Risk perception and climate change communication

“Earthquakes? Tsunamis? Those things seem inevitable, accepted as acts of God. But an invisible, man-made threat associated with Godzilla and three-eyed fish? Now that’s something to keep you up at night.”

That was a great representative line from an article recently published in Discover magazine (July/August 2011) about risk perception entitled “What You Don’t Know Can Kill You” by Jason Daley.  Although climate change is only mentioned in the article briefly, naturally my mind made that extension right away.

I had just finished my Master’s thesis, which was an analysis of Chinese state media coverage on the effects of climate change on China’s food and water security.  Climate change, media programming, and educational communications have constantly been on my mind.  So this very topic – trying to understand why people aren’t as worried about the risks of anthropogenic climate change as the scientific data show we should be – is something that keeps ME “up at night.”

Something I’ve been concerned about regarding the messages the scientific community manages to get out to the public about environmental issues in general, and climate change in particular, is that scientists are not trained to “sell themselves,” especially not to non-scientists.  It has always seemed obvious to me that generally people aren’t interested in things they aren’t already interested in, to be glib.  So if we try to serve a hot steaming dish of threatening-sounding FACTS and DATA to a public a) not interested in science, b) heavily influenced by politics in the media and from Capitol Hill, and c) much more worried about more immediate problems like home foreclosure, we’re really setting out on a fruitless venture.

Climate scientists and communicators MUST GET BETTER AT COMMUNICATING WITH THE PUBLIC in ways that are simple, articulate, entertaining (yes, I said entertaining) and possibly consumable; if we do, we’ll have a much more effective go of it.  We need to learn some lessons from the business world: anything is sale-able as long as you sell it right. How else did bottled water become one of the biggest industries in the United States in the 1990s?

In addition to figuring out how to sell our cause, we have got to get a clearer look at the psychological processes that affect how people understand risk.  The work done by social scientists, and in particular a study done by Paul Slovic, Baruch Fischhoff, and Sarah Lichtenstein (cited in “What You Don’t Know…”), shows that:

a) people do not make risk judgments based on logic

b) in order to change a person’s judgment of risk, one must appeal to the part of her brain that governs emotion.

Another great quote: “We like to think that humans are supremely logical,  making decisions on the basis of hard data and not on whim.  For a good part of the 19th and 20th centuries, economists and social scientists assumed this was true too.  The public, they believed, would make rational decisions if only it had the right pie chart or statistical table.  But in the late 1960s and early 1970s, that vision of homo economicus – a person who acts in his or her best interest when given accurate information – was kneecapped by researchers investigating the emerging field of risk perception.  What they found, and what they have continued teasing out since the early 1970s, is that humans have a hell of a time accurately gauging risk.”

What they learned:

- We have a particular fear of the man-made (perhaps because man-made creations should be things we have control over?).  Like the opening line of this post states, natural events seem inevitable and completely out of our control, and much less worth the worry.  The irony is that climate change in the modern era IS man-made.  According to the social science, it should be as frightening as nuclear energy, genetically modified crops, and nanotechnology have been.  But so many climate deniers have found a perfect solution – admit to the public that climate change could be happening (since it becomes harder and harder to completely deny these days), but that if it is, it’s a completely natural planetary process.  According to this “logic,” we shouldn’t waste our time worrying about it, because it’s “an act of God.”

- Gut instincts tend to win out over logic.  We are most heavily influenced by preconceived emotional connections to situations or ideas.

- We are more afraid of things we can imagine most vividly because those things are more concrete or because we are exposed to images of those things in the media, on television, or in movies.  People are terrified of shark attacks, aliens, and Communists – things we’ve seen in movies for decades – but not as worried about the global effects of climate change, because, to be fair, we’ve never seen those things before.

- We are more likely to believe things (including the riskiness of our behaviors) if they fit into our current worldview, or align with the opinions we already have.  We have a particular challenge in communicating with people who firmly believe climate change is a non-issue*.

- We are less likely to attribute single events to the continuance of whole systems if those events do not intuitively reflect the direction in which the system is supposed to be moving.  In other words, people think in terms of stereotypes.  The example in Discover – “John wears glasses, is quiet, and carries a calculator” – he must be an engineer or a mathematician.

An example relevant to climate change – extra cold winters do not intuitively fit into people’s expectations for “global warming” so those events often are not accepted as signs of systematic climate change.  This is yet another perception challenge that could easily be met with clearer communications.

- We are more likely swayed by positive emotions associated with a behavior choice than negative emotions.  The example used in Discover: although most people in the U.S. today intellectually understand the grave risks of smoking, thousands of people every day smoke their first cigarette.  The positive associations with smoking win out over the negative associations and affect the behavior to choose to start smoking, although objectively, the negative consequences of smoking are far more impactful than the positive effects of smoking.

An example relevant to climate change: although choosing a renewable energy program with a local power company could have objectively more important positive benefits in the future (for example, on a grand scale, preventing climate change will alleviate a lot of suffering around the world), the behavior choice is too often focused on the “now.”  The positive associations with choosing the cheaper, dirtier energy and having more money leftover in the bank at the end of the month to use on a new car or at the mall outweigh the negative consequences of continuing to emit unnecessary greenhouse gases.

- I think the last point also brings in the idea of proximity – now seems much more relevant than next year, ten years from now, or several decades from now.  It is difficult to influence people to  make decisions that don’t seem to have positive affects on today, especially if they don’t clearly understand the risk of negative effects 40 years from now.

I would love to see climate change communicated in novel, gripping, and easy-to-understand ways.  I think so much emphasis gets put on R&D, political action and public policy, and scientific debates that we forget how effective advertising, a tool right at our fingertips, can be in swaying public opinion, whether the point is to sell bottled water or to reduce tobacco use.  The field of risk perception is just one from the greater genre of social science, which also includes psychology, sociology, anthropology, and economics, that could be extremely useful as a guiding star toward building effective communications campaigns centered around climate change education.

* Some in the sustainability field call these people “late-adopters” and place them low in the ranks of priority because they are the least likely to be swayed.  I would argue that many of these people are the people who have the  most at stake if public policy were to turn friendly toward climate change mitigation and therefore play some of the larger roles in contributing to climate change and have some of the greatest influence on other people.  For example, an oil and gas CEO is likely to be one of these “late-adopters” and is also responsible for massive greenhouse gas emissions; yet, when an oil and gas tycoon turns around and enthusiastically adopts a pro-renewable energy attitude and makes the related changes to his/her industry, the general public is much more likely to take note.

Why is the Greenland Ice Sheet So Important?

Ice, and particularly that of the Greenland Icesheet, can be compared (perhaps tritely) to a canary in a coal mine. The retreat of our Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine icesheets and glaciers can be one of the most useful signals in our studies of the effects of global warming, and one of the most illustrative tools in the process of making predictions on future ice retreat, the subsequent rise of sea levels, and compounded temperature increases due to Albedo Effect and the thawing of the permafrost (which releases sequestered methane gas, one of the most powerful greenhouse gases). Aside from the disastrous effects on the terrestrial biosphere, the melting of the Arctic places a real and serious financial burden on the global economy.

Is Arctic Ice Melting?

National Snow and Ice Data Center. This graph shows the extent of the Arctic with normal warm-season sea ice coverage for 2007, 2010, and the average of all years from 1979-2000. It is obvious that Arctic sea ice coverage in 2010 has been significantly spottier this year than in previous decades.

Outside the Arctic and Antarctic, the Greenland Icesheet is the largest concentration of glacial ice on our planet. Over the last ten or twelve years, the Greenland Icesheet has fallen out of equilibrium (or a phase where yearly averages for ice coverage remained roughly steady with no major or long term perturbations). Since the late 1990s, the yearly averages for Greenland’s total ice cover have decreased exponentially every year. This ice-loss is accelerating.

This video will give you a great visual of dramatic glacier shrinkage through some amazing time-lapse photography.

The Albedo Effect
The science is fairly straightforward. Increased levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases released through the burning of fossil fuels and the destruction of terrestrial forests have resulted in a) higher global temperature averages (with the Arctic feeling double the global average temperature increase) and b) altered precipitation patterns (longer summers and shorter winters mean less annual snowfall and more annual rainfall). Due to higher temperatures, more glacial ice melts during summers, and less ice builds up during cold seasons which are shortened from both the autumn and spring ends. Due to the combination of lower snowfall levels during the shorter cold seasons and higher rainfall levels during the longer warm seasons, it is difficult for glacial ice to replenish enough during cold seasons to make up for the unusually high summer melt rates.

All of this is compounded by the Albedo Effect, which can be explained simply by evoking an image of wearing white clothing during the summer versus dark clothing. White reflects light and therefore heat, whereas dark colors absorb light and therefore retain heat. Just so with ice: when ice is present, it reflects light from the Earth’s surface, therefore reducing heat absorption. If ice melts, it leaves behind dark rock, blue-black sea, or tundra, which absorbs more light and retains more heat, therefore adding to the excess heat already applied by atmospheric greenhouse gases.

The Albedo Effect is the process where white surface areas reflect energy away from Earth, whereas dark areas absorb energy. As white areas shrink (as in the retreat of icesheets), larger dark areas absorb more and more heat, in turn contributing to further ice melt and more heating.

Melting of the not-so-permafrost leads to methane and carbon dioxide release
But, as the Albedo Effect rolls on inexorably gaining strength, the melting of the planet’s icesheets brings yet another compounding consequence. The arctic regions are comprised of vast areas of tundra, areas of sparse vegetation growing from thin topsoils covering permanently frozen subsoil layers called permafrost.

National Center for Atmospheric Research. Colored areas (Red, orange, yellow, beige) show the extensive land areas covered with permafrost in northern and alpine regions.


Due to global warming, large tracts of permafrost in the arctic tundra are melting; when these soil layers thaw, bacteria can begin decomposition processes on buried organic matter from long-dead plants, animals, and microorganisms. These formerly living tissues had naturally resisted rot in their previously frozen states for thousands of years; when they begin to warm and decompose, they release all of the carbon dioxide and methane stored in their dead cells. Huge masses of carbon dioxide and methane have the potential to enter Earth’s atmosphere as the tundra continues to thaw.


Greenpeace video. This video focuses on the tundra of northwest Siberia, but the principles apply to all areas of permafrost melt.

The effects of this should be obvious. CO2 and methane are greenhouse gases; their accumulation in the atmosphere (due mostly to fossil fuel burning) is what has caused global temperature rise in the first place. The melting of the arctic tundra, therefore, is one of the deleterious positive feedback loops we will become more and more familiar with as the earth’s normally self-regulatory climate systems continue to break down.

Sea level projections

Obviously, if land-ice melts, that volume of water enters the ocean. One of the most bemoaned effects of global warming over the last decades has been predicted sea level rise due to melting ice. Most scientists now concur that we should expect a sea level rise from 0.8 to 2 meters (or 2.6 to 6.7 feet) over the remainder of the century. Also, it is important to note that while the sea level may only rise 6 feet by 2100, that is only the beginning of the total sea level rise from the melting of the Greenland ice sheet; global sea levels will rise approximately 27-30 ft due to the complete melting of the Greenland ice sheet throughout the 22nd century and beyond.

Although we tend to think rather shortsightedly when it comes to political and economic policies, 2100 is only ninety years away. Since we are doubtlessly still affected by events and policies today that occurred in 1920, it is rather foolish, frankly, that we continue to fail to make plans for our increasingly warm, watery world and the people (some of whom will be our very own sons and daughters) who could still be living in it 90 years from now. But don’t be fooled, even today we are already paying the [very real] financial cost of replacing our global air-conditioning unit.

To bring all of this together:

1. Greenland represents the largest icesheet on the planet, aside from the polar sheets.
2. Since it represents some of the southern-most of the Arctic ice, its decline has been extra dramatic: glaciers on Greenland have been shown to be melting at record rates.
3. Ice melt both on Greenland and from the great Arctic region causes increased warming through the Albedo Effect and the release of greenhouse gases from melting permafrost.
4. It is an excellent representation of what we should expect of other Arctic regions in coming years if global warming is allowed to continue unfettered.
5. Eventually, ice melt will cause rises in sea levels which will be disastrous for low-lying coastal regions and scores of island nations.

How long will it take, and how great of a mess will be required before our persons of political influence take meaningful note of this body of evidence? If we are to survive the next few centuries happily, and allow the rest of Earth’s inhabitants to do the same, we cannot afford to sit on our hands (and weak excuses) any longer.

Higher temperatures lead to bigger marmots?

NPR just featured a fascinating story about Colorado’s populations of Yellow Tailed Marmots. Apparently, scientists have correlated an increased size in the average marmot specimen in Colorado to the localized effects of global climate change.

Odd, since we thought increased marmot size was due to graham crackers.

What if IPCC Reports Were Living Documents?

We came up with a really interesting idea the other day. We’ve been thinking about the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), and the way they publish their findings, which is every 6 years. The last report was published in 2007. Something that is problematic with this structure is that once the information is published, some of the data used in the reports is 3 or 4 years old. Consequently, policies made using this data are outdated from their very outset; policy-makers in 2010 are using the 3 year-old 2007 IPCC report, which itself contains 3-4 year-old information. So we’re now lagging behind by 6-7 years from the latest science. This is an alarmingly significant lag time considering how quickly the world around us is changing specifically due to climate change. We talked about how this problem could be addressed….

The initial idea was to figure out how we could get rid of lag in the scientific process. How to decrease the time between when information is discovered and the time it is used, in politics, economics, etc. Most of the information used by politicians comes from the reports by the IPCC, because they are the largest and most globalized organization of climate scientists working collaboratively in the world. So, if the information published by the IPCC could be made available more quickly and transparently, then it follows that it could be used when it’s still fresh (not 3 and 4 years old).

So, here’s what we came up with. What if the IPCC findings could be published in “real time,” and separate pieces were made available for peer review immediately, instead of waiting to publish ALL the findings all at once, every 6 years? We discussed 2 ways to go about this. …read more

Visions for Environmental Education

One of the objects of our blog is to have a place to “write down” the conversations we have, and this post is about a topic we discuss regularly: how to transform education to prepare future generations to deal with and reverse the effects of anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change.

“Sustainability Education” is the subject of a lot of debate amongst environmentalists, activists, and academics. It could be defined in a lot of ways by lots of different people, but basically it is the idea of teaching students, starting in grade school, to innately understand how to help our species and the other organisms with whom we share our planet to survive and thrive in the future. In short, if we want to be around in 300 years we need to learn how to change the way we live…and the earlier we begin teaching our children these ideas, the higher our chances of survival.

(Something to note going into this: we’re not really trying to talk about what should be taught, but how it could be taught. There are people who write whole books about what the content of sustainability education should be, so that’s not what we’re really interested in here. We’re just throwing around some idealistic ideas about how to go about doing it at all…)

So, what do we do now? How do we get there? We have some ideas. …read more

Natural Carbon Cycling…a Follow-up on “CO2 and Temperature”

I’d like to write a follow-up to Tim’s amazing graphics-filled analysis of past and current trends of atmospheric CO2 concentrations and resulting temperature changes…I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the “dual nature of carbon.” Carbon is, obviously, the most basic life-element on Earth. We need it…to build our cells: plant, animal, fungi, and all microorganisms. Plants and photosynthetic bacteria need it to photosynthesize, and we non-photosynthesizers need plants to create oxygen for us. That’s the good side of carbon. The scary side of carbon is the side we’re bringing out into the open in part through the burning of fossil fuels and the destruction of other carbon sinks (natural reservoirs of carbon on the planet that isolate carbon from the atmosphere) such as peatlands and forests.

Fossil fuels: petroleum (oil), coal, and natural gas.

As Tim so eloquently illustrated in the previous post, this activity is resulting in exponentially increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) into the atmosphere, which decreases the Earth’s ability to reflect heat back into space. In my entry, here, I’d like to discuss the natural cycling of carbon. I think it’s important, going forward, for the people in charge of making decisions in our energy and environmental policies to understand the very basic mechanisms by which our biosphere functions. (That said, one of the things I’d like to focus on in this blog is making this information a. accessible to non-scientists, and b. presented in a way so clear as to be irrefutable. For example, I think Tim’s graphs below do this beautifully.) A lack of this understanding, plus the purposeful ignorance by which many of our politicians function, will result in disasterously inadequate climate policies, or none at all. We just don’t have time for that anymore. We are quickly spiraling out of control, quickly approaching the threshold of no return. At a certain point, our Earth System’s mechanisms will no longer be capable of correcting the massive anthropogenic perturbations we’re throwing into the mix. This entry will discuss how these mechanisms can “self-correct” (or “us-correct” might be more appropriate for our current situation)…up to a certain point.

Installment #1:
The Organic Carbon Cycle and the Biological Pump

The Organic Carbon Cycle:
The basic way in which Earth’s organisms contribute to system cycles is by recycling carbon (in addition to other nutrients and materials used in life processes) throughout the biosphere. …read more

Argonaut Planet Launch!

Things are exciting here at the Maher household. Aside from having a genuine Franken-kitty on the premises, neighbors who apparently self-identify as guitar hero virtuosos, and new-found addictions to “tweaking the website,” we actually have some very promising events on our horizons:

I am preparing for my final year in my Master’s program at Prescott College, and by that I mean I am frantically trying to organize my extremely over-broad and sometimes scattered thoughts into something that resembles a paper of reasonable length. I am very happy to have finally narrowed my scope to focus on Environmental Crisis —-> China —-> China’s national media representation of said crisis —-> Specifically, what’s going on with the melting and drying in the Himalayas and the associated river systems in China —-> How will this affect future international relationships? Phew! Sound broad? You shoulda heard what it sounded like before yesterday…

Anyway, I’m very excited to get started. Aside from my concern that my thesis could easily balloon into a 600 page monster, I am also worried I will be unable to find many primary sources translated into English (I am learning Chinese, but so far my scope doesn’t extend a whole lot farther than “I like to read books and watch TV. What time is dinner?”). I am also worried that May 30, 2011 will roll around and I’ll be all self-congratulatory and lazed out, expecting my beautiful diploma in the mail any day, and I’ll get an email from someone administrative at school informing me that I’ve forgotten to jump through one particular (but very obscure) hoop, which will cost me either another semester or an extra $4000 to remedy. I’m sure this won’t happen, but I’m still scared.

Aside from all this paper-writing madness, I’m excited because Tim is looking for jobs alllll over the place. So, most likely, our nomadic existence will continue. It’s a good thing we’re slowly but surely whittling our possessions down to the essentials, like bedding, wok, and coffee maker. Ideally, we’d love to end up in NYC because between us we have about 5 super best friends who live there, in addition to a smattering of family in the City and elsewhere in NY state and the Mid-Atlantic/New England regions. We have loved the PNW for many reasons, but we’ve decided that the isolation just isn’t worth it.

Finally, Tim and I are both ecstatic to finally have this long-discussed project online! Check out his Greenhouse Gas “dashboard” posted right before this (also in the “graphics” category). He has been working nonstop on this and a similar project for work over the last weeks.

Thank you for visiting our blog! Remember, we’d LOVE feedback…of any constructive kind. And please visit again :)

Erika