Daily climate disasters are the new normal. In the past week, heavy rains on one side of the United States caused catastrophic flooding in New York and Vermont, and on the other side, houses slid down California mountains. Florida’s ocean surface temperatures are in the 90s Fahrenheit, and Arizonans have endured 110-degree heat for more than a week.
That’s just one country, just this week. In Europe last summer, around 60,000 people died from 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 obstacles, with political dysfunction, polarization and greed prominent among them. But since I wrote my column last month about the success of a US HIV/AIDS treatment program, I’ve been thinking a lot about the role political psychology plays in the crises of climate change and other thorny issues in which leaders struggle with prevention versus response.
Responding to emergencies is popular. Preventing them is not.
The program I wrote about last month is the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Prevention, or PEPFAR, which had, on paper, an economically irrational reason to pay for expensive HIV/AIDS treatment.
One key understanding from the results of PEPFAR was that efficiency is not enough by itself; leaders also need political support to implement policies. Often, the most effective dollar-for-dollar policies aren’t the ones that get people excited — especially when leaders need political momentum for quick action (and funding). But combining effective policies and those that have strong political appeal can have a powerful impact.
For PEPFAR, an economic analysis suggested that the most effective use of the program’s dollars had to focus on prevention, which would save lives more cheaply than therapy. 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 many more lives than if it had focused solely on prevention.
PEPFAR was unique in many ways. But the lesson that people are often more interested in responding to crises than preventing them has also been shown in other research.
One piece of paper, for example, found that voters reward politicians for providing relief for natural disasters, but not for investing in natural disaster preparedness—even though $1 spent on preparedness was worth about $15 in emergency response. That can create misaligned incentives.
“If you are a politician, if you put your dollars for families hurt by the floods, helping them build new homes, you are rewarded much more than if you help those communities spend this money on preparation, so. those homes will not be destroyed by the flood,” said Yotam Margalit, a political psychology researcher at Tel Aviv University.
But the PEPFAR case suggests another interpretation: Perhaps 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 rightly so, if you take the long view. But the human mind is really bad at taking the long view and getting involved in planning or preparation.”
Maglio said his research suggests that one way to help counteract that is to “make the future feel closer, making the future seem like it’s going to start sooner.” PEPFAR, for example, linked prevention to the concrete, contemporary disaster of the HIV epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa, making future infections feel closer.
Similarly, people may be less interested in helping hypothetical future people than helping actual people today. In one of Dr. Margalit studieshe and his co-author explored a strange phenomenon in immigration politics: 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 largely driven by the much larger population of immigrants already living in their country. Why did voters intend to stop new arrivals instead?
The study found that the explanation was, in fact, a moral one: Even anti-immigration voters felt some responsibility to people who already lived in their country, and so were less comfortable with policies that targeted them. Instead they focused on hypothetical future immigrants, towards whom they felt no such moral obligations.
Opposing immigration often has the opposite partisan meaning 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 potential future harm, however likely.
Many climate messages focus on the need to prevent disaster. But the floods and mudslides and smoky air and deadly heat are reminders that climate change is already making disasters worse and allowing for new ones. The question is whether this will make the future seem closer and generate new political will to prevent harm, not just react to it.
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