Whatever your view on the scale of the response to the outbreak and spread of coronavirus it is an issue that is provoking both fear and action. Although the behaviour of governments, financial markets and the general public is not necessarily irrational; it is interesting to contrast it with our apparent indifference toward the catastrophic long-term effects of climate change. What is it about human nature that makes us mobilise urgently against coronavirus, but be afflicted by apathy and indecision when it comes to global warming?
The nature of a risk matters greatly in how we react to it. Coronavirus can be considered a present threat over which there is a great deal of uncertainty about its scale and impact; there is a significant possibility that its long-term impact is negligible. Contrastingly, climate change is (predominantly) a future threat, but there is a high level of confidence that its long-term impact (without intervention) will be catastrophic for humanity.
It is our tendency to significantly overweight the importance of what is happening now relative to the future that is perhaps the largest impediment to our hopes of successfully mitigating climate change risks. Our reaction towards the coronavirus outbreak is an excellent example of our predilection to focus on a near term negative payoff (even if the potential negative consequences are highly uncertain), whilst at the same time neglecting to attend to a large negative payoff in the future (even if grave consequences are certain). As much as anything our failure to deal with climate risks is a temporal problem.
Our bias towards the present is also accentuated by political incentive structures. This is a particular challenge for democracies – where the frequency of elections / brevity of terms in office mean that politicians are focused on actions and activities that will see them retain power in the short-term. If they make the electorates’ life more difficult it reduces their chances of being re-elected; even if the imposition of discomfort now is designed to deliver incalculable benefit in the future. As heretical as it may sound, there are valid questions to be raised about whether a democratic system with regular elections is suited to dealing with an issue that requires short-term sacrifice for long-term benefits.
Dealing with climate change is about trade-offs. Are we willing to suffer near term inconvenience and friction in our lives, for a benefit in the future that may not directly impact us and seems somewhat abstract Unfortunately, judging by current progress, the answer seems to be no. With coronavirus the trade-off is more balanced because we are accepting some inconvenience now to ward off a present and personal threat.
There is undoubtedly a selfish quality in how we react to the relative risks of coronavirus and climate change. Although I am sure we care about ‘future generations’ they seem remote and removed. Contrastingly, the potential victims of coronavirus are ourselves, our families and friends; which give us far more urgency in our actions to combat it.
Our reaction to the coronavirus risk is also driven by its salience. The implications of contracting the virus are vivid and emotive; we can directly observe the current impact. How we feel about a situation and how available it is to us can lead us to greatly over or understate the risks involved. Climate change by contrast suffers from its most significant costs being in the future, whilst being difficult to clearly envisage or even link directly to our own actions. Even with incidents such as the recent wildfires in Australia – where it is seemingly unquestionable that the severity of these is a result of global warming – the inability to draw an unequivocal direct causal link between our own behaviour and the consequences gives us leeway to remain apathetic.
The unfortunate lesson for climate change that can be drawn from our response to coronavirus is that we will act* but only when its implications are current, salient and affecting us directly. By which stage it will likely be too late to undo much of the damage. Part of the solution to climate change must therefore be acknowledging the behavioural problems we have in dealing with future risks, which means creating policies that force us to suffer short-term cost for the long-term good.
* Clearly actions are being taken and behaviour is changing, but not enough to meet the targets of COP 21, for example.