Global Warming: No Big Deal?

A risk perception expert explains why it's hard to get worked up about climate change.

>A majority of people in most places agree that the earth’s climate really is changing in dramatic ways, that human activity is at least part of the cause, and that we ought to act now to address the problem. But when you ask people about their personal willingness to do something about it—like pay more for gasoline or electricity, or moderate our consumptive lifestyles—that majority turns into a minority.

Why? The facts are the facts, right? Well, not really. How risky we think something is depends on how those facts feel. People don’t tend to worry as much about risks that can’t happen to them. Which helps explain the perception gap on climate change. Consider a survey by Yale climate change research scientist Anthony Leiserowitz. The survey asked Americans, “Who will be most harmed by climate change?” Respondents said that climate change would mostly affect:

• Plant and animal species: 45 percent
• Future generations of people: 44 percent
• People in developing countries: 31 percent
• People in other industrialized nations: 22 percent
• People in the United States: 21 percent
• Your local community: 13 percent
• Your family: 11 percent
• You personally: 10 percent

Those categories in italics (my emphasis) identify how few people worry that climate change will affect them—about one person in ten. Nearly five times as many people in the United States are more worried that climate change will affect polar bears and plants than are worried about themselves. Small wonder, then, that the study found more support for generic ways of dealing with climate change, like funding renewable energy research, and less support for ideas that suggest concrete personal costs, like increasing the gasoline tax by 25 cents.

This isn’t just in the United States. A Pew Global Studies survey in 2006 asked, “How much do you personally worry about global warming?” Fewer than half the respondents worried “a great deal” about climate change as a personal threat in France (46 percent), Turkey (41 percent), Germany (30 percent), Indonesia (38 percent, in a nation that includes 6,000 inhabited islands), Great Britain (26 percent), China (20 percent), and, bringing up the rear, the United States (19 percent). In this survey, roughly half of Americans and one-third of Chinese said that they had no personal worry about climate change at all.

Then there’s the gap between the believers and the non-believers. Some look at the facts and see potential disaster, while others see the same evidence and call climate change a hoax. Where does that gap come from? This is where the “cultural cognition of risk” comes into play. The position you take on an issue like climate change will in part be a reflection of your basic attitudes about the ideal society. Do you prefer a hierarchical society, with firm lines of authority and fixed economic and social classes? An egalitarian society, free of imposed economic and social limitations? An individualist society, with little government involvement? Or a communitarian system, with significant government and societal intervention to solve problems?

Hierarchists are often climate change deniers, because solutions to the problem threaten the economic status quo with which they’re most comfortable. Individualists, who, as a rule, resist the kind of social and government intervention that solutions to climate change will require, also tend to deny the problem.  Egalitarians and communitarians, on the other hand, generally believe strongly in the threat of climate change, since the solutions challenge entrenched economic structures, and require more government/social intervention—the kinds of societies egalitarians and communitarians favor.

The flap over our recent strange weather is a great example of how this plays out. Hierarchists and individualists (politically conservative and libertarian) have argued that the recent snowfall in Washington D.C. disproves global warming, while egalitarians and communitarians (politically liberal and progressive) have pointed to the same unusually heavy snow as proof that the global climate is changing.  It’s not about the facts; they are are just weapons in a deeper tribal war.

As that culture war unfolds, the underlying psychology of risk perception provides additional weapons to both sides. In general, any risks to children, for example, evoke more fear than the same risks if they only threaten adults. So in order to raise concern, those worried about global warming emphasize that our children will suffer most if we fail to act. And since human-made risks are generally perceived as scarier than natural hazards, they also emphasize that climate change is human-made. Climate change deniers, on the other hand, make sure to suggest that if the climate is changing, the causes may in fact be natural, which makes the risk feel less scary. And they use recent events like leaked emails from climate change scientists, or a mistake over the rate of melting glaciers in the Himalayas, to undermine trust in all climate change science, since trust plays a big role in risk perception too. Again, it’s not about the facts.  Each side is intuitively playing up or down the subconscious psychological factors that make the facts feel more or less frightening.

DOES THIS matter? Arguments over whether climate change is real, and the lack of a sense of personal danger even among the majority that agrees that it is, produce a public ambivalent about the danger. As a result, the social will to act remains weak, which means that the political risk for government leaders to take comprehensive action remains high. Meeting the challenge of climate change, then, will require an understanding not just of the physical climate of the earth, but also of the psychological climate of our perceptions.