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In the past few years, terms like “climate crisis” and “climate emergency,” which convey the urgency of climate change, have grown commonplace—increasing in use over tenfold. On the one hand, this is intuitive: climate change is a serious problem, and the global community continues to underinvest in both mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to the effects we’re already seeing. On the other hand, though, it’s not clear that people will make better climate decisions when they feel more climate urgency.
When people make decisions under time constraints, opposing forces are at work: more urgency can be focusing, but it can also be distracting. No doubt you’ve experienced both feelings as you’ve approached a deadline. In the context of climate change, which wins out? In other words, if people feel that climate change is more urgent, will they be more likely to take more and better climate action, or will they enter a state of mind that makes them less effective?
In a recent paper published in Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, we try to answer exactly that question. We look across the wide literature exploring climate decisions under varying levels of urgency—studies that look at everything from how undergraduates react in laboratory experiments to how river managers make climate adaptation decisions on the scale of centuries. (By the way, our paper is freely available here until 15 May 2021.)
Drought responses in Cape Town, South Africa offer a powerful illustration of what we find.
Cape Town relies almost entirely on local rain for its supply of fresh water. As a result of its growing population and the spread of invasive plant species, demand for its limited supply of water has increased dramatically.
Then, beginning in 2015, Cape Town entered a severe three-year drought, the result of a strong El Niño likely amplified by climate change. By 2017, Cape Town had nearly exhausted its reserves of potable water. As “Day Zero” approached, community groups and officials launched a campaign to encourage conservation.
For most, the messaging worked: Cape Town residents overall reduced their daily demand by around half and strong rains the following year refilled their nearly empty reservoirs. But some panicked, fighting over and hoarding water from streams and springs around the city.
When we look across the academic literature, we see that climate decisions in very different contexts seem to match this same pattern.
That is, at very low levels of urgency, levels of attention, motivation, and action are fairly low. You could say people are bored—or disinterested.
As individuals move to moderate levels of urgency, they tend to become more focused, attentive, and action-oriented. Behavioral experiments suggest that they seek information, cooperate at higher levels, and devise solutions to the climate change-related challenges they face. Our study identifies several cases where effective communication nudges people from low to moderate levels of urgency and correspondingly higher levels of action. For example, in the island nation of Kiribati, villager elders and leaders considered a variety of climate adaptation projects across different time horizons. They showed higher levels of engagement with projects that would address issues two generations in the future — the “time of the grandchildren” in the local language — than with projects oriented three or four generations ahead.
Finally, at very high levels of urgency, this relationship reverses. People begin to direct a large amount of energy toward monitoring the risk itself rather than addressing it—and they become despondent, distracted, and uncooperative. Anxiety, fear, and stress all begin to cut off paths to the best outcomes. In our paper, a particularly acute climate-related risk, wildfire response, provides a poignant example: in a remote Indigenous community in northern Ontario in July 2011, emergency managers experienced sudden, high levels of urgency as wildfires elsewhere in the province rapidly spread closer. Lacking time to think through evacuation plans, they hurriedly planned a partial evacuation and were unable to assure that the most vulnerable were provided appropriate care; families were separated, with members of individual households flown to shelters in different towns, hundreds of kilometers apart. Later, they switched to a full evacuation, which added to the confusion.
The consistency of the apparent nonlinear relationship between urgency and response surprised us: similar patterns are reflected in the climate adaptation plans of municipal officials in New Zealand, in the relocation choices of Fijian coastal village residents, in the water conservation behaviors of Californians, in the decisions of forest managers in Sweden and Canada, and in the water infrastructure investments made by Dutch and Danish city governments.
We think that this is important for a few reasons.
First, to the extent that recent changes in the language we use to describe climate change reflect changes in the urgency felt by the general population, people may be more likely now to engage in concerted climate action than ever before.
Second, though, increases in the perceived urgency of climate change are likely to lead some people to take less action—especially those already most worried about climate change and those who feel least capable of taking meaningful action to address it.
Third, and most importantly, these hypotheses have implications for climate communication. Emphasizing climate risks in isolation from potential solutions or a sense of hope might be counterproductive. This is especially true if those most likely to encounter climate alarmism are already those most concerned about climate change.
Instead, as we look forward to Earth Day, we would do better to pair our warnings about the risks of climate change with images of the alternate world we might construct together—one with more walkable streets, less air pollution, and a global climate system that can provide the same stability to our children and grandchildren as the one we grew up in.
Andrew Wilson is a fourth-year PhD candidate in Sustainable Development at Columbia University.
Ben Orlove is an anthropologist at the Earth Institute and the School for International and Public Affairs at Columbia University.
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