THE BLOG
09/30/2010 12:56 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Solving Climate Change Is a Psychological Challenge -- Some Solutions

Anyone who takes seriously the threat of climate change might wonder why we are having trouble adopting solutions. Why is concern about it broad (though it goes up and down with the vagaries of weather and politics) but thin? Majorities consistently think climate change is real and we ought to do something, but only thin minorities say they are actual doing something themselves, or would accept changes that might cost them anything. Given the profound harms climate change is sure to cause, why aren't we more worried?

The usual explanations include poor communication by scientists or environmentalists or the news media, purposeful obfuscation by selfish economic interests, or the way the issue has been polarized politically. May I suggest that the problem is much deeper. It's a matter of how the human animal has learned to detect and respond to risk. Our risk perception system hasn't evolved to cope with the complex long-term threats involved in the unsustainable way we're living on the planet. It evolved to deal with simpler dangers, like wolves and bad guys with clubs and the dark. We may understand the modern risk choices we face intellectually, but the human response to risk is not just about the facts. It's a mix of facts and feelings, reason and gut reaction, and the huge threats posed by climate change and deforestation and all the other manifestations of our unsustainable ways just don't ring the emotional alarm bells of a system that evolved to deal with simpler, more immediate dangers. Moving forward on climate chance is a psychological challenge as much as it is technical or economic.

The good news is, knowing how risk perception psychology works -- and science knows a lot about that -- can help. First of all, just knowing that risk perception relies on affect more than fact can help us realize that as much as our fears might feel right, they can get us into trouble. If we're too afraid, or, as in the case of climate change not afraid enough, the result, what I call the perception gap, can be a risk all by itself. Then, knowing specifically why our fears sometimes don't reflect the facts about a given risk can help protect us from the dangers our misperceptions can create. As Italian philosopher Nicola Abbagnano put it, "Reason itself is fallible, and this fallibility must find a place in our logic."

In previous posts here and elsewhere, I've explained a bit about some of the subconscious emotional/instinctive filters the risk perception system uses to figure out threats like climate change:

Optimism Bias -- we think the future will turn out rosier than it usually does.
Is the risk abstract or personalized? -- Personalized is scarier, abstract less so.
Do we think it could affect us personally? -- If so, we worry more. If not, we worry less.
Cultural Cognition -- We choose positions that confirm the general view of the tribes with which we most strongly associate, to strengthen that tribe's prominence, because as our tribe's chances go, so go ours.

So here is one example of how to use that knowledge. Can you name one way climate change will seriously, negatively, impact you in the next ten years? Most people can't. Well, if you don't think it will happen to you, your concern will remain relatively shallow. You don't feel threatened, so you're not likely to change your behavior, or push governments and businesses to make the changes necessary to deal with the threat.

So try to think of the risk in personal terms. Ask yourself about what climate might do to you. What would more frequent heats waves or cold spells or floods or storms or other extreme weather do to your life? What will changed patterns of precipitation do to your local water supply? How would you feel if scientists are right about the spread of some exotic diseases into your neighborhood? How about a reduced supply and increased price of some of the foods you like? Just engage in the mental exercise of reducing the abstract, intellectual, distant, global issue of climate change, to the realities and specifics of your daily life in your home and neighborhood and town. That's where you live. That's the level your risk perception system is set to respond to. Don't think globally. Think, and feel, locally, and put things in terms relevant to your health and safety.

Will this change how you think? Probably not much. There are a lot of influences on our affective response to risk and the "Can it happen to me" factor is only one. But thinking about climate change this way starts to cast the facts of the issue in the emotional language relevant to your survival system. And that, far more than science and statistics and Academy Award-winning movies or PowerPoint presentations, is likely to inform your feelings and your behavior.

This is one tiny example of how we can apply the wisdom science has given us about how the psychology of risk perception to the challenge of making healthier choices. There are many more, including several suggestions for how policy makers can use these insights, in chapter 5 "Closing The Perception Gap' in How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts. A lengthy excerpt of that chapter is available free online. We can not undo the affective/emotional/instinctive way we perceive risk, but we can use what we've learned about that system to make healthier choices for ourselves, and society.