Decision science and climate change


The New York Times has a fascinating article on the role of psychology and decision making in climate change research.

Entitled, “Why Isn’t the Brain Green?”, there are some gems of relevance for the humanitarian and climate science communities.

Some highlights:

  1. “It isn’t immediately obvious why such studies are necessary or even valuable. Indeed, in the United States scientific community, where nearly all dollars for climate investigation are directed toward physical or biological projects, the notion that vital environmental solutions will be attained through social-science research — instead of improved climate models or innovative technologies — is an aggressively insurgent view.”
  2. “Let’s start with the fact that climate change is anthropogenic,” Weber told me one morning in her Columbia office. “More or less, people have agreed on that. That means it’s caused by human behavior. That’s not to say that engineering solutions aren’t important. But if it’s caused by human behavior, then the solution probably also lies in changing human behavior.”
  3. “…we are not always adept at long-term thinking; experiments have shown a frequent dislike for delayed benefits, so we undervalue promised future outcomes. (Given a choice, we usually take $10 now as opposed to, say, $20 two years from now.)” 
  4. Almost certainly, we underestimate the danger of rising sea levels or epic droughts or other events that we’ve never experienced and seem far away in time and place. 
  5. “Weber’s research seems to help establish that we have a “finite pool of worry,” which means we’re unable to maintain our fear of climate change when a different problem — a plunging stock market, a personal emergency — comes along. We simply move one fear into the worry bin and one fear out. And even if we could remain persistently concerned about a warmer world? Weber described what she calls a “single-action bias.” Prompted by a distressing emotional signal, we buy a more efficient furnace or insulate our attic or vote for a green candidate — a single action that effectively diminishes global warming as a motivating factor. And that leaves us where we started.”
  6. Group dynamics are crucially important, as many environmental laws and policy decisions are group choices.
  7. People often preference emotional decision making over analytic; “You’ll notice they’re saying, ‘This has so-and-so effect over so many years’ — that’s analytical. But then often they’re saying, ‘But I feel this way’ — that’s emotional.” In short, what Handgraaf and Weber were hearing wasn’t a conversation about the best wind turbine but a tussle between the subjects’ analytical and emotional methods of risk assessment. “
  8. “Trivial semantic differences” in the way policies are presented or framed can strongly influence their popularity and outcome.  

An excellent article, in full here.


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