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Humans misjudge climate risk and pay the price.

Humans misjudge climate risk and pay the price.

When remnants of Hurricane Ida flooded Francisco Carrillo’s basement apartment in Queens, New York last year, its subsequent move was a wake-up call.

He knew the climate crisis was real, but this was the first time he had experienced its near-fatal consequences.

As the floodwaters rose rapidly, Carrillo grabbed what few valuable possessions he could carry and escaped with his life. When he returned, he was overwhelmed with the stench of mold and water damage.

“If we don’t change our thinking, it will be worse,” Carillo, who is still living in a temporary shelter more than three months after Ida’s strike, told CNN last month. “And I think that’s all our responsibility, but we can always make a difference.”

Despite year after year of disasters fueled by climate change, the world is nowhere near capping fossil fuel emissions, which would end the growing severity of natural disasters. Instead, emissions continue to rise amid promises and promises to (eventually) contain them.

Humans misjudge climate risks and take preventative precautions 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 US$750 billion.

The price pales in comparison to the cost of the clean energy measures of the Democrats’ Build Back Better program: $555 billion over 10 years.

Analysts tell CNN that these clean energy incentives would put the United States within reach of President Joe Biden’s ambitious goal of halving carbon emissions by 2030.

Reaching the goal would significantly reduce global carbon emissions and go a long way to preventing climate disasters from being so severe in the United States, saving lives and saving the country money. But the full package remains on thin ice in Washington, with naysayers saying it’s overspending.

It’s a high-stakes example of what’s playing in all of our minds when we weigh risk against the cost of prevention.

“Never underestimate the power of the human mind to rationalize its exit from reality,” Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale program on climate change communication, told CNN. “People are so much more complicated because they’re preloaded with all of these prior beliefs, attitudes, values, and policies.”

Since 2008, the Yale program has polled Americans every six months about their attitude to the climate crisis.

The group found in December that only 33% of Americans are “alarmed” about the crisis – which scientists say we should be – and strongly support climate action. Another 25 percent are “concerned” that global warming is a significant threat, but are less likely to take action.

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

“For a lot of people, climate change isn’t even something that enters their consciousness,” Leiserowitz said.


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

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

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

When reality is painful, our brains are wired to keep us from knowing the truth. On the other hand, we have an “optimism bias” that favors pleasant information, and we tend to engage the parts of our brain that reward us.

“That’s how, psychologically, we are prepared to deal with stress,” Van Susteren told CNN. “Well, in some cases that’s fine. Imagine spending our whole lives thinking about dying – that wouldn’t be fun. So we cut it out.”

Van Susteren also posited that humans “have a hero-worshipping mentality, born out of Hollywood times and old hero stories”, who would rush to save a damsel in distress. But that’s unlikely to happen during the climate crisis, and humans generally don’t have a good understanding of the planet’s tipping points, beyond which the climate might be unsalvageable.

“That’s the fantasy we have for the planet – that technological intervention” will save us at the last minute, Van Susteren said. We “do not understand that climate tipping points are going to take control away from us.”


Aaron Bernstein, pediatrician and acting director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, said that while there has been an “incredible transformation” in people’s understanding of the climate crisis, more attention needs to be paid to how we communicate climate risk.

“The challenge is that we continue to make the mistake of talking about climate change as a polar bear problem and not a human problem,” Bernstein told CNN.

For people to understand the climate crisis as a risk to themselves or their families, it needs to be linked to health, race, housing and the local environment.

We also lack solutions that we can implement on an individual scale, and we have entered the phase of the crisis where radical political action and systemic change are needed, according to Faith Kerns, science writer and author of the book ” Getting to the Heart of Science Communication: A Guide to Effective Engagement.”

“For me, it’s really about focusing on what that level of systemic versus individual understanding is,” Kerns said. The question, she adds, is how to encourage people who doubt science, as well as those in power, to see the urgency and act now?

People generally care about their health, especially when their life is at stake.

And according to Gaurab Basu, a physician and instructor in the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, describing the climate crisis in terms of health and equity is how we can get people to understand the importance of risk. .

“The truth is that greenhouse gas emissions are abstract and can be seen as having no impact on people’s daily lives and the people they love,” Basu told CNN. “And so I think our job here is to translate science and research and make it real for the people and things and people they love.”