Human Nature and Creeping Environmental Threats

October 21, 2013 | 11:56 am
Kenny Broad
Professor, Marine Affairs and Policy University of Miami

To state the obvious, rare events don’t occur frequently. While this is good in the case of large-scale natural hazards, it may increase our vulnerability in the long run. But why do uncommon events increase our likelihood of taking unnecessary risks, and how do we overcome our own cognitive predispositions?

How We Learn

Humans tend to learn from trial and error experiences that necessitate repeat occurrences. When faced with a decision that involves risk and uncertainty we often rely on our rapid, instinctual responses. These are generated at an unconscious level and are swayed by emotional baggage packed with cognitive illusions, ideological preferences, and cultural specificity.

Decision scientists divide our decision-making processes into two forms—affective (emotionally driven) and analytical (rational/calculating). Relying on the affective system is OK if you are at a watering hole, hear a lion roar and respond instinctually, or are driving on the freeway and a car drifts into your lane and you simultaneously brake, check your side view mirror and move out of the way (assuming you’re not texting).

Unfortunately, this decision-making system is not optimized for the modern, creeping, global-scale environmental threats we face—collapse of fisheries, water shortages, and climate change. With these challenges, we may have only have one shot to “get it right”.

Lion roaring

Relying on the affective system is ok if you are at a watering hole, hear a lion roar and respond instinctually…unfortunately, this decision-making system is not optimized for the modern, creeping, global scale environmental threats we face – collapse of fisheries, water shortages, and climate change. With these challenges, we may have only have one shot to “get it right”. Photo: Flickr user iam_photography

While the science warning us of impending human–environment problems is robust, our understanding of what motivates people to be proactive versus reactive to threats is limited. This is particularly true in cases where the hazard: (1) is perceived to be playing out in the distant future; (2) is largely invisible; (3) occurs infrequently; (4) doesn’t evoke dread; (5) competes with current issues; (6) and is characterized by uncertainty.

This list could go on, but the simple point is that we are not likely to significantly shift the perception of risk that motivates individual and societal preparedness by merely reducing scientific uncertainty. Rather, the scientific uncertainty inherent in many of these threats tends to be employed strategically for political advantage and psychological self-soothing.

Overcoming Barriers

Communicating climate change in a form that people can relate to on the timescales they care about and at the spatial scale that they relate to is a start. After that, alternative framings—be they economic, moral, or health focused—that trigger the affective responses and are presented in the right form (i.e., imagery, narrative, statistics) are all necessary components.

So what about Sandy? The history books are full of environmental events that we haven’t learned from, particularly hurricanes. Look at Galveston, Texas—built, destroyed, rebuilt, etc. Some argue that key “signal events” can lead to permanent changes for the better—but the window of opportunity to take advantage of these events from a policy perspective is narrow and must also coincide with sympathetic political actors (no comment on the state of the U.S. Congress in terms of future planning). In the United States, arguably, the insurance industry is as big a lever in influencing adaptation directions as government is.

A shift in thinking and planning will not happen at any significant scale because of one event without a host of targeted efforts to improve how we communicate the implications of large-scale, slow-moving, and relatively invisible environmental risks. This includes reframing the problem in terms of contemporary, local impacts and diverse ideological norms, employing narratives in lieu of statistical descriptions for public consumption, and utilizing advances in computer technology and access to let people play simulation games where their futures can be made explicit.

The unique position that coastal regions in New York and New Jersey play in concentration of capital and culturally progressive leadership in many environmental arenas does provide hope that scientifically sound decisions can be made. The over 800 acres of new parks, particularly on the waterfront, and hundreds of miles of new bike paths within New York City that have been created are increasing quality of life, reducing coastal vulnerability, and contributing to CO2 mitigation. Hopefully, solutions such as these indicate that a sustained response to Sandy will be an exception and can serve as a model to help shift the tendency away from the selective amnesia that dominates our current approach to urban planning and individual decision-making.