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‘Important and urgent’: this decision-making matrix shows that we need to act now to fight climate change

Climate change was first flagged as a global risk several decades ago, but warnings were not taken seriously. Now that climate change is part and parcel of our daily lives, the need for immediate and concerted action to limit its effects is increasingly being recognized, but there is also strong resistance to the radical change required to do this. In this blog article, ISS Professor of Pluralist Development Economics Irene van Staveren contemplates how the well-known Eisenhower decision-making matrix can help us take climate change seriously. We are already in the ‘important and urgent’ box, she argues — an understanding that should drive us to act.

Image Source: Asana.

Some years ago, when I was receiving training in time management, I was introduced to the Eisenhower matrix. I am still grateful to the American general for it because I use the two-by-two table every day. The two columns are called ‘urgent’ and ‘not urgent’ and the two rows are called ‘important’ and ‘not important’. And that’s where you plan all your tasks.

The trick is to spend most of your time working on tasks that are important but not urgent. Then you can work wonderfully focused on your core tasks and not under time pressure and with the fear of not meeting a deadline. The latter happens if you have let time slip through your fingers or have not planned properly. Then you suddenly find yourself in the box of tasks that are not only important but also urgent.

Now that I am preparing a course on climate change for the Economics Bachelor at EUR in Rotterdam, I notice that the Eisenhower matrix can also be applied to climate change. When Shell knew more than thirty years ago that fossil fuels could lead to global warming, almost no one saw it as an important problem and certainly not as an urgent problem.

On the contrary, we all happily consumed fossil fuels, regardless of the CO2 increase due to more cars, taking flights and enabling deforestation for our consumption of meat. It was only in 1995, with the first international climate conference (held in Berlin), that policymakers seem to realize that it could become an important problem.

But it was not until twenty years later that governments worldwide were prepared to make agreements in Paris on a safe limit on warming: 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius. And now, many uncontrollable forest fires, severe floods and droughts, and rapidly melting ice caps later, it has also become an urgent problem.

So, we have all wasted too much time on other things, such as drilling new oil wells, pumping out old gas fields and pointing to other countries that emit even more CO2 or are catching up because their prosperity is much lower than ours. Some even thought it was better to first generate even more polluting economic growth in order to earn the money to invest in sustainable energy.

We now know better, continuing on the old path is expensive: every day that we intervene earlier, the costs in the future will be lower. We need to get to net zero faster as a popular and insightful book argues. And now we are all in the box of ‘important and urgent’. The deadline to stay below 2 degrees is close on our heels.

This means that we, particularly in the Global North, are now forced to take controversial measures, provided they have an effect in the short term. So, no new nuclear power plants or solar shields in space. But CO2 capture and storage underground. And mega wind turbines near nature reserves, because horizon pollution is not nice, but in about 30 years those wind turbines can be taken down again because, hopefully, we will have made the energy transition.

And much stricter regulations for the acceleration of CO2-neutral construction, production and transport, and much more and higher CO2 taxes. In short, now that the climate problem has become not only very important but also quite urgent, there is only one thing left: to reduce CO2 emissions as quickly as possible, as various authors are arguing as well. Eisenhower would have looked at us shaking his head: what a poor planning.

This column appeared in Dutch newspaper Trouw of 5 September 2023.

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About the author:

Irene van Staveren is a professor of pluralist development economics at the Institute of Social Studies (ISS) of Erasmus University Rotterdam. Professor van Staveren’s theoretical interest is in feminist economics, social economics, institutional economics and post-Keynesian economics. Her key research interest is at the meso level of the economy with topics such as social cohesion, social exclusion, inequality and discrimination, as well as ethics and values in the economy and in economics.

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