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Nothing to Fear but a Lack of Fear: Climate Change and the Fear Deficit

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Climate change is an almost perfect example of what economists call a " free rider problem. " Everyone would gain if everyone made relatively minor sacrifices. But the benefits of any one individual's sacrifices are spread over millions of individuals, including those in future generations. No one is motivated to sacrifice and everyone suffers. Nations also fall into this trap if acting separately. End of story. Yet, the explanation for our collective paralysis toward climate change is not quite so simple. In times of war, playing on patriotism, fear and hatred, nations have managed to band together and elicit from citizens and soldiers sacrifices far more profound than those that would be required to reverse climate change. Now, humanity faces a threat comparable to that of hostile human enemies, but, so far, nations have failed to exact even the most modest sacrifices from citizens. Most of us care profoundly about our children, and even our children's children; why are we so passive in the face of a problem that poses such a dire threat to current and future generations? While insights from economics go far toward explaining the failure of coordination between nations, psychology is needed to make sense of the tepid demands from citizens to even try. In this essay, we discuss some of the psychological factors that have prevented the emergence of a groundswell of support for taking action on climate change. Climate change, we show, is not only a perfect example of a free-rider problem, but also of a threat that is unlikely to garner the level of attention it warrants. Human psychology and the 'fear deficit' The root of our collective complacency when it comes to climate change lies in our failure to experience a level of fear that is commensurate with the severity of the problem. When most people think about the negative consequences of emotions, they are apt to think of cases of excessive emotion – road rage, panic, immobilizing depression. Yet many, if not most, of the problems currently facing humanity stem from a deficit rather than excess of emotion. Consider, for example, the two stock market and housing bubbles and crashes that wreaked havoc on world economies in recent decades. In newspaper articles with headlines such as " Fear Again Grips Stock Investors, " media accounts have commonly attributed these events to a sudden, self-fulfilling, spike in fear. Yet a more thoughtful analysis could easily result in the opposite conclusion. While an excess of fear may well have deflated the two bubbles, it was an insufficiency of fear that allowed prices to get out of line with fundamentals in the first place. With climate change, a similar deficit of fear promises even more dire consequences. Why are we experiencing so little fear in the face of an imminent (in the time-frame of human history) threat to our collective existence? The answer to this question is aided by a rudimentary understanding of the psychology of emotions. While most people think of emotions as feeling states, psychologists are converging on a rather different understanding of emotions-as all-encompassing 'programs' of our minds and bodies that prepared us to respond to recurrent situations of adaptive significance in our evolutionary past, such as fighting, escaping predators and reproducing. , Fear, according to this account of emotion, is an evolved response that fundamentally transforms us as people to deal with threatening situations that we encountered repeatedly in our evolutionary past. Fear activates specialized systems in our brains. Beyond the subjective feeling of fear, our hearing and sight become more acute; we become attuned to threatening things we otherwise would not have noticed, our memory sharpens, and there are myriad physiological. G8 Magazine
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By George Loewenstein and Daniel Schwartz
Climate change is an almost perfect example of
what economists call a “free rider problem.” Everyone
would gain if everyone made relatively minor sacrifices.
But the benefits of any one individual’s sacrifices are
spread over millions of individuals, including those in fu-
ture generations. No one is motivated to sacrifice and
everyone suffers. Nations also fall into this trap if acting
separately. End of story.
Yet, the explanation for our collective paralysis to-
ward climate change is not quite so simple. In times
of war, playing on patriotism, fear and hatred, nations
have managed to band together and elicit from citizens
and soldiers sacrifices far more profound than those that
would be required to reverse climate change. Now, hu-
manity faces a threat comparable to that of hostile hu-
man enemies, but, so far, nations have failed to exact
even the most modest sacrifices from citizens. Most
of us care profoundly about our children, and even our
children’s children; why are we so passive in the face of
a problem that poses such a dire threat to current and
future generations?
While insights from economics go far toward ex-
plaining the failure of coordination between nations, psy-
chology is needed to make sense of the tepid demands
from citizens to even try. In this essay, we discuss some
of the psychological factors that have prevented the
emergence of a groundswell of support for taking action
on climate change. Climate change, we show, is not
only a perfect example of a free-rider problem, but also
of a threat that is unlikely to garner the level of attention
it warrants.
Human psychology and the ‘fear deficit’
The root of our collective complacency when it
comes to climate change lies in our failure to experi-
ence a level of fear that is commensurate with the se-
verity of the problem. When most people think about
the negative consequences of emotions, they are apt to
think of cases of excessive emotion – road rage, panic,
immobilizing depression. Yet many, if not most, of the
problems currently facing humanity stem from a deficit
rather than excess of emotion. Consider, for example,
the two stock market and housing bubbles and crashes
that wreaked havoc on world economies in recent de-
cades. In newspaper articles with headlines such as
“Fear Again Grips Stock Investors,” media accounts
have commonly attributed these events to a sudden,
self-fulfilling, spike in fear. Yet a more thoughtful analysis
could easily result in the opposite conclusion. While an
excess of fear may well have deflated the two bubbles, it
was an insufficiency of fear that allowed prices to get out
of line with fundamentals in the first place. With climate
change, a similar deficit of fear promises even more dire
consequences.
Why are we experiencing so little fear in the face of
an imminent (in the time-frame of human history) threat
to our collective existence? The answer to this question
is aided by a rudimentary understanding of the psychol-
ogy of emotions.
While most people think of emotions as feeling
states, psychologists are converging on a rather differ-
ent understanding of emotions -- as all-encompassing
‘programs’ of our minds and bodies that prepared us to
respond to recurrent situations of adaptive significance in
our evolutionary past, such as fighting, escaping preda-
tors and reproducing. , Fear, according to this account
of emotion, is an evolved response that fundamentally
transforms us as people to deal with threatening situa-
tions that we encountered repeatedly in our evolutionary
past. Fear activates specialized systems in our brains.
Beyond the subjective feeling of fear, our hearing and
sight become more acute; we become attuned to threat-
ening things we otherwise would not have noticed, our
memory sharpens, and there are myriad physiological **
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
changes like gastric effects and adrenalin spikes.
Although emotions, including fear, serve critical
functions in human life, the emotion systems we are
carrying around evolved in a very different environment
than that of the present. Our appetitive system evolved
long before high fat foods became virtually free, our
sexual programming before the advent of internet por-
nography, and our pleasure-seeking system before the
development of crystal meth. Likewise, our fear system
evolved at a time when most of the people who mat-
tered for our survival were in our immediate proximity
and most of the hazards that threatened our survival
were relatively immediate, such as predators, enemies
and sudden changes in the natural environment. Our
fear system is not well equipped to dealing with the
most significant threats of the modern age that, like cli-
mate change, develop gradually and affect people we
will never meet.
Our fear system is adaptive. Hold any problem con-
stant for some period of time, and fear subsides, even
if the objective severity of the problem remains constant
or even grows gradually. Our fear system is designed to
motivate us to take action to eliminate imminent risks,
but when risks such as climate change remain constant
(or change imperceptibly) over time, our fear system
takes it as a signal that the persistence of fear serves
no function.
Our fear system is largely oriented to the present.
In part because our emotion system is so much more
responsive to immediate than delayed outcomes, we
‘discount’ the future, which helps to explain why so
many of us fail to diet or to save adequately for retire-
ment. Climate change entails a trade-off between im-
mediate sacrifices and long-term harms of exactly the
type that humans often have difficulty with. Democratic
governments may be in an even worse position than
individuals. The always-upcoming elections might dis-
courage them from putting strong effort into long-term
solutions.
Our fear system is also responsive to outcomes
that are tangible and ill equipped to deal with situations
in which the consequences of our behavior are imper-
ceptible. We eat one potato chip (and then one more
and one more) because any one potato chip has no im-
pact on our weight, and we smoke the next cigarette
because it is unlikely to be the one that kills us. This
‘drop-in-the-bucket effect’ comes into play in myriad
ways when it comes to climate change. What difference
would it make to turn the A/C down a few degrees? Of
course drops in the bucket add up, and eventually the
bucket overflows.
Adaptation, time discounting and the drop-in-
the-bucket effect are all features of our fear system
that squelch what might otherwise be a healthy fear-
response to climate change. Moreover, each of these
tendencies interacts in a pernicious fashion with another
psychological tendency: our highly developed ability to
see what we want to see and believe what we want
to believe. We are powerfully motivated (by time dis-
counting) to not make immediate sacrifices for climate
change, and our brains are remarkably adept at giving
us various rationalizations for (not) doing so. “Climat-
egate,” for example, provided welcome grist for skepti-
cism by a public who didn’t want to believe in global
warming in the first place. Since Climategate, belief that
climate change is happening and is manmade has de-
clined substantially in Britain, Germany and the United
States. The fact that multiple independent reviews failed
to turn up evidence of malice or fraud, or that ongoing
research has not shaken scientists’ belief in the reality of
the problem, has had comparatively little impact.
What can be done?
In a recent New Yorker article about Saul Griffith, an
ecologically-oriented inventor, David Owen writes that
“the world’s most urgent environmental need, he has
come to believe, is not for some miraculous-seeming
scientific breakthrough but for a vast, unprecedented
transformation of human behavior.” Unfortunately, such
a transformation is unlikely to occur. In the absence of
such a transformation, policy makers must, therefore,
work with people in all their psychological fallibility and
complexity. As Rousseau famously commented, we
need to “consider if, in political society, there can be any
legitimate and sure principle of government, taking men
as they are and laws as they might be.”
Some behavioral economists have proposed ‘nudg-
es’ to shift behavior in desired directions, and they
have caught the ear of world leaders such as Barack
Obama and David Cameron, both of whom count be-
havioral economists prominently among their advisors.
While nudges are helpful, and propel behavior in desir-
able directions with minimal disruption of freedom of
choice, they are unlikely to result in anything close to
the changes in individual and firm behavior necessary to
deal with the problem of climate change. For example, **
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giving people information about other people’s electricity
consumption, an idea that Cameron has endorsed en-
thusiastically, has by now been tested on a large-scale
test, resulting in only a 3% reduction in electricity use.
Although significant, this type of ‘nudge’ by itself is un-
likely to make much of a dent in the problem of global
warming.
To have a serious impact on the problem of climate
change there is no way to escape the necessity for poli-
cies that either change prices (e.g., a carbon tax or cap
and trade) or involve regulation (e.g., far more stringent
café standards on automobile fuel efficiency as well as
new standards for residential and commercial construc-
tion). But how likely is it that such severe measures will
be implemented, given the psychological barriers just
discussed?
This is another important domain in which behavior-
al economics can play a constructive role. A carbon tax,
or cap and trade scheme, will result not only in dramatic
rise in the price of energy-intensive activities and hence,
hopefully, a reduction in energy use, but will also gener-
ate very substantial revenue streams. These revenue
streams hold the potential, such as it exists, to make
the medicine of price changes go down somewhat more
smoothly. Revenue streams could be used to reduce
other prices (ideally those associated with low emission
activities) – or even to offer tax abatements. Behavioral
economists should use their integrated understanding
of economics and psychology to design ways of return-
ing the revenue streams to people in ways that make
taxes and regulations more palatable.
In fact, the same psychological features that weigh
against constructive action to deal with climate change
can be exploited by policy-makers to increase the pal-
atability of substantive interventions. , If people dis-
count the future and ignore drops in the bucket, then
use capital markets to deliver the dividend from future
carbon tax revenues in a substantial lump sum, up front.
If people adapt to ongoing situations, it can be predicted
that, perhaps after an initial uproar, they will adapt to a
change in relative prices that bring prices into line with
real costs, including environmental externalities.
Humanity stands immobilized at the brink of disaster
because climate change poses a perfect storm of not
only economic but also psychological impediments to
action. We may eventually experience a level of fear that
is commensurate with the severity of the problem, but
by that time it will probably be far too late to avoid catas-
trophe. In the absence of fear, citizens of nations are un-
likely to accept measures that entail significant personal
sacrifice. We need a skillful mixture of economics and
psychology to devise fiscal and regulatory interventions
that will change behavior and be widely accepted.
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... Fear, an outcome of climate change highlighted in available research, has been described as an evolved response, one that helps people deal with encounters and situations that are threatening (Loewenstein & Schwartz, 2010). Fear is a feeling, but also an adaptive response that increases hearing acuity, awareness, and memory (Loewenstein & Schwartz, 2010). ...
... Fear, an outcome of climate change highlighted in available research, has been described as an evolved response, one that helps people deal with encounters and situations that are threatening (Loewenstein & Schwartz, 2010). Fear is a feeling, but also an adaptive response that increases hearing acuity, awareness, and memory (Loewenstein & Schwartz, 2010). Fear related to climate change and our future climate is complex. ...
... Some researchers have expected that this fear may motivate the public to support public policies addressing the impacts of climate change (Stern, 2012). Other researchers have noted that while fear motivates people to address and eliminate imminent risks, constant risks can indicate to our fear system that fear does not serve a function (Loewenstein & Schwartz, 2010). Therefore, constancy of risks related to climate change over time could result in a deficiency of fear (Loewenstein & Schwartz, 2010). ...
... Psychological insights, and research using psychologically-informed research methods, can contribute tremendously to design decisions regarding whether a carbon tax should be imposed upstream (e.g., on miners, drillers, manufacturers or retailers) or downstream (on consumers), if such a tax should be integrated with the price of the product or segregated (Chetty, Looney & Kroft, 2009), and, crucially, how tax revenues should be returned to the public. Moreover, some of the same psychological forces that undermine calls for immediate climate action can also help make interventions more palatable (see, Loewenstein & Schwartz, 2010;Schwartz & Loewenstein, 2017). If people discount the future and ignore small changes, then it may be appropriate to use capital markets to generate the dividend from future carbon tax revenues in an up-front lump sum. ...
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... Evolutionary psychologists posit that fear is a pragmatic and useful emotion that alerts the human body to the need to take action (Tooby and Cosmides 2008). Accordingly, others have argued that the problem may actually be a feardeficit; people do not understand the danger they face (Loewenstein and Schwartz 2010;Loewenstein 2010). So, while Morton's approach of helping readers to acknowledge their vulnerability and connect with associated feelings of fear has value, his approach to fear is flawed because it neglects the next step--how humans can respond to the fear signal. ...
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