In their 2006 paper, ‘Global Warming: the Psychology of Long Term Risk‘, behavioral scientists M. Oppenheimer and A. Todorov, both from Princeton University, list four reasons why it may be hard getting people to move in response to global warming threats:
- ‘People are likely to act on decisions derived from affective feelings and personal experiences but not on decisions form statistical descriptions of risks.’
- ‘There is high level of public concern about global warming . . . However the personal relevance of the concern is not strong. (only 13% of Americans were concerned about the impact of global warming on themselves and their family or on their local community’
- There is ‘high public support for governmental interventions that do not directly affect citizens’ individual behaviors, and low support for policies that do.’
- According to Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, ‘the public allots limited psychological space for political problems (what Weber refers to as “finite pool of worry”), perhaps focusing on no more than one big problem at a time.’
How to move the public from ‘concerned and unmoved‘ to ‘concerned and moved‘? The authors suggest two solutions:
- ‘Need for experts to interpret abstract global changes in the language of local consequences. Translating general worries about global warming into local personally relevant concerns, may increase the possibility of individual behavioral change.’
- ‘Strong leaders can at least create the conditions where attention is paid to a key issue like global warming. Without such a level of attention, timely solutions simply will not be implemented.’
To complete Michael Oppenheimer‘s thoughts, here is a reprint of one of his recent comments on Dot Earth:
‘People here and abroad have gotten engaged where climate trends become obvious like in the Arctic, and when weather events occur that either they believe are to some degree related to the ghg [greenhouse gas] buildup directly, or serve as images of the futures. The changing climate will likely provide more and more of such tangible material.
And it does have a political effect. Ask any Australian: it’s not a coincidence that the new government jumped onto Kyoto. The Howard government climate policy became a big issue, stoked by the drought. Some scientists there made a credible case that the drought has a ghg component; others saw it more as an analog. Both sides saw it as an indicator of how incompetent government response to climate extremes can be.
In the same way, Katrina served an educational function. There is no way to prove a ghg component but the lesson for all of us on the limits of adaptation, and the limits of governmental help in such situations, resonated, and still does.
Of course, the public may turn off on the fear factor if it’s not coupled to a pathway forward. And that’s where political leadership comes in. We have had none. There is a chance for a change now. The outcome of the presidential election may be the whole ball game. A president of either party that is willing to put his career at risk to get this problem solved is what it will take. Are any of the candidates up to it? We don’t know yet, but the best way to test this is for the public and the press to pepper them with questions about global warming.
There is one other factor that is beyond anyone’s control: the limited capacity for worry. I am a news junkie but I have stopped reading news stories about a couple other serious issues in any detail because I am so focused on global warming. I can’t worry about everything at once. Psychological studies suggest the same is true for most everyone. For instance, the US has health care to worry about, alt min tax to worry about, a somewhat shaky financial situation to worry about, Iraq to worry about, not to mention personal issues aside from politics and policy. There are lots of issues to distract individuals and congressional reps from global warming, and the delivered wisdom is that Congress can do maybe one big issue a year even with a new president.’
M. Oppenheimer‘s analysis leaves us hoping for the following:
- More climate extremes to hone in the message that climate is a serious matter.
- A new leader for America who will put climate change at the top of his (her:)) list.
- No other domestic or world crisis severe enough to supersede global warming.
Of greatest interest to me, is the job of ‘translating general worries about global warming into local personally relevant concerns‘. A monumental task with many facets:
- identifying the different segments of the population, and developing an appropriate narrative for each one.
- making a scientific phenomenon palatable for lay people.
- identifying common threads between global warming and people’s personal concerns.
- seizing teachable moments in current events.
- making global warming more of a ‘local environmental emergency’.