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In my latest essay for the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), I talk about why I think the public is seriously and systematically underestimating the risks from global warming. I believe that it has to do in part with the cognitive biases that are inherent to risk perception. Changing the way we talk about risk, then, may help get the rest of us on board.

You can find my other JREF essays (like this controversial one on free will) here.

Risk, Emotion, and Global Warming

I am not going to lie to you; I am freaked out about climate change. At least politicians today can say something to the effect of “it’s something that the next generation must face down,” seemingly abdicating their own responsibility. But I am a part of that next generation. Climate change is something that I am going to have to deal with, and I’m not sure if my generation and I can.

What strikes me is this: why aren’t more people taking note of the serious risks from climate change? Why has this issue not galvanized the people into immediate action? One answer, and a very legitimate one, is that there was (and still is) a very organized anti-AGW (anthropogenic global warming) campaign that has called into question even whether or not it is a real phenomenon. But what I want to talk about here is more subtle. I think what we are seeing is a fundamental misunderstanding of risk.

Moving forward I am going to assume two things. First, that global warming is happening and is human caused (as per the scientific consensus), and second, that most projections about the effects of climate change are grim. That is to say, whatever comes of climate change, it won’t be good.

Emotion and Bias

So why do people largely ignore the risks from AGW? Indeed, a recent Gallup poll shows that Americans worry about AGW risk almost the least among various environmental issues, and even less so now than in 2000. I think this has something to do with the cognitive biases that are inherent to risk perception.

The availability heuristic is a cognitive bias that links the frequency of an event, or a perceived probability that some risk will occur, to how available that event or risk is in your brain. Consider your brain as an open field. The more you walk one path in that field, the wider and more defined it becomes. The more you see or think about something, the more worn this cognitive pathway in your brain (representing more neuronal connections), making the event or risk easier to recall. This ease of recall influences our perceptions of probability. The classic example of this is that people who have seen more media images of plane crashes tend to overestimate their likelihood. Similarly, in 2001 there were a few isolated shark attacks off of the coast of Florida and the surrounding states that the media dubbed a “feeding frenzy.” Statistically, there were actually fewer attacks in 2001 than in 2000, but even so this media proclamation significantly reduced tourism in those states that summer. The point is that the more easily you can recall a risk or experience you have had with that risk, the more likely you think that risk is to happen.

In the case of AGW, I think that we are seeing the opposite side of the availability heuristic than the shark and airplane examples illustrate. I think that few people have experienced anything that can be linked to AGW, and therefore they underestimate the very real risk it poses. Admittedly, this is partly because science cannot yet definitively say this storm or that drought is due directly to climate change, but people are beginning to notice a trend. We will return to this a little later on.