Why don’t we listen to environmental warnings?

Why don’t people learn from early warnings?

A recent report (the second of its type) by the European Environmental Agency, titled Late Lessons from Early Warnings looked at situations where we had early warnings about problems, but our public institutions failed to do anything substantive about the early warnings. When we think of the problems confronting the global environment today, this seems to fit the bill on many issues. We are fairly sure that the oceans are collapsing, that biodiversity is stressed to the limit, the the climate is warming beyond 2 degrees, and that the rise of China, India, Brazil, and other countries will only make these problems worse.

Make sure to read through the report, it is pretty good and covers diverse issues from tobacco, methylmercury, pollution, to nanotechnology and others. The report itself is organized around thinking about the precautionary principle and its application in complex world.  But in answering that question is poses an answer to the question I’m asking about why we don’t hear early warnings.

There are some good answers provided in the report:

  • Complexity limits our ability to identify causes of problems.
  • We don’t have adequate evidence or risk assessment procedures.
  • Economic interests for business to ignore long-term consequences.
  • And maladaptive institutions.

My instincts tell me that another aspect might be presentation (which is accounted for in the report, but downplayed in my opinion). Without proposing a communication theory answer, which I am not equipped to posit, it seems reasonable that the explanation may be that people play with multiple risks and decide which ones to handle based upon their depictions. Far away and widely distributed problems will get ignored, close and narrowly spread problems will receive action.

Think about the supposed economy-environment debate.  I’ve heard multiple times that in the global recession, environmental action has become very difficult.  There is a simple hierarchy of needs argument that people prioritize their economic well-being and when that is threatened, they deemphasize environmental risks. In contrast to this argument, I want to posit a hierarchy of risk argument. The highest prioritized argument will be the one with the shortest timeframe and closest spread.

Think about if you have ever had friends who don’t wear seat belts in the car: when do they do this mostly? In my experience, it is when they are in the backseat (what!) and on shorter trips. Longer trips and those where they are in the front seat typically result in seat belt use.  It is not that they are prioritizing their need for comfort or lazyness over safety; they are decreasing the risk because of time frame and their perceived impact.

So, why don’t we hear early warnings: one partial answer may be that we need to reclarify the risks.  The global economic problems are presented as widespread (and indeed they hurt many people, but the impact has not been equal) and of immediate risk to people. Environmental dangers are perceived as being random (extreme weather might not impact you for many years) and as being of a long time frame.  However, neither of these are correct assessments. Climate change is having global impact and may continue doing so; it is not random nor in the future.

This is very preliminary and should only be taken with requisite unit of sodium: but, maybe it isn’t the science or the ability to weed through complexity, but it is the frames being put on environmental issues which leads to ignored early warnings. Regardless, when the next IPCC report is released, all preliminary work suggests it will be a significant warning on climate change. Will people listen?

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