Understanding the Human Tendency to Discount Long-Term Risks of Quakes, Climate (Video)


Image: kla4067, Flickr, CC

All eyes have justifiably been glued to the ongoing crises in Japan -- the ravaged coastal towns and nuclear meltdowns -- that were caused by a massive 8.9 earthquake that propelled a tsunami into the nation's western coast. When disasters of such scale occur, it invariably gives way to much reflection in the media around rest of the world. So when two of the top climate writers, Grist's Dave Roberts and the New York Times' Andrew Revkin, sat down for a Blogginheads debate, the topic turned to the similarities between the threats posed by earthquakes, and those posed by climate change. Specifically, each pose long-term risks that we humans are very bad at acknowledging and preparing for. Watch:

Most of the entire video above is worth watching (despite Roberts' scratchy mic), but the section I've highlighted focuses specifically on the challenges of getting the public -- one that's understandably more concerned with more immediate issues like unemployment and so forth -- to be concerned with very real physical phenomena that could have disastrous consequences in the seeming distant future.

As both point out in the talk, this doesn't just relate to climate: We're bad at dealing with the threat of earthquakes, too. The Pacific Northwest, for example sits on a highly volatile fault line, where it's all but certain a major earthquake will strike. Yet the infrastructure is woefully unprepared for such an event -- thousands of schools in the region aren't properly built to withstand quakes, and it is widely recognized that the next major tremor will destroy one of the areas most-trafficked stretches of highway. Scientists, politicians, city planners, citizens -- they all know there's a huge threat to doing nothing about that crumbling infrastructure, but we can't seem to muster the societal or political will to do anything about it.

And so it is with climate -- we know that there will be calamitous impacts down the line due to climate change. And we -- the global science community, heads of state, industry leaders, pretty much everyone but the American Republican Party -- know how to slow it down: emit less greenhouse gas. Which is, to be sure, a colossal undertaking. But we're by and large doing next to nothing at all.

Coincidentally, I spent the week before last attending a climate conference with both of these guys, where one of the primary focuses was trying to figure out how to communicate such long term risks to the broader public -- needless to say, it remains one of the great questions of our time.

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More on Long Term Impacts of Climate Change
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Tags: Global Climate Change

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