Earth’s climate and its future change is an uncertain science. At present, world faces a lot of uncertainty on probability and future impacts of climate change. For example, according to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), it is unclear what exact trajectory our carbon-dioxide emissions might take in the future, given the systemic uncertainties present in the outcome of national and international policies, and technologies that might move our focus away from a carbon-based economy. Although, resolving these uncertainties is an impending challenge, yet understanding how people perceive these uncertainties is perhaps a bigger challenge. That is because the public perception of uncertainties appears to be the main driver for any action to be initiated against climate change. If people perceive these uncertainties to be large, they might feel helpless, unable to act, and decide not to act on actions that mitigate climate change.
So, how do people perceive the inherent uncertainties in climate change? Recent research shows that public perceptions of uncertainties involving climate change are very different from their normative estimates. Daniel Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, defined our mind as consisting of two systems: system 1 and system 2. System 1 is the mind’s automatic response and operates quickly with little or no effort using emotional reactions, often based on personal experience. In contrast, system 2 is formal and systematically executes effortful and intentional mental operations as needed, including simple or complex computations or formal logic.
System 1, which we use most times to shape our experiences, beliefs, and goals, applies to climate change. According to Elke Weber, professor, Columbia Business School, system 1 processes are ineffective for choices that have probabilistic outcomes involving rare events and long time horizons, where climate change mitigation decisions often fall into this category. In fact, system 1 processes are present both among policy makers as well as among groups and they might work well if the feedback on decisions made is accurate and frequent. However, such accurate and frequent feedback might be infeasible for our climate system, where there are long feedback delays and actions made now have an effect that would be felt many years into the future.
Weber has shown that system 1 processes work in the short run and by using such processes we focus on costs and benefits in the short term. As the costs of actions against climate change in the short term are large and there are uncertainties in benefits of current actions in the long term, people who rely on system 1 would want to wait to act on climate issues. Although system 2 might help people look at the long term rather than focus too much on the costs in the short term, yet system 1 response remains strong and often when both systems are in a conflict people are likely to prefer what system 1 tells them to do.
Nassim Taleb, in his book, The Black Swan: The impact of the highly improbable, admits system 1 processes to be very problematic for low probability-high consequence risks such as increased flooding and storm surge possibly due to rapid climate change. Because of the nature of such risks there is very little personal experience or historical data and considerable disagreement and uncertainty among experts in their risk assessments. Thus, people who rely on their personal experience of such low probability (and high impact) climate risks, tend to underweight them considerably. As a result, they tend to stay put in places like Florida, Alaska, or other high-risk areas even when they might have to pay high prices for damages attributable to climate change impacts every year. In fact, research shows that even after several but infrequent devastating hurricanes in the last decade, the residents in these high-risk areas have still not invested in emergency preparedness measures.
Some researchers believe that the main reason for people to underweight such low probability climate impacts is because people rely on system 1 and that their experience of the short run influences their perception of the long run. For example, most people do not differentiate carefully between weather (a short term phenomena) and climate (average weather over time and a long term phenomena). This confusion between the short run and long run appears to be a fairly universal: Observed in the US, Ethiopia, Australia, and the islands in the Pacific. Here, people confound climate and weather because they have personal experiences with weather abnormalities but no experience with climate, and thus substitute weather events for climate events.
Furthermore, research by Kahneman and colleagues shows that most people tend to assess the likelihood of an uncertain event by the ease with which instances of its occurrence can be brought to mind, a mechanism called “availability.” In fact, due to availability, people’s underweighting of rare climate events would be more extreme before they have occurred and would be reduced considerably after they have just occurred. For example, the reliance on availability can explain why individuals purchase insurance after a disaster has occurred and cancel their policies several years later (when events have not occurred), as observed for earthquake and flood insurance in the US.
One important aspect of our perception of climate uncertainties has to do with people’s confusion between events that are normatively unrelated but somewhat related in their minds. For example, when climate change first emerged as a problem, people often confused it with the loss of stratospheric ozone resulting from releases of chlorofluorocarbons. In fact, normatively climate change and ozone hole are different world problems caused by different chemical processes. Similarly, most recently people have equated climate problem to be related to the pollution problem in big cities. For example, according to John Sterman, professor, Sloan School of Management, MIT, greenhouse gases are often wrongly equated with pollution, with the incorrect inference that “the air will clear” soon after emissions are reduced, even though most greenhouse gases continue to warm the planet for several centuries after they are emitted.
So, what’s the bottom line? If our reliance on system 1 is robust and it causes us to perceive climate uncertainties in ways that seems to be different from normative estimates, or makes us get confused between unrelated problems, then perhaps, it is time to turn to system 2. Research shows that when individuals read about uncertainties, unlike experiencing them through short run phenomena, they might be able to use more rational-thinking processes (system 2) and focus on the long run. Could climate change descriptions published by media and reports make the public use more of system 2? More research and time hold the key to this question. zz
(The writer is on the faculty of Indian Institute of Technology, Mandi, India)