The Once and Future Climate Emergency

Daily climate disasters are the new normal. In the past week, heavy rain on one side of the U.S. caused catastrophic flooding in New York and Vermont, and on the other side sent houses sliding off California mountains. The ocean off Florida has surface temperatures in the 90s Fahrenheit, and Arizonans have endured over-110-degree heat for more than a week.

That’s just one country, just this week. In Europe last summer, an estimated 60,000 people died of extreme heat, according to a new analysis. This year, with even higher global heat records, is likely to be worse.

The global effort to mount a robust response to climate change faces many barriers, with political dysfunction, polarization and greed prominent among them. But since writing my column last month about the success of a U.S. program for H.I.V./AIDS treatment, I’ve been thinking a lot about the role that political psychology plays in the crises of climate change and other thorny issues in which leaders struggle with prevention versus response.

The program I wrote about last month is the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, which had, on paper, an economically irrational reason to pay for expensive H.I.V./AIDS treatment.

One key insight from the PEPFAR results was that efficiency isn’t enough on its own; leaders need political support to carry out policies, too. Often, the most dollar-for-dollar efficient policies aren’t the ones that excite people — especially when leaders need political momentum for quick action (and funding). But combining efficient policies and those that have strong political appeal can have a powerful effect.

For PEPFAR, an economic analysis suggested that the most efficient use of the program’s dollars was to focus on prevention, which would save lives more cheaply than treatment. But the program also wanted to help people who were already infected, by paying for expensive antiretroviral treatment. Treatment drew greater political support and unlocked additional funding, allowing PEPFAR to ultimately save far more lives than if it were focused only on prevention.

PEPFAR was unique in many ways. But the lesson that people are often more interested in responding to emergencies than in preventing them has shown up in other research, too.

One paper, for instance, found that voters reward politicians for delivering emergency relief for natural disasters, but not for investing in natural-disaster preparedness — even though $1 spent on preparedness was worth approximately $15 in emergency response. That can create misaligned incentives.

“If you’re a politician, if you put your dollars on families that were hurt by the floods, in helping them build new homes, you’re getting rewarded much more than if you’re helping those communities spend this money for preparedness so those homes won’t be destroyed by the flood,” said Yotam Margalit, a political psychology researcher at Tel Aviv University.

But the PEPFAR case suggests another interpretation: Maybe people’s strong desire to help people in immediate need could open new doors for funding and action.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” said Sam Maglio, a marketing and psychology researcher at the University of Toronto. “And that’s right, if you take the long view. But the human mind is really bad at taking the long view and engaging in planning or preparation.”

Maglio said his research suggests that one way to help counteract that is “by making the future feel closer, by making the future seem like it will start sooner.” PEPFAR, for example, tied prevention to the concrete, present-tense disaster of the H.I.V. epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa, making the future infections feel closer.

Similarly, people may be less interested in helping hypothetical future people than in helping real people today. In one of Dr. Margalit’s studies, he and his co-author investigated an odd phenomenon in the politics of immigration: Most people who oppose immigration focus on stopping new immigrants from arriving.

But opinion data shows that most anti-immigrant voters are motivated by issues like integration and social change, which are mostly driven by the much larger population of immigrants already living in their country. Why were voters intent on stopping new arrivals instead?

The study found that the explanation was, in effect, a moral one: Even anti-immigration voters felt some responsibility toward people who were already residing in their country, and so were less comfortable with policies that targeted them. Instead they focused on hypothetical future immigrants, toward whom they felt no such moral obligations.

Opposing immigration often has the opposite partisan connotation that fighting climate change does, but the underlying pattern here is similar: Voters tend to be more interested in protecting identifiable people in the present, and less concerned about possible future harm, however likely.

A lot of climate messaging focuses on the need to prevent catastrophe. But the floods and mudslides and smoke-filled air and deadly heat are a reminder that climate change is already worsening disasters and factoring into new ones. The question is whether that will make the future seem closer and generate new political will for preventing harm, not just reacting to it.

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