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Risk: Reason and Reality

Lessons in Risk Perception from Rising Climate Change Concern

People who think a risk will actually affect them and their families and communities, as opposed to somebody else, worry about that risk more. People who think a risk is happening now, as opposed to the same risk if it won’t happen until later, worry about that risk more. “Could It Happen to ME?” and “Now or Later?” are just 2 fundamental factors among more than a dozen affective characteristics of potentially risky situations that make them feel more scary, or less. Once again, public opinion about climate change is providing important evidence about how the psychology of risk perception actually works, and the huge risk we face because of the subjective nature of the very system we use to try and keep ourselves safe.

For some time, Anthony Leiserowitz of Yale and Ed Maibach of George Mason University have been polling public opinion on climate change. They have released a new poll, that finds an increasing number of Americans think global warming is real, caused by human activity, and happening now.

It’s real;   57% in January 2010,  70% now   (+13%)

It’s caused by human activity;   46% in March 2012,   54% now (+8%)

Other questions in the survey help reveal why concern is rising. First, an increasing number of people think climate change is happening now;

A) Around the world,  32% in March 2012,  40% now (+8%)

B) In the U.S.,  30% in March 2012, 36% now (+6%)

 And more people think “It can Happen to ME!”, not just somebody else, or polar bears.

These changes are probably the result of the increase in extreme weather events in the U.S. for the past couple years. When we experience more heat waves and droughts and forest fires and floods and tornadoes, dramatic changes to areas where we live, not changes to ice in the Arctic or incremental hard-to-see changes like sea level rise or shifts in when things bloom in the spring but or nearby, the risks of climate change feel more real, more compelling, more near and now and personally threatening.

Another psychological risk perception factor is triggered by extreme weather; we are more worried by risks that cause large scale all-at-once damage, what researchers call ‘catastrophic risk’, than we are about risks that may cause more harm but which do that harm spread out over location and time…known as ‘chronic risk’. (This is one reason why rare but catastrophic plane crashes cause more fear than motor vehicle crashes – 34,000 deaths in the U.S. per year.) And even though many main stream climate scientists are cautious about whether these extreme weather events are in fact caused by climate change (though most agree they are the sorts of events climate change is likely to cause), it’s not surprising that we assume that climate change is the cause, due to yet another feature of the psychology of risk perception; we are ‘loss averse’, prone to be more worried about loss than happy about gain, so in the face of easy-to-see real-world-where-we-live catastrophic evidence that we may be at risk, we readily jump to the worst-case conclusion that we are.

It’s also interesting to see how these factors are apparently impacting those who don’t believe climate change is real/human-induced/happening now. Research in a field known as Cultural Cognition suggests that the denial of the evidence about climate change is powerfully shaped by the instinct of the social human animal to adopt views that agree with those in the group/tribe with which we most strongly identify. Members of a tribe known as Individualists deny climate change because their tribe prefers a society that mostly leaves the individual alone, and if climate change is real it will require a more communal response, anathema to Individualists but preferable to Communitarians, who advocate concern about climate change not only because of the evidence but because any large environmental problem will require a the kind of ‘we’re all in it together’ communal society response they prefer. Hierarchists, who prefer society organized by rigid and unchanging hierarchies of social and economic class, don’t like government butting in and leveling those playing fields, and deny climate change because if it’s real the problem will require significant government action. That is precisely what Egalitarians prefer, a group that thinks society should be more flexible and fair and that government should push back against the powerful few at the top whose wealth and power impose a restrictive hierarchy of class on the “99%”. Responding to climate change will certainly require government intervention to shake up the economic status quo.

These group/tribal associations are powerful. We have evolved to depend on our tribe for health and safety, so it matters to us, deeply, to be a member in good standing of our tribe. That’s why Cultural Cognition contributes to our perception of risk. Yet as powerful as the protective influence of Cultural Cognition is on our views about climate change, the new study suggests that the risk perception ‘feelings factors’ like “Can It Happen to Me?” and “Is It Happening Now” are trumping the Cultural Cognition-influence on the perceptions of climate deniers. When the study asked people who don’t believe in climate change how sure they were, for the first time since 2008 fewer than 50% were very sure (27%) or extremely sure (15%), a cumulative drop in the certainty of deniers of 15% since March 2012. Something is shaking their certainty, quite possibly the fact that the actual danger of climate change is looking more real, more personal, more now, and thus more threatening.

All of this is a cautionary tale, not just about climate change but about risk perception in general. The way we gauge and respond to potential danger is not a matter of reason and objective dispassionate rational analysis. It matters far more how things feel than simply what the facts say. As a result, this innately subjective system produces what I call The Perception Gap, a gap between our fears and the facts so wide that it becomes a huge risk in and of itself. And climate change teaches this lesson well. Delay in acting to mitigate the risk (reduce greenhouse gas emissions) and in preparing for its dangers…is dangerous in and of itself.

So the shifts in opinion about climate change teach important lessons, not only for that huge threat but for risk management in general. Our innately subjective risk perception system sometimes gets things wrong, in dangerous ways, and we had better factor the risk of The Perception Gap into the overall way we approach the challenge of risk decision making, at both the personal and policy levels, if we want to keep ourselves safe.

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