You’d think the end of the world would be enough to get us scared. Humans have always been an exceedingly risk-averse species—which is how we came to survive as a species at all. If there are lions on one part of the savannah, we go to another. If crocodiles keep coming out of the river, we fish somewhere else. So when it comes to the loss of the entire planet, well, we ought to take action. And yet we don’t; we never do.
That odd contradiction is on display again, in the wake of an announcement by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that a catastrophe is nigh—that that distant future of an Earth best by floods, droughts, wildfires and typhoons isn’t distant anymore, but as little as 12 years away. Unless we act dramatically and fast, the report says, by 2030 temperatures will have risen to 2.7º F (1.5º C) above the average of the pre-industrial era—the threshold that has long been cited as the tipping point for calamity. And while the announcement has been reported widely, the public reaction—again, as always—has been meh.
Volumes of research have been published over the decades trying to explain how and why we so often miscalculate risk—over-preparing for things that are not likely to hurt us and ignoring or shrugging off the things that are. The bad news for environmental scientists and policymakers trying to wake the public up to the perils we face is that climate change checks almost every one of our ignore-the-problem boxes.
For starters, it lacks the absolutely critical component—the “me” component. “Nobody wakes up in the morning and looks at the longterm climate forecast,” says David Ropeik, an international consultant on risk perception and communication, formerly with the Harvard School of Public Health. “They ask what the weather is today, where I live, and how it’s going to affect me.”
That’s sensible as far as it goes. Immediate concerns will always trump eventual concerns—which is one more trick of species survival. But when it comes to climate change, even when we do try to think long-term, a lot of things get in the way. Paramount among them is that climate action requires a lot of right-now sacrifice for a down-the-line payoff.
“When it comes to acting on problems, the lure of our current comforts and conveniences will often cause us to act contrary to our values,” says Paul Slovic, University or Oregon psychologist and the president of Decision Research, and international group of investigators who study decision-making and risk. “If we think the consequences are far in the future, we tend to discount the risk. People just aren’t going to inconvenience themselves unless they’re forced to.”
Indeed, even when the risk is not far in the future—when, say, a hurricane is cannonballing toward the coast and the government orders an evacuation—plenty of people still don’t budge. Here, what’s known as the optimism bias is at work. Other people may need to make tracks, but your storm windows are top-of-the-line or your house is on slightly higher ground, so why get off the couch? If we find it so easy to talk ourselves out of acting in the face of a storm that’s just days away, a disaster that’s many years away doesn’t stand a chance.
We establish that kind of distance from risk not just temporally but geographically and culturally. If you live in an inland region, well, the floods are going to inundate the suckers on the coast, not you. If you live on the coast, it’s the south coast that’s going to get hit and you live north. And developed nations like the U.S. are typically going to be able to deal with climate instability better than developing ones, which allows us to conclude that while disasters happen elsewhere they don’t happen here.
“The question is often, ‘Do I feel vulnerable?’” says Slovic. “For the most part we don’t and that shapes our behavior.”
Even when we do try to personalize things, we have a hard time doing it. We can picture what it would be like to get eaten by a shark, Ropeik says, or die in a mass shooting or an airplane crash. That leads us to over-prepare for those risks—arming teachers, avoiding the beach, driving instead of flying even though driving is manifestly more dangerous.
“But if you ask even the most devout climate change believers how they think it’s going to affect them, they often can’t quite describe it,” he says. If it’s hard to picture, it’s easy to ignore.
Finally, there’s a sense of futility—the inefficacy factor, as risk experts put it. Climate change is a huge problem—arguably the biggest of all problems—and that makes individual action seem awfully pointless. “We reason that we can curtail things we want to do—like driving or flying,” says Slovic, “but if other people aren’t going to do it, it’s not going to make any difference.”
Of course, every great human enterprise has called on people not to do things they want to do or to do things they don’t—paying taxes, volunteering for military service, tolerating rationing in time of war. None of it is fun, none of it is easy, but all of it has helped ensure the success of the larger human project and the survival of the next generations. If we can’t bestir ourselves now, in the face of yet another alarming report from the climate change scientists, we’re going to owe those generations an explanation—and an apology.