the front lines. Luckily, and as of now, I don't have any family or friends diagnosed with COVID-19 (that I know of anyway).
  • No matter the gravity of anyone’s situation, the same psychological laws apply, which is that we inevitably must focus on us, our family, the next hour, next day, versus anything longer term.

This column is unique, in that it's less about energy and climate change, specifically, and more about where they fit in the collective package we call life. We don’t live life in silos — it comes as a package deal. And lately and for the foreseeable future, our life packages are being turned upside down.

The bottom line: “The kind of broad strategic, generational, really forward, futuristic thinking only occurs at extreme peaks in confidence,” Atwater said. “It could be 20, 30, 50 years before we’re back to that sort of intensity on things like climate change.”

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