Misperception and Amplification of Climate Risk

Judith Curry

“Something frightening poses a perceived risk. Something dangerous poses a real risk.” – Swedish physician Hans Rosling et al.[i]

This post is a follow on to my recent post Victims of the faux climate ‘crisis’. Part I: Children. The issue of psychological trauma of children is one that I am continuing to work on, to identify root causes and a way forward.

The theme of this particular post is how our perceptions of risk differ from the actual risk itself. Understanding this difference provides insights to understanding these fears, as well as providing insights into how these differences are manipulated by propagandists.

Apart from the objective facts about a risk, the social sciences find that our interpretation of those facts is ultimately subjective. Risk science makes a clear distinction between professional judgments about risk versus the public perception of risk. Risk perception is a person’s subjective judgement or appraisal of risk, which can involve social, cultural and psychological factors.

No matter how strongly we feel about our perceptions of risk, we often get risk wrong. People worry about some things more than the evidence warrants (e.g. nuclear radiation, genetically modified food), and less about other threats than the evidence warrants (e.g., obesity, using mobile phones while driving). This gap in risk perception produces social policies that protect us more from what we are afraid of than from what actually threatens us the most. Understanding the psychology of risk perception is important for rationally managing the risks that arise when our subjective risk perception system gets things dangerously wrong.[ii]

The Psychometric Paradigm research of psychologist Paul Slovic and collaborators describes a suite of psychological characteristics that make risks feel more or less frightening, relative to the actual facts[iii] [iv] [v]

1. natural versus manmade risks
2. detectable versus undetectable risks (without special instrumentation)
3. controllable versus controllable versus uncontrollable risks
4. voluntary versus imposed risks
5. risks with benefits versus uncompensated risks
6. known risks versus vague risks
7. risks central to people’s everyday lives versus uncommon risks
8. future versus immediate risks
9. equitable versus asymmetric distribution of risks.

In each of these pairs, the first risk type is generally preferred to the second risk type. For example, risks that are common, self-controlled and voluntary, such as driving, generate the least public apprehension. Risks that are rare and imposed that lack potential upside, like terrorism, invoke the most dread.[vi]

The risk of manmade climate change is one that people would not be aware of without scientific research. People experience a great deal of weather and climate variability over the seasonal cycle and from year to year. People would not be aware of the scientific research on climate change if not for the UN having declared climate research to be policy relevant in context of the 1992 UNFCCC Treaty to prevent “dangerous anthropogenic climate change.” People don’t normally pay much attention to what is going at the UN; this changed circa 2006/2007 with Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truths and the IPCC AR4 and the Nobel Peace Prize.

People really weren’t caring so much about all this; after all what harm could a few degrees of warming actually cause? Well, I was an inadvertent contributor to explaining the potential harm of 1 degree of warming, with the now famous Webster et al. 2005 paper that identified a doubling in the proportion of Category 4/5 hurricanes since 1970. For the first time, the connection was made between a devastating hurricane such as Katrina and a small amount of warming. What was previously understood to be a vague risk (#6) in the future (#8) and caused by humans (#1) became a specific and horrifying risk in the here and now, that was caused by our fossil fuel emissions. 

Climate activists, the media and even scientists seized on the “extreme weather event caused by climate change” narrative as being the ideal vehicle for ramping up the alarm about human-caused global warming. In addition to striking chords with #1, #6 and #8, extreme weather events also play into #7-uncommon risks, since these risks are uncommon for individual locations. While the events are far from unprecedented in a specific location, they are sufficiently rare for people not to be prepared for them.

Every extreme weather event is now attributed to global warming, even extreme cold outbreaks and heavy snow. Scientists who should know better just can’t resist the opportunities for media attention and enthusiastically place blame on human-caused global warming. In spite of the fact that IPCC assessment reports find very little in the way of any contribution of human-caused global warming to extreme weather events. As emphasized by John Christy, if you look at the first half of the 20th century, you will invariably find equivalent weather and climate extremes. As emphasized by Andy Revkin, if you look back into paleoclimate record, you will find much worse weather and climate extremes. No matter – never let the historical and paleoclimate data records get in the way of an alarming story that attributes the most recent disaster to fossil fuel emissions, and so amping up the pressure to eliminate fossil fuel emissions.

Extreme weather events have become an increasingly important part of the climate alarm narrative since 2005, but kids didn’t start getting “psychologically injured” until the climate communicators and “educators” took this to the next higher level. The timing of this started around 2017, following the increasingly apocalyptic rhetoric from UN officials and national leaders in support of the Paris Agreement and the coincident formation of the Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion, etc. I don’t find much in the published literature about psychological injuries to children from climate change prior to about 2018; this is a very recent phenomena.

In terms of risk perception, this amplified narrative of alarm emphasizes that these “climate change” catastrophes are imposed on society by villainous fossil fuel companies (#4), the risks are uncompensated (i.e. there have been no benefits to society from fossil fuels) (#5), and the risks are uncontrollable (#3) UNLESS politicians do the “right thing,” at the very least by virtue signaling with token knee capping of fossil fuel companies. 

And now for the final element of manipulating risk perception: asymmetric distribution of risks (#9), whereby children and under-developed countries are at greatest risk. Serious virtue signaling tells us we need to eliminate fossil fuel emissions for the sake of the children and the underdeveloped countries. Well, children in affluent countries are at far less risk than their great-great grandparents (not to mention children in underdeveloped countries) owing to the presence of fossil fuels in their lives that provide secure structures for their homes and schools with central heating and air conditioning, not to mention abundant electricity and also fertilizer to insure their food supply.

Part II of my “Victims” series (forthcoming) is related to underdeveloped countries. The proselytizers of apocalyptic climate change are exploiting both children and underdeveloped countries to urge action in eliminating fossil fuels. The exploitation of children is outlined in Part I of my Victims series. The short summary for Part II is that while affluent countries continue to exploit the fossil fuel resources of underdeveloped countries (especially Africa), they are denying these countries the resources they need to actually use the fossil fuel resources on their land for their own economic development. Instead, international development and adaptation aid is being redirected towards green energy projects – mitigation of CO2 emissions that doesn’t provide adequate energy and places the countries further in debt. Stay tuned.

I can only conclude that the climate catastrophists focused on elimination of fossil fuels above all else are exploiting and damaging children and underdeveloped countries as part of their political objectives to prioritizing elimination of fossil fuels above all else. If children and developing countries are collateral damage, then so be it (oops they seem to have forgotten their original virtue signaling of eliminating fossil fuels for the sake of the children and the underdeveloped countries.)

Taking #9 back to the children with psychological injuries: they are being fed (via media targeted at them, educational materials, even story books) an explicitly political message that relates to the inadequate government response. Well I have spent most of my career as an educator, and it is a rare high school student (not to mention the alarmed children who are even younger) who has any idea of what their state/national government is doing on a particular policy issue, let alone a framework for assessing what the government should be expected to do. Simplistic, alarming and political messaging targeted specifically at young people is clearly responsible for this. 

Consider this counterfactual scenario, whereby 1oC of warming has occurred over the past 100 years owing to natural processes (such a rate of warming is far from unprecedented in the Holocene; notably the period following the Younger Dryas). Would people necessarily think that warming was “bad”? Presumably people in different climate regimes would have different opinions about that. Would people blame extreme weather events on the slow creep of warming? Without any rationale for blaming humans for extreme weather events, would anyone bother to try blaming severe weather on the slow creep of warming? And finally, would anyone expect (or even want) the government to attempt to control the climate by drawing down CO2 from the atmosphere or promote cooling through solar geo-engineering? Of course not.

The actual experience of 1oC warming over the past century hasn’t been bad at all: life expectancy has increased substantially, economies have prospered, and loss of life from weather catastrophes has been greatly reduced. Regions encountering extreme weather events have worked to adapt to them, with affluent countries being better adapted.

The problem here is not not the climate change that has already happened, but rather “pre-traumatic stress syndrome” (see these previous posts). Climate change pre-traumatic stress response is triggered by the continuing barrage in the media of extreme weather events that are worsened by “climate change,” the apocalyptic projections of future warming from unrealistic emissions scenario, and dystopian warnings of impacts from irresponsible politicians and leading journalists. 

The net effect of all this apocalyptic rhetoric, which effectively exploits how humans misperceive risk, is to increase neurotic worrying in many people (particularly children), which can indeed make people more vulnerable to negative stress reactions. [LINK

Congratulations to all the proselytizers of climate doom, you have finally demonstrated an actual adverse impact of climate change that is actually caused by humans – psychological distress. This psychological distress is directly caused by you: the mistaken, irrational, politically motivated people that have created effective propaganda that is creating negative stress reactions particularly among children who have yet to develop a clear sense of self and lack a context for being able to filter the BS.

In closing I would like to return to #3 – whether climate risk is controllable or uncontrollable. The hubris of thinking that we can control atmospheric CO2 content, not to mention the actual climate itself. Using the psychological injuries of children as the rationale, the objectives of the lawsuits being filed by Our Children’s Trust are to obtain a declaration of the federal (and state) government’s fiduciary role in preserving the atmosphere and an injunction of its actions which contravene that role. An implicit assumption of these claims is that governments can actually control the emissions into the atmosphere, as well as control the earth’s climate. Well, dream on. A key element of the psychological injuries according to the recent literature on this is their frustrations and feeling of abandonment that politicians and government are not paying attention to their concerns about the climate. This concern arises from the explicitly political messaging that young people are exposed to about climate change.

p.s. This post is a riff on several paragraphs (identifiable as the ones with footnote) from my forthcoming book Climate Uncertainty and Risk.


Source: judithcurry.com. IMG: Frits Ahlefeldt. AWIP: http://www.a-w-i-p.com/index.php/aM1H


[i] Hans Rosling et al., Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World – and Why Things Are Better than You Think (New York, NY: Flatiron Books, 2018).
[ii] David Ropeik, How Risky Is It Really?: Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2010).
[iii] Paul Slovic, “Perception of Risk,” Science 236, no. 4799 (April 17, 1987): 280-285, doi.org.
[iv] Carl Cranor, “A Plea for a Rich Conception of Risks,” in The Ethics of Technological Risk, ed. L Asveld and S Roeser (London, UK: Routledge, 2008).
[v] Nicolas Espinoza, “Incommensurability: The Failure to Compare Risks,” in The Ethics of Technological Risk, ed. L Asveld and S Roeser (London, UK: Routledge, 2008).
[vi] Daniel J. Rozell, Dangerous Science (London, UK: Ubiquity Press, 2020).


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