Whether it’s an unfamiliar dog growling outside your front door or a bus bearing down the street toward you, we are often motivated to avoid threats. Why is climate change so different? The recent United Nations report detailed that we will face serious consequences in the next 25 years if the nations of the world do not drastically act to reduce climate change now. There are many reasons that it’s difficult to motivate people to address climate change. It represents a trade-off between short-term and long-term benefits; it’s a nonlinear problem; the effects of climate change are distant from most people; and the future is always more uncertain than the present. However, there are ways to motivate yourself about the dire consequences: Bring the future mentally closer to yourself, confront the uncertainty head-on, and initiate a serious discussion about values among your peers.
People are often highly motivated to avoid threats. If you are walking down a dark, isolated city street, you are vigilant for unexpected sights and sounds and probably pick up the pace to get back to a populated area as quickly as possible. If you step into the street and see a bus bearing down on you, you jump back. If a large unfamiliar dog is growling outside your front door, you stay inside.
This week, we were updated on another serious threat. According to the recent United Nations report on climate change, if the nations of the world do not take drastic action soon, there could be serious consequences in the next 25 years. Yet the president of the United States did not even comment on the report after it was released, and a leading candidate in Brazil’s presidential election has promised to withdraw the country from the Paris agreement.
If people are motivated to avoid threats to their existence, why is it so hard to get people to act on climate change?
Unfortunately, climate change involves a combination of factors that make it hard for people to get motivated.
First, acting on climate change represents a trade-off between short-term and long-term benefits, which is the hardest trade-off for people to make. Decades of work on temporal discounting point out that we overvalue benefits in the short term relative to benefits in the long term. People don’t save enough money for retirement, preferring to spend money now rather than having it in their old age. People overeat in the present, despite the problems that obesity can cause in the future.
Ignoring climate change in the short term has benefits both to individuals and to organizations. Individuals do not have to make changes in the cars they drive, the products they buy, or the homes they live in if they ignore the influence their carbon footprint has on the world. Companies can keep manufacturing cheaper if they don’t have to develop new processes to limit carbon emissions. Governments can save money today by relying on methods for generating power that involve combustion rather than developing and improving sources of green energy, even those that are more cost-effective in the long run.
Second, climate change is a nonlinear problem. People are really good at making judgments of linear trends. If you spend $5 a day on coffee, then it is easy to think about the influence that has on your weekly budget, without needing a spreadsheet.
When a function increases slowly at first and then accelerates, though, that causes problems, because people extrapolate that function linearly. A few cigarettes are probably not deadly. Instead, it is the accumulated damage from years of smoking that leads to significant health problems. For many years, then, smokers may engage in their habit without obvious consequences until suddenly there is a significant problem. As a result, the health problems appear to sneak up on people when they’ve been building all along.
Likewise, it took a long time before there were any signs of climate change that were obvious to people. People are much better with obvious threats like that nasty dog at the door than they are with threats that escalate quickly and nonlinearly.
Third, many effects of climate change are distant from most people. Research on construal level theory argues that people conceptualize things that are psychologically distant from them (in time, space, or social distance) more abstractly than things that are psychologically close. When there are weather disasters that are probably a reflection of climate change (like wildfires or extreme storms), they tend to happen far away from where most people live. As a result, most people are not forced to grapple with the specifics of climate change, but rather can treat it as an abstract concept. And abstract concepts simply don’t motivate people to act as forcefully as specific ones do.
Fourth, the future is always more uncertain than the present. That is one reason people value the present so much more strongly. After all, if you save a lot of money for retirement, there is no guarantee that you will live long enough to enjoy it. In the case of climate change, there are skeptics who argue that it is not certain that the influence of human activity on climate will have the dire consequences that some experts have projected.
While all of these factors are working against us, there is hope. Whether you’re trying to get yourself to engage in more activities that reduce your impact on the climate or trying to convince others (or organizations) to act, there are a few things you can do.
Bringing the future mentally close, so you begin to feel the specifics of a daily life disrupted by a change in global climate, will help reduce the psychological distance. Only when you and others experience this future threat in the present (rather than something that is still a generation away) will it have enough motivational force to get you to engage in actions that take more effort today, like taking public transportation or turning down the AC on a hot summer day. Familiarize yourself with the reports and predictions (you can start with the UN report), and think through and talk about how your daily life will be affected.
It is also worthwhile to confront the uncertainty of the future head-on. If you (or someone you know) is skeptical that human activity is affecting the climate, contemplate the probability that global climate change is real. Most skeptics think there is at least some chance that human activity is affecting the climate. Have them state their probability. When I have tried this with skeptics I have talked with, they often give a low probability, like 20%. At that point, I try to make the decision more specific. I ask whether they would be willing to forgo something today to invest in a disease that has a one in five chance of affecting a grandchild. And if so, then I ask how taking climate change seriously is different. You don’t have to be a skeptic to try this logic on yourself. Consider what you’d be willing to forgo today knowing that in one generation there will be serious, catastrophic consequences because of inaction.
You can also initiate a serious discussion about values among your peers and within your organization. The idea that options in the present are more valuable than options in the future (the essence of temporal discounting) is an evaluation. And the word evaluation contains the word value in it — meaning it assumes a set of values.
Ultimately, we have to be willing to be explicit about the values we are acting on. If we choose to enrich our lives in the present at the cost of the quality of life of future generations, that is a choice of values that we rarely like to make explicitly. We have to be willing to look in the mirror and say that we are willing to live our lives selfishly, without regard to the lives of our children and grandchildren. And if we are not willing to own that selfish value, then we have to make a change in our behavior today.