People do a poor job of assessing climate risk and are paying the price.

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

He knows the climate crisis is real, but this is the first time he has suffered its near-fatal consequences.

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

“If we don’t change the way we think, things will get worse,” Carillo, who is still living in a makeshift shelter more than three months after Ida’s attack, told CNN last month. “And I think all of this is our responsibility, but we can still be different.”

Despite the year after year of disasters caused by climate change, the world is no longer close to the limit of fossil fuel emissions, which would prevent the severity from increasing. of natural disasters. Instead, emissions continue to rise amid pledges and promises (eventually) to curb them.

Humans do a poor job in assessing climate risks and taking precautions to avoid the worst, and we are paying the price literally.

Over the past five years, extreme weather disasters have cost the United States more than $750 billion.

The price is below the cost of the clean energy measures in the Democrats’ Build Back Better package: $555 billion over 10 years.

Analysts told CNN that clean energy incentives would put the US far ahead of President Joe Biden’s ambitious goal of cutting carbon emissions in half by 2030.

Achieving the target will help reduce global carbon emissions and go a long way to averting such a severe climate disaster in the US, ultimately saving lives and saving the country money. But the full package is still on thin ice in Washington, with opponents saying it’s too much to spend.

It’s a solid example of what goes on in our minds when we weigh risk versus cost of prevention.

Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, told CNN: “Never underestimate the power of the human mind to rationalize its path away from reality. “People are more complex because they are preloaded with all of their pre-installed beliefs and attitudes as well as values ​​and politics.”

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

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

That leaves less than 50% of the US population the least concerned and informed about climate risks.

“For many people, climate change is not even something that enters their consciousness,” says Leiserowitz.

‘Hero’s Paradise’

Lisa Robinson, associate director of Harvard’s Center for Health Decision Science, says people are less likely to judge risk, and more of us are overwhelmed by pressures more intense than competition. Our attention, such as COVID-19, could potentially pay for groceries or rent, or send the kids to school.

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

According to Lise Van Susteren, a psychiatrist in Washington, D.C. and a member of the advisory board of the Center for Global Health and the Environment at Harvard Medical School, there is another psychological mechanism that prevents us from focusing on those things. which can harm us.

When reality is taking a turn for the worse, our brains are wired to protect themselves from knowing the truth. On the other hand, we have an “optimistic bias” in favor of gratifying information, and we tend to engage the parts of the brain that reward us.

“This is how, psychologically, we are set up to handle stress,” Van Susteren told CNN. “Well, in some cases that’s fine. Imagine we spend our lives thinking about death – that wouldn’t be fun. So we repress it.”

Van Susteren also suggested that humans “have a hero-worship mentality, born of the Hollywood days and old tales of heroes” who would swoop in to save a damned person in distress. But it’s unlikely to happen during the climate crisis, and humans don’t tend to have a good understanding of the planet’s tipping points, beyond which the climate may not be salvageable.

“That’s the fantasy we have for the planet – that some sort of technological intervention” will save us at the last minute, Van Susteren said. We “didn’t understand that climate constraints would pull control out of our hands.”


Aaron Bernstein, a pediatrician and interim director of the Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, said although there has been an “impossibility of change” trust” 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 saying climate change as a polar bear problem, 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 connected to health, race, housing and the local environment.

According to Faith Kerns, a science writer and author of “Getting to the Heart of Science Communication: A Guide to Effective Interaction.”

“For me, it really depends on how well the focus is on how knowledgeable the system is compared to the individual,” says Kerns. The question, she added, is how do we encourage science skeptics, as well as those in power, to see the urgency and act immediately?

People in general care about their health, especially when their lives are at stake.

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

“The truth is that greenhouse gas emissions are abstract and can be seen as not affecting the daily lives of people and the people they hold dear,” Basu told CNN. “And so I think our job here is to translate science and research and make it happen for people and things and people that they love.”

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