Climate and the Psychology of Loss
by Joe Brewer
November 7, 2007
An article today in the Washington Post is using fear to inhibit
action. Juliet Eilperin boldly declares "climate is a risky
issue." Essentially saying, "Be careful! You are going
to lose something of value." She then goes on to frame efforts
to address the climate crisis as costly, while ignoring all of
the serious risks to society that come with doing nothing.
Instilling fear in the populace, it seems, makes for good journalism.
But it is bad for informing citizens about the real threats we
face as a nation.
Riddled throughout the article are references to loss. I stopped
counting after fifteen. Examples include "costing billions
of dollars," "the cost of coal could quadruple,"
and "huge costs associated with limiting emissions."
It is almost as if Eilperin understands the importance of repetition
for reinforcing neural associations in the brain.
Every time climate change is referenced in the context of economic
loss, the brain binds them more strongly to each other. The consequence
being that people miss this key truth: Protecting the environment
is essential to strengthening our economy.
Placing loss on the correct side of major decisions is extremely
important because fear and uncertainty are powerful motivating
factors. Psychologists have a name for this phenomenon; it is
aversion. Simply put, we feel more strongly about avoiding
loss than seeking gain. When outcomes are uncertain or unfamiliar,
motivation to change our behavior plummets further.
This is why people stay in abusive relationships. The harms are
well known, but what will happen if you leave? A big question
mark and plenty of anxiety encourage you to reconsider.
The devil you know is better than the devil you don't.
This way of thinking leads to more abuse. And it leads to more
harm from the climate crisis. Our fear of losing what we have
places us at jeopardy of losing much more. This recklessly places
us all at risk of unacceptable consequences.
So what can we do when a major threat is looming on the horizon?
First off, we don't frame it in a way that misleads people about
where the losses reside. Energy costs are already going up. And
job security is becoming more like a joke without a punch line
every day as manufacturing is moved overseas and profit motives
compel wealthy executives to cut benefits. So the losses plastered
on climate action are already lurking at our doorstep without
doing anything about global warming!
Instead, let's look at the real costs of inaction in the face
of the climate crisis. Our children get asthma before enrolling
in kindergarten. We pay for increased medical visits. Severe storms
flooding, drought, tornadoes, hurricanes ravage
our cities with greater intensity and frequency. We pay for rebuilding
after devastation. Viruses carried by mosquitoes threaten our
health security at higher elevations and for longer parts of the
year. We pay with our livelihood.
You get the picture.
Everywhere in the world there will be more risk. Increased risk
of crop failures as rainfall patterns change. Increased risk of
mass migrations as sea levels rise. Increased risk of regional
conflict as natural resources become more scarce.
Eilperin got it wrong. The real "risky issue" is staying
put and doing nothing: continuing to spoil our air and ignoring
the harm we're already suffering.