The Fierce Urgency of a Slow-Burn Climate Crisis

Even though the climate crisis is as urgent as a house on fire, it is also something we'll be dealing with for a very long time.

Floods Peak Seine River Levels In Paris
Floodwaters surrounded the copy of the statue of liberty on February 08, 2021 in Paris, France. Heavy rains caused the level of the Seine to rise 4 meters above its usual level. Chesnot / Getty Images

“I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is,” 

When Greta Thunberg addressed leaders at the World Economic Forum, she explained to them that they were rapidly running out of time. And she was right. Whether it’s the growing threat of climate-driven wildfires, the expanding list of extinct and endangered species, or rapidly accelerating sea-level rise, it’s clear that our window of opportunity is closing.

We need to act, and we need to act now. That’s why The Guardian updated its editorial guidelines to refer to the "climate crisis," rather than the far more benign-sounding "climate change." (Treehugger did the same.)

There is, however, a tension that’s inherent in Thunberg’s house-on-fire metaphor. That’s because, even though it’s true that the crisis is every bit as urgent as a house on fire, it is also true to say that we’ll be dealing with it for a very, very long time. (What James Howard Kunstler referred to as "The Long Emergency.") And while for individuals, a burning house represents a minute-by-minute threat to life and livelihood, the climate crisis will play out for us over decades, even centuries, and it will need to be addressed even as we continue to go about living our daily lives.

Admittedly, I myself have been painfully slow to grasp the significance of this specific element of the challenge. Having been alerted to the threat of climate change as a teenager in the 90s, I was gripped by both a profound fear of the magnitude of the problem, yet also a certain detachment that it would ever impact me in real or meaningful ways. Now in my forties, I can no longer hold onto that detachment – as the changes have made themselves apparent in places I know and love.

Sea ice in Helsinki harbor, for example, used to be so ubiquitous during my childhood visits to my mother’s native Finland that I would gawp at temporary roads that were plowed over the ocean. Now it tends to be a rare sight. Hebden Bridge, a town in Northern England that I tried to help protect by planting trees in the 90s, continues to be hit with worsening floods today. And the North Carolina beaches we visit most summers look ever more fragile as sea-level rise continues. Yet even as I recognize the profundity of these changes, I’m also faced with the fact that they are largely outside of my own individual control. Even if I stop burning fossil fuels tomorrow, the world still presses on.

Emergency Action Versus Endurance

Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics at Duke University, has spent his career exploring why people do what they do. In his book "Hacking Human Nature for Good," Ariely and his co-authors set out to explain why encouraging climate-friendly behaviors can be such a hard sell. Among the many reasons they identified, there is one that is directly related to the challenge of timeframes: Humans are not too great at delayed gratification.

Essentially, we tend to discount benefits if they are delivered far in the future. So even if we recognize that eating less beef – if adopted en masse – would mean a more livable climate in the future, we weigh that against our immediate desire for a steak dinner. And while we climate advocates can try to convince our fellow humans of the consequences of our actions, education alone is unlikely to shift their behaviors. As Ariely writes in "Hacking Human Nature for Good":

“Knowledge is about tomorrow. In the now, we’re driven by the environment we currently live in. The major theme, and arguably the biggest principle within behavioral economics, is that environment determines our behavior to a large degree, and to a larger degree than we intuitively predict.”

I posed this question to friends on Twitter earlier this week, asking if anyone had come up with adequate terminology to describe this maddening tension. "Cognitive dissonance," "narrative dissonance," "latency," and "temporal asymmetry" were all terms that were offered up by folks. And they all have an element of truth to them. Broadly speaking, however, I think the wide variety of terms points to a particularly salient insight: The way we think about the climate crisis probably needs to shift depending on the specific part of the problem we are trying to solve.

If we’re talking about big, impactful decisions that will reverberate for many decades to come – especially the decisions of powerful or influential people – then we probably do need them to treat the crisis as an emergency. But if we’re talking about our day-to-day decision-making, then we might want to think about it a little differently. Back on Twitter, Michael Collins reminded me of an alternative framing to the house on fire analogy:

Greta Thunberg used the right analogy when she addressed leaders in Davos. For them, the house really is on fire, and we need them to treat it as the emergency it is. Yet for the rest of us, the crisis is more of a slow burn. I’ve still got to clean the kitchen. I’ve still got to get the kids to their online school. And I still really need to finish that dark and broody Nordic thriller on Netflix that has me on the edge of my seat. It’s hard to sustain a sense of urgency in every single moment. Just like a person living with diabetes has to settle in for the long haul, we too have to find strategies that can sustain change over the decades necessary. And, unlike diabetes, we also have to bring others along for the ride.  

We’re going to have to match the rightful calls for urgency with an equally loud call for endurance. We’re going to have to find new ways to make the crisis feel real and immediate at the specific moments that important decisions are made. And we’re going to have to design our world in a way that makes doing the right thing the default, so that we can also step away from the crisis and think about something else once in a while.