Nov. 7, 2018

Understanding the world’s major environmental problems requires considerable cognitive effort

Many global environmental problems have characteristics that make them inherently difficult to understand. A primary reason for this is that very few of us have first-hand sensory experience of their consequences (Weber and Stern 2011; Myers et al. 2013). Consider the following issues: climate change, biodiversity loss, and the decline in world fisheries. How many of us have actually “seen” any of these problems with our own eyes? They are not localized events, but rather long-run trends, or slow changes in the distribution of events, and thus removed from our experience. Compare this to the immediacy of an oil spill, whose consequences are easy to capture on film. Oil spills are also immediately detectable. This is in stark contrast to our three global problems, each of which plays out over a long time scale, on the order of a human lifetime. This long lag between damaging actions and their consequences requires us to think abstractly and to project the consequences of current behaviors into the distant future in order to appreciate their magnitude.

People’s estimates of the risk of a given activity are overly sensitive to rare high-impact events (Tversky and Kahneman, 1973). For example, the public’s estimates of the risks of air travel are likely to be overly sensitive to infrequent airline disasters. Viscusi (1998) comprehensively documents how these biases distort the public’s perceptions of the risks of accidents, diseases, and environmental contamination.

A second set of biases causes people’s responses to new information to differ depending on whether the information conflicts with their prior beliefs or their values. This may lead to either under- or overreaction to new information. Confirmation bias is perhaps the best known of these phenomena. People subject to this bias tend to put too much weight on information that confirms their prior beliefs and too little weight on information that conflicts with them (Nickerson 1998). Rabin and Schrag (1999) show that this tendency leads to overconfidence (people believe in their favored hypothesis more strongly than they should) and that false beliefs can persist even after exposure to an infinite amount of information. Diverse literature also suggests that people’s values influence their interpretation of information. Such ‘motivated reasoning’ (Kunda 1990), so-called because beliefs are constructed to fulfill a desire or support an identity, are likely to play an important role in explaining public attitudes toward global environmental problems, as they are highly emotive issues. For example, Kahan, Jenkins-Smith, and Braman (2011) show that people’s perceptions of the degree of scientific consensus on climate change are strongly correlated with their political values.

A second way in which oil spills and other industrial accidents have an advantage over global environmental problems in the competition for public concern is that they are causally “focused.” A small number of easily identified parties (e.g., the rig or tanker operators and their parent company) does harm to innocent bystanders. The global environmental problems we listed earlier are all causally “diffuse”—they arise from the cumulative actions of many parties (not least ourselves) and all of us are affected. There is no clear victim, and no clear villain.

A further challenging aspect of global environmental problems is that one often needs to follow long chains of causal reasoning to understand their consequences. Their effects on the things most people care about are indirect, rather than direct. Consider the following example: industrial toxins and pesticides have been shown to reduce the size of bee populations, which in turn affects pollination rates, crop yields, and ultimately food prices. What most of us care about is the price of food, not bees. However, we need to understand the role of bees in the food production process in order to appreciate how industrial activity may be affecting our budgets. Similarly complicated chains of reasoning are required to understand how current greenhouse gas emissions may increase future political conflicts (Hsiang, Meng, and Cane 2011) or how reduced biodiversity may make us more vulnerable to infectious diseases (Keesing et al. 2010 ).

The upshot of these characteristics—remoteness from first-hand experience, slow changes in trends and distributions of events, diffused causality, and logical complexity—is that understanding many of the world’s major environmental problems requires considerable cognitive effort. Few people invest the time necessary to absorb all of this complexity, as the costs of becoming informed far outweigh their potential benefits at the ballot box (Downs 1957). People’s economic interests are more immediate and environmental concerns are easily placed on the back burner. By the time the effects of climate change are in our face, it will be too late for mitigating efforts to be effective.

From: Beliefs, Politics, and Environmental Policy 

Antony Millner Hélène Ollivier

Review of Environmental Economics and Policy, Volume 10, Issue 2, 1 July 2016, Pages 226–244, 

https://academic.oup.com/reep/article/10/2/226/1753376