Cass R. Sunstein writes at Bloomberg that an understanding of human psychology — specifically, what human beings fear and what they do not — helps to explain why nations haven’t insisted on more significant emissions reductions even as scientists warn that if the world continues on its current course, we will face exceedingly serious losses and threats including a significant rise in sea levels by century’s end.
First, 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.’
The second 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. For example, an act of terrorism is likely to be both available and salient, and hence makes people fear that another such event will occur. A recent crime or accident can activate attention and significantly inflate people’s assessment of risk. Finally, human beings are far more attentive to immediate threats than to long-term ones.
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. ‘All the obstacles are daunting skepticism about the science, economic self-interest, and the difficulties of designing cost-effective approaches and obtaining an international agreement,’ concludes Sunstein, ‘But the world is unlikely to make much progress on climate change until the barrier of human psychology is squarely addressed.’
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