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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.”

Go deeper

Updated 1 hour ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds — Omicron pushes COVID deaths toward 2,000 per day — The pandemic-proof health care giant.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Starbucks drops worker vaccine or test requirement after SCOTUS ruling — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America.
  3. Politics: Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies — Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults.
  5. Variant tracker

Arizona governor sues Biden administration over COVID funds tied to mandates

A teacher prepares a hallway barrier to help students maintain social distancing at John B. Wright Elementary School in Tucson, Arizona, on Aug. 14, 2020. Photo: Cheney Orr/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) filed a lawsuit Friday against the Biden administration for ordering the state to stop allocating federal COVID relief funds to schools that don't comply with public health recommendations such as masking, the Arizona Republic reports.

Why it matters: The Treasury Department said last week that the state would have to pay back the money if Ducey does not redesignate the $173 million programs to ensure they don't "undermine efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19."

Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers

President Biden speaking from Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Jan. 21. Photo: Yuri Gripas/Abaca/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A federal judge in Texas blocked the Biden administration from enforcing its coronavirus vaccine mandate for federal workers on Friday, citing the outcome of last week's Supreme Court ruling that nullified the administration's vaccine-or-test requirement for large employers.

Why it matters: It's a blow to President Biden's efforts to increase the U.S.' vaccination rates, though much of the federal workforce has already been vaccinated against the virus.