Cass Sunstein: Climate inaction a psychological problem — people not sufficiently afraid

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.

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14 thoughts on “Cass Sunstein: Climate inaction a psychological problem — people not sufficiently afraid”

  1. It’s hard to take someone seriously when they start off by confusing the storm that hit the north east with a hurricane. I guess my decades in eastern North Carolina, southern Florida, and coastal Louisiana have left me jaded. To be fair, if we got hit with the kind of snowstorm that New York deals with every single year we’d probably be pretty freaked out too. The difference is how exceptional a blizzard that far south would be compared to how unexceptional a large thunderstorm is up north.

  2. “Conservative” education system???
    Where? . . ROTFLMAO . . The progressives have the educational system so screwed up in this country.

  3. Sunstein should have prefaced his tired laundry list with this disclaimer: “By contrast, climate change is difficult to associate with any particular tragedy or disaster…” and let me begin by pointing out the obvious: climate is always changing and will never stop changing. Thus, the banality of the term undercuts any urgent response to our shouting ‘Climate change, climate change, it’s happening.’

  4. ” 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.”

    Or work for an administration that is paying their bills by printing money, So this is the great Cass Sunstein I have heard about him this is the first time I read anything he wrote.

    Another Gem. By contrast, climate change is difficult to associate with any particular tragedy or disaster. So then the science is not settled.

  5. Its that damb conservative education system. we progressives need to ban reading the story “Chicken Little” to the kids.

  6. Cass Sunstein 2013: ” … 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 … ”

    Ross Gelbspan, 2007 (via Ellen “Holocaust deniers” Goodman) ” … But there are psychological as well as political reasons why global warming remains in the cool basement of priorities. It may be, paradoxically, that framing this issue in catastrophic terms ends up paralyzing instead of motivating us. … As Ross Gelbspan, author of “The Heat is On,” says, ‘when people are confronted with an overwhelming threat and don’t see a solution, it makes them feel impotent. So they shrug it off or go into deliberate denial.’ ” http://ow.ly/ojww4

    There’s no new propaganda under the sun. Gelbspan’s bit about “impotence” actually dates to what he said in a June 2000 speech (pg 12 of this PDF http://ow.ly/ojxqw , 4th-to-last-paragraph: “Confronting an insurmountable problem leaves one with a profound feeling of impotence — which is extremely uncomfortable. And it is a very understandable and human reaction simply to not want to know abut [sic] it.” )

  7. I believe advertisers for insurance companies learned a long time ago that fear does not sell. People tend to turn off.

  8. Mr. Sunstein needs to review the memo. “Progressives” do not campaign on fear. That’s reserved for “conservatives.”

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