A new study by Samset et al. (2020) in Nature Communcations finds that even under strong and sustained mitigation efforts, it will take the climate system until mid-century to demonstrate a discernible cooling response. Unfortunately, we must accept and live with the frustrating fact that the global climate system is a rather gigantic tanker ship that will change its course only several decades after humanity has decided to pull the emissions steering wheel into another direction. Yet, we should also think about what may motivate immediate action to reduce the risk of climate collapse in the far future. Rather than only fixating on the nebulous, future benefits of present-day climate protection, I would suggest that communicators should focus on highlighting positive short-term side effects of climate protection measures.
The fact that climate change develops over decades and centuries, but the attention span of media audiences sometimes does not extend beyond a few days, is the core of the climate change communication problem. This is the reason why the climate change dispute has long been neglected by journalism, and threatens to be dismissed by the daily news again and again. The study at hand calls attention to the predicament that the effects of our climate protection measures lie 20, 30 or more years in the future. Thus, we must act today to improve humanity’s quality of life in a distant future, and this requires a great deal of responsibility.
Therefore, short-term co-benefits of climate protection should also be communicated. For example, turning away from a fossil-fuel driven, individual car-ownership based transportation system, will deliver immediate benefits to the quality of life in metropolitan cities. The air becomes cleaner, traffic noise decreases, cars occupy less living space. And, over many decades, global warming will also be reduced. The rapid, positive side effects of climate protection should therefore also be researched and communicated. The discussion should not be limited to whether emission reductions will lead to a milder temperature rise in 20 or 50 years time, but also highlight the socially desirable side-effects that could occur much earlier.