Cass Sunstein writes at Bloomberg:
The first obstacle is that people tend to evaluate risks by way of “the availability heuristic,” which leads them to assess the probability of harm by asking whether a readily available example comes to mind. An act of terrorism, for example, is likely to be both available and salient, and hence makes people fear that another such event will occur (whether it is likely to or not). So, too, a recent crime or accident can activate attention and significantly inflate people’s assessment of risk.
By contrast, climate change is difficult to associate with any particular tragedy or disaster. To be sure, many scientists think that climate change makes extreme weather events, such as Hurricane Sandy, substantially more likely. But it is hard to prove that climate change “caused” any particular event, and as a result, the association tends to be at best speculative in many people’s minds.
Second, people tend to be especially focused on risks or hazards that have an identifiable perpetrator, and for that reason produce outrage. Warmer temperatures are a product not of any particular human being or group, but the interaction between nature and countless decisions by countless people. There are no obvious devils or demons — no individuals who intend to create the harms associated with climate change. For terrorism, a “we-they” narrative fits the facts; in the context of climate change, those who are the solution might well also be, or seem to be, the problem. In these circumstances, public outrage is much harder to fuel.
Third, human beings are far more attentive to immediate threats than to long-term ones. Behavioral scientists have emphasized that in their private lives, people sometimes display a form of myopia. They may neglect the future, seeing it as a kind of foreign country, one they may not ever visit. For this reason, they might fail to save for retirement, or they might engage in risk-taking behavior (such as smoking or unhealthy eating) that will harm their future selves.
In a political context, citizens might demand protection against a risk that threatens them today, tomorrow or next month. But if they perceive climate change as mostly a threat to future generations — if significant sea-level rises seem to be decades away — they are unlikely to have a sense of urgency.