Climate Risk Blindness: Why humans fail to grasp the gravity of the situation

Climate-related risk is one of the most pressing issues in need of societal attention. The inability to mitigate risks posed by climate change has the potential to affect our health, homes, economies, and ecosystems. Despite this, humans repeatedly struggle to understand and assess these risks. From dismissing the severity of the problem to failing to take action, our collective inability to grasp the gravity of the situation threatens to have devastating consequences for ourselves and future generations. Why do we struggle so much to understand and act on something so vital?

Ironically, two of the most pivotal classic behavioral theories would suggest that mankind should be highly susceptible to climate-induced disasters. First, we generally overweight small probabilities. Consider a lottery: unbelievably unlikely to happen, yet we still buy a ticket and expect to win. Second, we tend to be risk-averse. We dislike losses more than we like to win. Those two tendencies together explain our willingness to take out insurance: we prefer to pay a bit extra, even for negative events that are so unlikely that the expected costs of those events are lower than the insurance premium. Yet, despite the potential catastrophic consequences of climate change, we seem relatively unconcerned and unwilling to sacrifice even the smallest quality of life to reduce the risk. So why do we fail to fully comprehend the gravity of the situation and take appropriate action?

Risk assessment is constructed using the probability of occurrence and the potential outcome (Weber & Milliman, 1997). For climate risk, however, it is likely that only one of those factors is considered. When the outcome is unclear, or never experienced, people tend to only focus on the probability. In those situations, small probabilities are just small probabilities without real tangible consequences, and can therefore more easily be ignored. Similarly, the smaller the probability, the more important comparable context becomes. It is easy to imagine winning a small probability lottery and all its benefits, but it’s hard to imagine being in a 1 in a 1000-year flood and all the damage. Without clear context, the difference between a 0.01 percent chance and a 0.0001 percent chance feels neglectable. Additionally, the effort people have to exert to find out what the risk and consequences would be is often considered too high. Together, we seem to lack the context or resources to really worry about the consequences of climate risk.

But there seems to be enough coverage of floods and climate risks, why are we not able to act on it? Compare how differently people react based on the source of information. People either base their decisions on descriptives or on experience. Descriptive-based decisions use facts and probabilities (often not available to the general population), whereas experience-based decision uses personal (or close circle) experiences. People that use their personal descriptive sampling as the main source of information tend to underestimate small probabilities (a phenomenon called the description-experience gap). This underestimation is enforced by biases. For example, the sampling bias makes us focus on only a small pool of examples, and in Europe, climate risks are not yet occurring often enough. The switching bias makes it difficult for us to change our own opinion: if we were previously not scared of climate risk, we almost need extreme experiences to change our minds.

Taken together, the way we currently process the information that is (scarcely) available does not resonate with our personal understanding of the world. In order to understand, we need to put climate-related risks into context. There are two possible ways to provide that context. The first is to wait until we have enough personal experience with the consequences that we are able to accurately estimate the risk. Evidently, this means to sit back and wait until our (and/or our neighbor's) house floods. Doing so might lead us beyond a point of no return, leaving us no chance of climate recovery. The second is to support the public's understanding by translating abstract probabilities into easy-to-understand, contextual risk scores, such as a climate-resilience label. Although the complex nature of climate risks means that any risk score will be an approximation rather than an exact calculation, the benefits of a climate-resilience label far outweigh the costs. By providing comparative context, individuals can make more informed decisions. A better understanding of the risks also enables policymakers to better communicate the need for mitigation and adaptation measures and rally societal support for action at a larger scale. Ultimately, abstract probabilities need to be translated into a contextual format, such as a climate-resilience label, in order to increase the population's understanding of climate-related risks and drive more effective action to combat the potentially irreversible crisis.