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 when people are faced with a more immediate perilous situation posed by a pandemic that's killed more than 6,500 people globally so far.
Between the lines: 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, direct and 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
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 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.
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.”