Why we have trouble assessing climate risk

In spite of year after year of climate change-driven disasters, fossil fuel emissions are still on the rise as nations make pledges and promises about reining them in.

Experts quoted in a January 23, 2022 CNN article talked about why humans do a poor job of evaluating climate risk, how they tend to avoid an overload of distressing information, and how it’s crucial to better communicate the dangers of climate change.

The article cited a recent survey that found that only 33% of Americans are “alarmed” about global warming, even though scientists say we should be. Lisa Robinson, senior research scientist and deputy director of the Center for Health Decision Science at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said it’s less that humans are bad at judging risk and more that we’re simply overwhelmed by more acute pressures demanding our attention, such as COVID-19 or being able to afford groceries or rent.

“No matter how smart we are, how well-educated we are, we all have limits to how much information we can process,” Robinson said. “We each make like a gazillion decision every single day. If we have to think hard about every single one of them, we wouldn’t survive.”

Aaron Bernstein, interim director of Harvard Chan School’s Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment (Harvard Chan C-CHANGE), said that while there has been an “unbelievable transformation” in people’s understanding of the climate crisis, communication about the crisis needs to be improved. “The challenge is we continue to make the mistake of talking about climate change as a polar bear problem and not a people problem,” he said, noting that it’s crucial to link climate to issues such as health, race, and housing.

Gaurab Basu, a health equity fellow at Harvard Chan C-CHANGE, agreed. He said that describing the climate crisis in terms of health and equity can help people understand how significant the risk is. “The truth is that greenhouse gas emissions are abstract, and can be perceived as not impacting people’s day-to-day lives and the people that they love,” he said. “And so I think that our job here is to translate the science and the research and make it real for people and the things and people that they love.”

Read the CNN article: Humans do a poor job of calculating risk. That’s terrible for the climate crisis