Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein has penned a column for Bloomberg that thankfully opts not to rail on climate change deniers or trumpet the coming armageddon of sea level rise. Rather, he asks a more critical question: Why do we, as human beings, have a hard time understanding the threat of climate change and why is real action so hard to come by?
The first obstacle is that people tend to evaluate risks by way of “the availability heuristic,” which leads them to assess the probability of harm by asking whether a readily available example comes to mind. An act of terrorism, for example, is likely to be both available and salient, and hence makes people fear that another such event will occur (whether it is likely to or not). So, too, a recent crime or accident can activate attention and significantly inflate people’s assessment of risk.
By contrast, climate change is difficult to associate with any particular tragedy or disaster. To be sure, many scientists think that climate change makes extreme weather events, such as Hurricane Sandy, substantially more likely. But it is hard to prove that climate change “caused” any particular event, and as a result, the association tends to be at best speculative in many people’s minds.
Second, people tend to be especially focused on risks or hazards that have an identifiable perpetrator, and for that reason produce outrage. Warmer temperatures are a product not of any particular human being or group, but the interaction between nature and countless decisions by countless people. There are no obvious devils or demons — no individuals who intend to create the harms associated with climate change. For terrorism, a “we-they” narrative fits the facts; in the context of climate change, those who are the solution might well also be, or seem to be, the problem. In these circumstances, public outrage is much harder to fuel.
Third, human beings are far more attentive to immediate threats than to long-term ones. Behavioral scientists have emphasized that in their private lives, people sometimes display a form of myopia. They may neglect the future, seeing it as a kind of foreign country, one they may not ever visit. For this reason, they might fail to save for retirement, or they might engage in risk-taking behavior (such as smoking or unhealthy eating) that will harm their future selves.
Perhaps ironically I’ve always thought the problem we have understanding climate change is the same reason we hate paying lawyers. Lawyers are there to protect us from future threats we can’t see in the present and often cannot imagine. Similarly, with climate change we cannot see the negative impacts we need to take action against because they exist in the future. As humans, we like simple scenarios like wars where there’s an enemy we can see and which must be fought. If anything, the future scenario of sea level rise, drought and weather volatility feels like a sci-fi movie rather than a clear and present danger.
I’m thankful Sunstein penned the article because I think we need to start exploring better ways of visualizing and communicating the threat we imagine lays in the future but actually exists today.