We know it is dangerous to cross a red light, so we wait until it turns green. We do not go out sailing when the weather forecast promises a great storm. We accept it when a doctor tells us to take medicine to prevent hypertension. We do not drink the water if there is sign saying that it is contaminated. We are constantly accepting different potential risks and manoeuvring to limit them.
But when it comes to climate change, our willingness to accept it as a potential great risk is missing - and so is our motivation to respond to it with our normal risk-behaviour.
97 percent of the climate scientists believe global warming is happening, that humans are largely responsible and that we need to take action now. From their perspective there is a mountain of evidence on the reality of climate change; the nearest thing to an open-and-shut case that scientist can produce. They are constantly trying to convince us -- the public -- of this fact.
But still the concern shared by almost every scientist is not concurrent with the general public opinion. 44 percent of Americans still believe that global warming is primarily caused by planetary trends, according to a poll from Rasmussen Reports conducted in April. And 36 percent do not believe climate change is a serious problem.
Thus we are currently witnessing an enormous reality gap between science and the public -- with very different perceptions of the risks posed by climate change.
If scientists could solve climate change on their own, the lacking public support wouldn't be a problem. But they can't. Without the endorsement from the general public, the fight against climate change does not stand much of a chance.
Our mind is blocking
The reality gap exists. The question is why.
Behavioural economics research provides some of the answers to why the general public still questions the reality of, show less concern about and thus does not act on the risks posed climate change. According to Thomas Zoëga Ramsøy, Neuropsychologist, Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience and head of the Decision Neuroscience Research Group at Copenhagen Business School, behavioural economics research show that our mind is not in sync with the reality of climate change:
"Our minds are not constructed so we can fully comprehend the extent, importance and consequences of climate change. Despite being much better than other species, humans are quite poor at planning far into the future. With climate change, we even have a hard time seeing the threat of an abstract threat that we do not experience directly, and thus we don't feel animated to act".
The report "Experience-based and description-based perceptions of long-term risk: why global warming does not scare us" outlines three primary parameters as the main reasons that climate change continues to be an 'ignorable' problem for the general public, despite its scientific status:
• Climate change has a very long time-scale - we are talking decades and centuries when it comes to alterations and consequences caused by global warming.
• Climate change is abstract and indefinite - we do not know the exact consequences and extent.
• Climate change has a very high level of complexity - we are faced with endless lines of statistics and scientific data documenting the reality of climate change.
This makes it difficult for the general public to fully grasp and understand the reality of climate change -- and it prevents climate change from being perceived as a great risk for our entire civilization.
The missing climate carrot
Based on a great body of behavioural economics research, the report concludes that the general public's lack of risk-perception is the main reason for the lack of support to fight climate change -- it makes the mitigating actions to combat climate change unattractive because they require action and sacrifices now in order to fight a 'not-accepted' risk that entails (uncertain) benefits at a much later point in time. The risk-motivation to act is simply not palpable enough.
"Much research into human behaviour has demonstrated that we are more likely to choose an immediate but smaller reward compared to a larger reward in the future. When it comes to climate change, it is more attractive to get cheap gas prices now, than saving the environment in 30 years. It is not rational, but the way the human brain works and acts. Today the individual value in helping to fight climate change isn't big enough - there is no immediate and obvious carrot", says Thomas Zoëga Ramsøy.
Personal experience is key
Today we are seeing an increased frequency of tornadoes, record high temperatures, record low sea ice extent, devastating earthquakes, desertification, massive flooding, and severe droughts. And we are constantly warned of dramatic future scenarios with massive sea level rise, global water shortage, climate wars, and numerous climate refugees. But the fact is that personal experience with climate change and global warming is still rare in most parts of the world. For the vast majority climate change is still a distant event. This makes it difficult to evoke a sense of risk and fear.
A study conducted with more than 1,800 Britons, featured in the journal Nature Climate Change, showed that those people who had personally experienced and been affected by flooding were less uncertain about global warming, more concerned with global warming and more interested in reducing their energy use.
According to Thomas Zoëga Ramsøy the personal experience gives a personal motivation to act.
"When people experience some of the consequences of climate change such as flooding or drought in their own back yard, it suddenly becomes relevant and concrete to them. It gives actions to fight climate change a direct value for the individual; as in "if I act now, I can help prevent negative effects for me and my family"".
Thus we can expect people to act in the future, when they come to feel consequences of the climate change on their body. But we must not hope that a flooding or a drought in all regions of the world are the only means to convince the public that action must be taken -- because then one can fear, that it will be far too late.
A new language -- simulating the future
Currently, the lack of public support represents a very large bump in the whole for the fight against climate change. Climate change forces us to fundamentally change the way, we live -- and reform our entire society to follow a more sustainable path. This will include radical adjustments within transport, economy, growth, energy that will affect us all. Without the public support for these adjustments the politicians will not have the mandate to push them through. Thus the public is a powerful vehicle for supporting but also for halting the necessary climate mitigating initiatives. So to move forward we need to ensure that we get a broad support for new climate change policies.
Following the line of behavioural decision research, we need to evoke the general public's sense of urgency with regards to climate change. We need to give them a different base of experience and knowledge about it that will evoke a sense of fear, risk, and danger in order to get them to act on and support future climate mitigating initiatives.
To do so, we must finds means of communication -- scenarios, simulations, analogies, and stories - that limit the abstract, long-term, and complex nature of climate change. We need to tailor the climate change message in a more concrete and tangible form so the public can relate to and push for a mental climate change turnaround -- if we are to get people to fully understand and act on the reality of climate change. Only then, we can begin to hope, that the next time the public hears a climate scientist's warnings, they will actually act.