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.
Climate change and pandemics are both long-term systemic risks society often ignores, but they have vastly different time frames. While 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 the cancellation of virtually every major sports and cultural event at global scale , closed schools, and tanked oil markets and stocks to historic low levels. We’re now all dealing with uncertainty that we don’t know when will end.
Peter Atwater, a researcher assets that our horizon preference is 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.” Atwater affirms that the kind of broad strategic, generational, really forward, futuristic thinking only occurs at extreme peaks in confidence, and adds that “It could be 20, 30, 50 years before we’re back to that sort of intensity on things like climate change.”