Climate change and why it’s important for us to worry about things we can’t control

To believe in climate change is to believe that climate change will cause harm.

None of us will ever see climate change in its entirety. Instead, climate change is a statistically driven cascade of events that will collide with each of us through a variety of indirect ways. The scientific study of climate change gives us a glimpse of how such cascades may play out, and from there an understanding of public health and economics can explain how such changes may harm humanity.   

Take for instance the following cascade of events that may impact a farmer in Malawi:

  • Climate science is certain that global temperatures have increased, and will continue to do so, as greenhouse gasses continue to be released into the atmosphere.
  • Greater global temperatures can be reliably linked to an increased capacity for clouds to hold rainwater.
  • Such a change in capacity will very likely lead to some regions of the world becoming dryer, while others see more intense rainfall.
  • A farmer in Malawi relies on predictable rainfall to grow their crops, a change in rainfall patterns is somewhat likely in their region.
  • Such a change is likely to lead to a poorer crop yield.
  • If profit margins for our farmer are particularly thin, this potentially means them going out of business and slipping into poverty.
  • If rainfall patterns lead to a prolonged drought, then our farmer may suffer from undernutrition or become displaced.   

While this cascade is in no way guaranteed to affect any one individual, if we expand our view to all 8 billion(ish) of us humans and apply what we currently know about how climate change will play out, then we quickly come to consequences that should worry anyone that cares about the flourishing or suffering of human life. Whether that be for a construction worker suffering heat stress in Saudi Arabia [ref], a commuter getting trapped by flash flooding in China [ref], or even a student in Texas becoming infected with the Dengue virus [ref].

Today’s post isn’t about calculating the chance that climate change will negatively affect our farmer, construction worker, commuter, or student (for such work see the climate change risk index or the children’s climate risk index). Instead, I want to explore how these individuals (and all of us) see the chance of being negatively affected by climate change in the future, and how such a belief may interact with our understanding of climate change mitigation efforts.

The Psychology of Risk Perception

Feeling threatened, concerned, or worried to different degrees are all part of how we intuitively relate to climate change. We experience these feelings in respect to our own wellbeing, towards the wellbeing of other people, non-human life, and the environment as a whole. In social science we refer to the judgement and appraisal that arise from such feelings as risk perception, in this case, towards the hazard of climate change.  

If there is a father of the modern understanding of risk perception, that person would be Paul Slovic. Early theory of risk perception assumed that people weighed risk in a rational manner, taking in factual information and using that to inform their view of particular hazards. Slovic demonstrated just how insufficient such a model was.

In his landmark Science paper from 1987, Slovic outlined the crucial way in which experts and laypeople’s views of risk differ. The following quote, taken from his paper, talks in terms of nuclear technologies, but it could very well describe how we think about climate change today:

The mechanisms underlying these complex technologies are unfamiliar and incomprehensible to most citizens. Their most harmful consequences are rare and often delayed, hence difficult to assess by statistical analysis and not well suited to management by trial-and-error learning. The elusive and hard to manage qualities of today’s hazards have forced the creation of a new intellectual discipline called risk assessment, designed to aid in identifying, characterizing, and quantifying risk. Whereas technologically sophisticated analysts employ risk assessment to evaluate hazards, the majority of citizens rely on intuitive risk judgments, typically called risk perceptions. For these people, experience with hazards tends to come from the news media, which rather thoroughly document mishaps and threats occurring throughout the world” [ref]

Slovic’s work does not disregard the publics ability to accurately assess risk, in fact, as the below graph demonstrates, we can often be quite good at rationally estimating the magnitude of individual threats.

The graph shows the lay people estimates of deaths per year for a variety of risk topics as compared to actual death statistics (in the US). Slovic et al. 1985 (From ref)

Where we struggle, however, is in reliably attaching the appropriate feelings to various threats. For instance, we may intellectually know the risk of us being in a car accident is significantly higher than that of being in a plane crash, yet still feel a pang of fear when we are about to fly as compared to feeling largely bored for our morning commute. Equally, most of us know the risks of smoking, fatty foods, and alcohol on our health, however, it often requires a health scare for an individual to be jolted into actions that curb excessive indulgences in such products.

These types of misappropriated risk perceptions, Slovic argues, are linked to the gut feeling, intuitive, means by which our minds process information (known as System 1), as opposed to the more contemplative, but effortful, reasoning that most of us can apply when given the opportunity to do so (known as System 2). Side note: For more on this distinction see Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.   

Such biases also occur when we comprehend the risk of a hazard to other individuals. Concern for others decreases when a hazard affects; the many as compared to the one, the distant as compared to the local, and when considering threats to the next generation as compared to our own [ref]. Combined, these factors all play a role in making the risk of climate change intuitively difficult, but luckily not impossible, to grasp.    

As high levels of risk perception can drive the agendas of public interest groups, politicians, and society at large, a good understanding of climate change risk perception is vital to determine where action against climate change may occur and, importantly, where the forces of inaction are currently at play.

Impact scepticism

Dr Kimberly Nicholas has a phrase that neatly summarises the current scientific knowledge on climate change.

“It’s warming. It’s us. We’re sure. It’s bad. But we can fix it.” [ref]

As mentioned in the previous post, this phrase is also useful for identifying where people are in their beliefs about climate change. In that post, I looked at the trend in global levels of belief for the first three parts of the statement with a particular focus on those that disbelieve each part. In the social science literature these beliefs are referred to as trend scepticism, attribution scepticism, and consensus scepticism [ref]. If these were the only climate change scepticisms that we had to contend with on the road to a stable climate that works for all, then we’d be well on the way to addressing the issue. Alas no, it is of course completely possible for the first three steps to be accepted and then for us to take on an impact scepticism belief whereby climate change is seen as a low threat, non-existent threat, or even seen as a net positive!

If the latter sounds like a completely insane position to take, it is, but it’s more common than you might think. In the 2016 European Social Survey, respondents were asked to indicate how good or bad they thought the impact of climate change would be on “people across the world”.  The question allowed for responses from 0 (Extremely bad) to 10 (Extremely good). Below I have reproduced the data in a figure where blue represents accurate risk perception (i.e. climate change bad), grey represents those that are unsure about the impact of climate change, and orange through to black represents the percentage of respondents that indicated they think climate change would benefit people across the world.

My first thought when I saw this data was that it must be driven by respondents that are already sceptical about the human cause of climate change, and that this was just them digging further into their cognitive dissonance or being purposefully dickish about the question. Luckily the survey also asked questions about basic climate change belief. And, as is to be expected, if I just take those that believe that climate change is mostly or entirely due to natural causes (see below) it is indeed clear that these respondents see climate change more positively than the full sample.

What is somewhat mind-blowing, however, is the fact that when I just took those that believed that climate change was mostly or entirely due to human activity (see below) then there is still up to around 10% of most European countries that believe that climate change will have a somewhat good impact on people across the world.

To reiterate, the orange to black in the figure above is the percentage of people that have been convinced that anthropogenic climate change is occurring, but also believe that it will be beneficial. Infuriating, isn’t it? And the grey should be of concern to us as well, these are people that after learning enough about climate change to know that it is human caused are still somehow unsure about if the impact globally is going to be good or bad. This is as high as 40% of the population in The Netherlands, a place where they themselves will be largely underwater if unmitigated climate change occurs 🤦

Who feels most at threat of climate change?

A far more common method to assess climate change risk perception is to look at threat on a continuum from none to major threat, or in comparison with other threats. Impact scepticism is hard to assess from such polling, however, this form of questioning does allow for an indication of priority that the public give to issues of climate change and how intensely they feel about the subject.

Take for instance this 2018 polling from the Pew research group (see below). Out of climate change, ISIS, cyberattacks, the condition of the global economy, North Korea’s nuclear program, and a range of country’s power and influence, climate change was seen by people in 13 out of 26 countries as the top threat faced by their country.

This perception of threat has increased over the three times they have asked such a question since 2013.

And the threat of climate change is seen as particularly acute across Central and South America

This perception of threat likely has its roots in the basic psychology of risk that I described earlier in the post. For many in Central and South America, there is clear evidence that the risk of climate change is seen as 1. personally relevant (Yale/Facebook 2021), and 2. something that is occurring now or will be occurring in the next few years (Pew Research Center 2015).

Such findings as these gives me pause for hope. With somewhere in the order 80% of Brazil feeling at personal risk of climate change, and 90% feeling that harmful effects are occurring right now, this is the kind of public sentiment that the winds of change are made of.

If you want to bury your head in the sand, there are lots of people that will help you dig

Call me crazy, but when an international body of the worlds most qualified climate experts say that we are at “code red for humanity” [ref], this is enough for me to except that climate change “is bad” and for me to move on to the “how do we fix it?” question. I have ended up taking such a path because of one word and one word only, its not because I’m smart, and it’s not me using logic, it’s because I trust. I understand that there is an information asymmetry whereby experts in climate change know (and importantly can work out) more about climate change than me. The recent IPPC report is the largest synthesis of their knowledge ever conducted. And in my world, if they say the situation is bad, its probably bad.

In recent months I’ve seen climate change science communicators talking more about the idea of climate change scepticism 2.0. Largely gone are the days where we have to debate the anthropogenic cause of climate change, instead denialists move the goal posts to yet another area of epistemic uncertainty and use their platforms to delay and downplay the risks inherent to our current climate trajectory. The vast majority of current climate sceptic content churned out these days (often from this gaggle of twats) is specifically tailored to a false alarm narrative or a narrative that suggests that the cure will be worse than the disease. Whether they argue in good faith or bad faith, the outcome is the same, increased inaction or opposition to progressive green policies in those that trust their message.   

Sadly, the reality of climate change is more likely to be, as The Nobel Prize winning environmental health scientist Kirk Smith once puts it:

[under climate change] the rich will find their world to be more expensive, inconvenient, uncomfortable, disrupted, and colorless—in general, more unpleasant and unpredictable, perhaps greatly so. The poor will die.[Ref]

But, importantly, we can fix it…


Title image link. Obtained through www.climatevisuals.org a site for evidence-based and impact focused climate photography.

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