How humans' perception of time shapes the way we tackle climate change : Short Wave Most people are focused on the present: today, tomorrow, maybe next year. Fixing your flat tire is more pressing than figuring out if you should buy an electric car. Living by the beach is a lot more fun than figuring out when your house might be flooded by rising sea levels.

That basic human relationship with time makes climate change a tricky problem.

Host Emily Kwong talks to climate correspondent Rebecca Hersher about how our obsession with the present can be harnessed to tackle our biggest climate problems.

What does our perception of time have to do with climate change? A lot.

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You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

Hi. It's Emily Kwong, SHORT WAVE co-host, here with Rebecca Hersher, friend of the show.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Friend of the Earth.

KWONG: Friend to creatures big and small.

HERSHER: OK. All right. Don't get carried away.

KWONG: And a friendly NPR climate reporter.

HERSHER: Indeed, I am friendly in that context.

KWONG: Why are you here, though?

HERSHER: I'm here because now that it's 2023, we're officially one year closer to a bunch of important climate goals. So I thought we might chat about that but in kind of an unexpected way.

KWONG: That sounds fun, actually. What climate goals are we one year closer to?

HERSHER: Well, 2030 is the deadline for the U.S. to cut its greenhouse gas emissions in half, and 2050 is the global deadline to get to zero emissions. And both of those goals are really important if we want to avoid catastrophic warming later in the century.

KWONG: These are some big goals. Are there any closer goals, though? I mean, for this year...

HERSHER: (Laughter) You want closer goals?

KWONG: Yeah. Or for next year because 2030, 2050, later this century - that is a long time from now.

HERSHER: There are closer goals, but I refuse to tell you about them, actually...

KWONG: What?

HERSHER: ...Because today we're going to focus on the future and talk about that exact thing you just said - why today, tomorrow and this year feel so much more important than decades in the future and how that very normal human relationship with time affects how we approach climate change.

KWONG: As you may have noticed, NPR's science reporters have been working on a bunch of stories about time for this new year, how we experience it, how we measure it. And today on the show, we're harnessing our biases about time to tackle our biggest climate problems. You're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.


HERSHER: All right, Emily Kwong, question for you. 2030 - when you picture what your life will be like in that year, what do you see?

KWONG: Seven years from now? I mean, I draw a complete blank, to be honest. It's not that I don't have goals. I do. I just can't think further than maybe five years. Or perhaps it's just in part because I've been trying so hard to make it in the present, to just take it day by day.

HERSHER: Yeah, totally. You know, today, tomorrow, next week - it pretty much takes up all my brain space. So, for example, I don't think much about, like, what kind of transportation I'll use in a decade, but I think a lot about how I'm going to get around tomorrow, right? I'm going to ride my bike to the train.

KWONG: Yeah.

HERSHER: And that means I need to look up the train schedule. I also need to fix the flat tire on my bike. That is the stuff that I'm focused on.

KWONG: Yeah, that sounds extremely human but also very inconvenient for climate change because that is unfolding over decades or even centuries. And here we all are caught in the present moment.

HERSHER: Yeah, exactly. And I talked to Anthony Leiserowitz about this because he's been thinking about how this individual bias, you know, being in favor of the present, plays out across our whole society. He's the director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

ANTHONY LEISEROWITZ: I consider climate change the policy problem from hell because you almost couldn't design a worse fit for our underlying psychology or our institutions of decision-making.

KWONG: What does he mean by institutions of decision-making?

HERSHER: Very official - institutions of decision-making. Basically, corporations and governments. You know, the institutions that have the power to shape society, including collective greenhouse gas emissions. But what Anthony points out is those institutions aren't focused on the long term. For example, many companies are focused on quarterly earnings and growth.

KWONG: Yeah, right - like quarters of the year, setting goals three months at a time.

HERSHER: Yeah. And that helps drive short-term behavior, such as leasing new land to drill for fossil fuels, which makes long-term climate change worse. And a lot of our elected leaders also have incentives to think short term.

LEISEROWITZ: The president gets elected every four years. Members of the Senate get elected every six years, and members of the House get elected every two years. So they tend to operate on a much shorter time cycle than this problem, climate change, which is unfolding over decades.

KWONG: Yeah. So much in society seems designed to make us think about the short term and not about the distant future, at least not in the geologic, distant future, when human life is comparatively so much shorter.

HERSHER: Yeah. And, you know, there are a lot of ways that life in the U.S. makes it difficult for us to make decisions that would lead to climate benefits for us down the line. But I want to be really, really clear about what the implications of this are. This relationship with time does not mean that humans or human societies writ large are somehow incapable of reducing greenhouse gas emissions or protecting people from the effects of a hotter Earth. I talked to Jennifer Jacquet about this. She's an environmental scientist at New York University, and this is a pet peeve of hers.

JENNIFER JACQUET: We do all sorts of things that we're hardwired against.

KWONG: Like what?

HERSHER: Like scuba diving, sitting at desks, typing at computers.

KWONG: True. Or even controlling our impulses, managing our emotions.

HERSHER: Going big. I'm not even thinking that deep. Like, saving for retirement, going ice skating, glassblowing, using a vacuum cleaner.

JACQUET: We do all sorts of things that we weren't evolved to do. And why is it that we, though, choose to focus on these evolutionary quirks for why we can't solve climate change?

KWONG: She makes a good point.

HERSHER: Yeah, she's really adamant about this, I think partly because she studies this topic. And she's seen a lot of headlines over the years, including here on NPR, that could make it sound like human brains somehow aren't wired to solve climate change because we're too focused on the present, when actually, the key is to use that focus to tackle climate change. She and Anthony Leiserowitz both say this, actually.

KWONG: OK. So turning our weakness into a strength. But what does that actually look like? In the real world, is anyone already doing that successfully?

HERSHER: Oh, yeah, totally. You may have already experienced this yourself. It's just not always obvious at first glance. Here's a common example that Leiserowitz told me about. So climate-driven disasters are getting more common, right? Hurricanes are more powerful and dangerous, floods happening in new places or with a new vengeance, intense wildfires, record-breaking heat waves.

LEISEROWITZ: These are real, and these are affecting Americans all across the country in incredibly powerful and visceral ways.

KWONG: Yeah, Superstorm Sandy absolutely flooded parts of my hometown a few years ago. It was kind of frightening. People were moving around by boat in the streets to get out of their house and move their stuff.

HERSHER: It's super scary. It's obviously bad. At the same time, when you live through a disaster that's clearly linked to climate change, that is a very immediate problem, right? You're moving around in a boat in your street. That is a now problem. It brings the dangers of climate change into the present. It makes it something that you have to think about now, not next decade. And there's actually research that suggests people may be more supportive of climate policies right after a climate-driven disaster. So that immediacy can have real effects.

KWONG: Interesting. Like, if I survive a hurricane and I know that climate change made it more severe, maybe I'm more likely to then support a law that cracks down on greenhouse gas emissions, at least in the immediate aftermath.

HERSHER: Yeah, that's the idea. And this research is still pretty new, but there is some evidence for that and also that people might be more likely to do things like flood-proofing their house or buying flood insurance after a disaster, things that would protect them during a future storm.

KWONG: But, Rebecca, do we all have to personally suffer in order to prioritize this? Really, no, like, the only way to make climate change feel pressing is to experience disaster? We can't live like that.

HERSHER: Right, that - and that would be a pretty dark takeaway. So luckily, the answer is no. There are other ways to make the benefits of addressing climate change feel more immediate. So Jennifer Jacquet told me some good examples of this are how the government added incentives to the Inflation Reduction Act.

JACQUET: If you will buy an electric car, we will give you a kickback. If you install solar panels on your house, we will make that profitable. They're trying to speed up the sort of benefits of cooperation.

KWONG: Nice. Yeah. Using that weakness of ours as a strength, like making it financially lucrative to do things that help the climate and tapping into people's sense of immediacy that way.

HERSHER: Yeah, exactly. And it's not just individuals driving electric cars. Another example from the political realm would be rewarding elected officials who push climate policies.

KWONG: What do you mean, rewarding? Like voting for them?

HERSHER: Yeah, exactly. The thing all elected officials want more than anything else. I mean, you know, if somebody in office is focused on their relatively short-term goal of getting reelected, their constituents can use that to push for policies that cut greenhouse gas emissions in the long term. And, you know, the conventional wisdom on this has been that candidates didn't win or lose because of climate change. But that actually might be changing. A Pew poll before the last midterm election showed that about half of voters under 30 ranked climate as a top-priority policy.

KWONG: Okay. So I guess beating the clock on climate change is all about timing.

HERSHER: Totally. And you know what, Emily? This time spent with you has been such a delight.


KWONG: Today's show was produced by Thomas Lu, with help from Margaret Cirino. It was edited by Gabriel Spitzer and fact-checked by Abe Levine. The audio engineer for this episode was Hannah Copeland. Gisele Grayson, whose presence permeates this podcast, helped schedule it. Brendan Crump is our podcast coordinator. Our senior director of programming is Beth Donovan. And the senior vice president of programming is Anya Grundmann. I'm Emily Kwong. Thank you for listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

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