Could “Temporal Uncertainty” be Stifling Support for Climate Change Mitigation?

A recent New York Times piece by Maria Konnikova regarding the psychology of self-control got me thinking about why we as a society have so much difficulty finding the “discipline” to address climate change.

Psychologists have long known that positive rewards influence behavior. However, Konnikova reports new research that the more uncertain the time frame of the expected reward, the less likely we are to act in pursuit of that reward. The classic “marshmallow study” determined the level of kids’ self control by measuring how long each 4-year-old would wait to eat one marshmallow for a reward of two marshmallows later on. It turns out that the study didn’t account for the uncertainty about how long each kid expected to wait because this “temporal uncertainty” can make the reward seem much less important.

Or, to put it in terms of sustainability, if we knew the exact schedule of the coming effects of climate change, we would actively prepare for them and then rejoice in our preparedness when the storm hit. However, given the uncertainty of when effects of climate change will directly affect us, we are much less motivated to prepare, or more importantly, to mitigate the effects of climate change that the scientific consensus says will occur within 25-40 years.

The effects of climate change are already happening.  While we saw people rushing to contribute to Sandy relief last year and Heiyan relief now, why don’t we see similar public urgency towards the adoption of mitigation strategies or even towards overarching disaster preparation?

New York City is to be applauded for the work it’s doing to both prepare for the coming effects of climate change and to mitigate its intensity, despite the uncertainty of when it may occur.  Factoring in “temporal uncertainty,” how can we more effectively persuade individual citizens to take action now? Another Superstorm will occur, or maybe it will be a catastrophic heat wave next time – just because we don’t know exactly when or where doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take action now.

About the authors

Ellen Honigstock
Ellen is Director of Education Development with Urban Green Council.