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

By Rachel Ramirez

When the remnants of Hurricane Ida flooded Francisco Carrillo’s basement apartment in Queens, New York, last year, his subsequent displacement was a wake-up call. He knew the climate crisis was real, but it was the first time he’d ever endured its nearly deadly consequences.

As the floodwater rose rapidly, Carrillo grabbed what few, precious belongings he could carry and escaped with his life. When he returned, he was overwhelmed with the stench of festering mold and water damage.

“If we don’t change the way that we think, it’s going to be worse,” Carillo, who is still living in a temporary shelter more than three months after Ida struck, told CNN last month. “And I think all of this is our responsibility, but we can still be the difference.”

Despite year after year of climate change-fueled disasters, the world is no closer to capping fossil fuel emissions, which would halt the increasing severity of natural disasters. Instead, emissions continue to rise amid pledges and promises to (eventually) rein them in.

Humans do a poor job of evaluating climate risk and taking preventative care to avoid the worst, and we are literally paying the price.

Over the past five years, extreme weather disasters have cost the United States more than $750 billion. The price tag pales in comparison to the cost of the clean energy measures in Democrats’ Build Back Better package: $555 billion over the course of 10 years. Analysts tell CNN those clean energy incentives would get the US within spitting distance of President Joe Biden’s ambitious goal to slash carbon emissions in half by 2030.

Reaching the goal would take a big bite out of global carbon emissions and go a long way to prevent climate disasters from being so severe in the US, ultimately saving lives and saving the country money. But the full package remains on thin ice in Washington, with opponents saying it’s too much to spend.

It’s a high-stakes example of what plays out in all of our minds as we weigh risk versus the cost of prevention.

“Never underestimate the power of the human mind to rationalize its way out of reality,” Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, told CNN. “People are way more complicated because they come preloaded with all these prior beliefs and attitudes and values and politics.”

Since 2008, the Yale program has surveyed Americans every six months on their attitude toward the climate crisis. The group found in December just 33% of Americans are “alarmed” about the crisis — something scientists say we should be — and strongly support climate action. Another 25% are “concerned” global warming is a significant threat, yet are less likely to be taking action.

That leaves less than 50% of the US population with the least concern and understanding about climate risk.

“For many people, climate change is not even something that enters their consciousness,” Leiserowitz said.

‘Hero worship mentality’

Lisa Robinson, deputy director of Harvard University’s Center for Health Decision Science, said it’s less that humans are bad at judging risk, and more that we are overwhelmed by more acute pressures competing for our attention, such as Covid-19, being able to afford groceries or rent, or getting the kids through school.

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

And there’s another psychological mechanism preventing us from dwelling on things that could harm us, according to Lise Van Susteren, a psychiatrist in Washington, DC, and advisory board member to the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School.

When reality is distressing, our brains are wired to defend ourselves from knowing the truth. On the flip side, we have an “optimism bias” that favors pleasing information, and we tend to engage the parts of our brain that reward us.

“This is the way, psychologically, we are set up to handle stress,” Van Susteren told CNN. “Well, in some instances, that’s good. Imagine we spend our whole lives thinking about dying — that wouldn’t be fun. So we suppress it.”

Van Susteren also posited humans “have a hero worship mentality, born of Hollywood days and ancient stories of heroes,” who would swoop in to save a damsel in distress. But it’s not likely to happen in the climate crisis, and humans don’t tend to have a good understanding of the planet’s tipping points, beyond which the climate could be impossible to save.

“That is the fantasy that we have for the planet — that some technologic intervention” will save us at the last minute, Van Susteren said. We “don’t understand that climate tipping points will pull control out of our hands.”

A failure to communicate

Aaron Bernstein, a pediatrician and the interim director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said while there has been an “unbelievable transformation” in people’s understanding of the climate crisis, more attention needs to be paid to how we communicate climate risk.

“The challenge is we continue to make the mistake of talking about climate change as a polar bear problem and not a people problem,” Bernstein told CNN. For people to understand the climate crisis as a risk to themselves or their families, it needs to be connected to health, race, housing and local environment.

We’re also running out of solutions we can implement on an individual scale, and have moved into the phase of the crisis where sweeping political action and systemic change is required, according to Faith Kerns, a science writer and author of the book “Getting to the Heart of Science Communication: A Guide to Effective Engagement.”

“To me, it really comes down to homing in on what this systemic-versus-individual level of understanding is,” Kerns said. The question, she adds, is how do we encourage the people who doubt the science, as well as people in power, into seeing the urgency and taking immediate action?

People generally care about their health, especially when their lives are at stake. And according to Gaurab Basu, a physician and instructor at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Global Health and Social Medicine, describing the climate crisis in terms of health and equity is how we can make 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,” Basu told CNN. “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.”

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