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What do we mean when we say climate change is urgent?

Wilson, Andrew Jordan; Orlove, Ben

Recent discussions of climate change in multiple domains—the academic literature, the popular press, political movements, and international climate policy regime—have increasingly framed the phenomenon as a “crisis,” an “emergency,” or an “urgent” situation. In this paper, we contextualize the time pressure of climate change in the broader social science literature, perform bibliometric and discourse analyses of this framing, and explore potential implications of this trend for climate decision making.

While the increased prevalence of time pressure terms is arguably part and parcel of modernity, these terms are in general not synonymous. In the context of climate decision making, we find that “urgency” functions as a boundary object relaying the internalization of time pressure between (1) the academic literature and the international climate change policy regime and (2) political movements and the popular press; especially as construed in these latter domains, “crisis” and “emergency” connote time pressure but so too generate a constellation of other affective and cognitive states. A review of a set of related literatures suggests that the time pressure framing of climate change affects the quantity and quality of information and the range of options (e.g., geoengineering) considered in choice processes for mitigation and adaptation actions, as well as the sequencing and timing of chosen plan elements; furthermore, these effects likely vary in both direction and magnitude with characteristics of the individuals or organizations in which they manifest. Taken as a whole, the crisis framing of climate change is likely to polarize beliefs and actions, especially in the absence of accompanying information about self-efficacy and hope.

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