In one of the enlightening "drunkard's walks" that the internet enables, I bumped into this fascinating blog post at the site Grow this City. Shouldn't one show one's gratitude for the gratuitous conferral of this sort of benefit by making an effort to enable others to enjoy it too? So I repost; and then offer a conversational response.
At a recent meeting of a class on climate change policy, my professor led a discussion on the psychology of climate change and why it is so difficult to motivate people to act on the dire warnings published by climate scientists.
The basis of our discussion was a set of three articles published by psychologists on the topic. Two were by Elke U. Weber: “Public Understanding of Climate Change in the United States” and “Why Global Warming Does Not Scare Us (Yet)”. A third was by Dan M. Kahan titled “The Tragedy of the Risk-Perception Commons: Culture Conflict, Rationality Conflict, and Climate Change”. A couple lines from the abstract of one of Weber’s article’s sums up the conclusion that both she and Kahan reach:
“When people fail to be alarmed about a risk or hazard, they do not take precautions… The time-delayed, abstract, and often statistical nature of the risks of global warming does not evoke strong visceral reactions.”
Basically, people do not take action to prevent or prepare for climate change because climate change is not scary enough.
Reading those findings got me thinking – is there a phenomenon similar to climate change that does scare people?
Eureka! There is such a thing! It’s called Terrorism. And, unlike climate change, it scares the shit out of people.
The analogy between climate change and Terrorism holds up for these three reasons:
1. They are diffuse in their causes and in their harms.
2. Preventing them requires large-scale social coercion and massive diversions of resources.
3. They cannot be prevented with total certainty even if we employ all the coercion and resources we can muster.
I brought this idea up in class and might as well have detonated a flash-bang grenade. My peers were shell-shocked. Their ethical circuitry shorted out. A business major blurted, “Terrorism isn’t like climate change. It’s a big danger that we have to fight to defend our country.”
To this I said, “The chances of being injured or killed in an act of terror is very low. You have a better chance being struck by lightning.”
The business major countered, “Look at Oklahoma City, the World Trade Center, the Shoe Bomber. Terrorism happens all the time.”
I then suggested that it may be the case that the US government has acted more decisively and with more resources to the threat of terrorism than to the threat of climate change because the United States is a fossil fuel-based regime. The reason that there was such a thorough (and effective) propaganda campaign to justify the “War on Terror” was that it generated support for the invasion and decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those wars, I said, secured Middle Eastern oil for the United States, strengthening its fossil fuel-based regime. On the other hand, preventing climate change is not as strategically important to the USA, so our government has devoted more resources to fighting Terrorism than to addressing the problem of climate change.
My classmates went pale. My professor stayed silent. And the business major came at me again.
“The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were about terrorism. They had nothing to do with oil. They made us more safe from terrorism.”
I said, “Come on, the idea that we invaded those countries because of oil is not a crazy one. It’s obvious.”
But my classmates looked at me like I was insane, like I had jumped on the big oval table in the middle of the room and defecated before them.
But the normally quiet girl to my right spoke up. “It might also have something to do with class. 9/11 blew up a skyscraper in Manhattan. Climate change hurts poor people first.”
But my professor, who has a JD from Stanford and an aversion to talking about class or speaking ill of the US government, intervened. He changed the subject, and ‘terrorism’ didn’t enter into the same sentence as ‘climate change’ from then on.
Bonus fact: the Iraq War has been more expensive than the anticipated cost of the Kyoto Protocol to the US.
1. This is a really compelling & cool anecdote that powerfully illustrates how intriguingly & oddly selective perceptions of risk are. Obviously, an element of the phenomenon is how unaware people (we!) normally are of how oddly selective our perceptions are — they just seem so given, obvious, we don’t notice. The failure of people (like your classmates but everyone else, including you and me at one time or another) to “get” how oddly selective risk perceptions are — to react in fact w/ incomprehension mixed with irritation — when this is pointed out is obviously bound up with whatever it is in us that makes us form such strange schedules of risk perception in the first place.
Two other cool things in the story: at least for a curious person, the surprise at discovering instances of the odd selectively & realizing that they beg for explanation are pleasurable; and for the curious person the disappointment of finding out that other people actually resist being made to confront the puzzle is offset by what that teaches her about shape of the pieces she needs to solve the puzzle.
2. The thesis — we overestimate terrorism risks relative to climate change ones because of the vivid an immediate character of the former and the less emotionally sensational, more remote character of the latter — is very plausible, because it's rooted, as you point out, in real dynamics of risk perception. For a wonderful essay that elaborates on this hypothesis (without presenting it as a hypothesis, unfortunately; conjecture is beautiful, and supplies the motivation for investigation, unless it is disguised as a “scientific, empirical fact,” in which case is risks stifling scientific, emprical engagement; you aren’t doing that, btw!), see Sunstein, C.R. On the Divergent American Reactions to Terrorism and Climate Change. Columbia Law Rev 107, 503-557 (2007).
3. I want to reciprocate the friendly gesture reflected in your sharing this genuinely engaging and thoughtful insight (and the infectious nature of the excitement of your discovery of it) by suggesting that I think that explanatioin is not quite right!
The paper of mine that you cite — “Tragedy of the Risk Perceptions Commons,” a working paper version of Kahan, D.M., Peters, E., Wittlin, M., Slovic, P., Ouellette, L.L., Braman, D. & Mandel, G., The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks, Nature Climate Change 2, 732-735 (2012) — is actually meant to pit that hypothesis against a rival one.
You surmise — again, quite plausibly, in light of mechanisms of cognition that we know are very imporant for risk perception— that the public's relative ranking of terrorism and climate change risks is a consequence of the tendency of people to process information about risk heuristically, intuitively, emotionally (Kahneman’s “fast” system 1), as opposed to consciously, deliberately, analytically (“slow” system 2).
Our study presents evidence, though, that the disposition to think consciously, deliberately, analytically (to use system 2) doesn’t uniformly predict more concern about climate change. In fact, it predicts greater cultural polarization over climate change risks and a whole bunch of other ones too! We treat this as evidence that public conflict or confusion over climate change risks is a consequence of “cultural cognition,” a dynamic that unconsciously motivates people to attend selectively to information about risk in patterns that reinforce their commitment to opposing groups. Those who see climate changes as higher in risk actually see terrorism risks as less of a concern for society. (Take a look, e.g., at the group variation reflected in this chaotic graphic. The effect only gets stronger as people's ability to engage in reflective, dispassionate analytical reasoning increases.
4. As I said, this observation is meant to reciprocate the spirit of your post. My aim is not to “set you straight,” but to deepen if I can your sense of wonder over things that are, as you recognize, filled with surprise!
If you in turn surprise me back by showing me that my solution to this tiny patch of the puzzle is also incomplete — I will be shocked (but not surprised again to find myself surprised), and once again grateful to you.
What a strange world!
But also what a sad situation the citizens of our democracy are in — to be in disagreement over such consequential things, and to feel motivated to react with resentment toward others who see things differently from them.
Maybe by indulging our curiosity, you and I and others will learn things that can be used to help the members of our culturally pluralistic society converge in their understandings of the best available evidence of the dangers we face and how to abate them.