As climate scientists like to say, most of the tools and technologies we need to solve the climate crisis already exists. The issue often leads to the commercial viability and broad public acceptance of these solutions.
That’s why Sveta Chakraborty sees behavioral science as the missing piece of the puzzle. Understanding how people are “predictably irrational” could be the key to rethinking climate risks and spurring rapid behavioral change, according to Chakraborty, a behavioral scientist and president of US operations for We do not have timea social media network focused on climate solutions.
“We live in real climate impacts. And yet there’s still this gap between what we know to be true—because we see it when we turn on the TV—and our preparation for our communities, for our companies, for our families. We are not preparing yet; there is still a disconnect,” Chakraborty said during a keynote speech at BORDER 22 this week.
Why is this happening? Chakraborty said this is due to the quirks of the human brain, which has evolved to respond to clear, present dangers – such as a poisonous snake or shark – more easily than to vague, slow-developing risks such as extreme heat and sea-level rise .
She gave an example to prove her point: most people perceive shark attacks as a greater risk than radon gas poisoning. But while shark attacks kill only a handful of people worldwide every year, radon gas is responsible for 20,000 deaths per year in the US alone.
“Because [shark attacks are] easier to remember, we attribute greater frequency and probability to the likelihood of them occurring,” Chakraborty said. “So you can see the flip side of why something like sea level rise or heat doesn’t grab cognitive attention for us that he deserves.”
Basically, humans are just not good at accurately assessing the risk of something like climate change.
“The risk landscape around us has changed from that of our ancestors. We are in a complex, interconnected global risk environment. And we need to overcome that innate wiring so we can thoughtfully and carefully come up with proactive preparedness strategies to protect us against what we know is a warming planet,” Chakraborty said.
That’s not a bad thing, according to Chakraborty. It is simply a human characteristic that we need to understand, recognize and use to our advantage.
“The fact that our brains play these tricks on us is actually super helpful because now we have the knowledge to overcome these quirks of our brain,” Chakraborty said. “We are in a double crisis. We are in a climate crisis, we are in a communications crisis.”
To solve the communication crisis, Chakraborty said we need to admit our biases and get better at talking about climate risks. She urged the VERGE 22 audience to look for baseline statistics on certain risks to test how “well calibrated” their understanding is compared to reality.
“If we start to transform ourselves as individuals, we can be much more effective in our companies, helping companies internally in the value chain, in the sectors, in society and really fostering this widespread behavior change that is in line with the reality of the risks we face, it’s consistent with the science, the evidence and the facts,” Chakraborty said.
This can have positive side effects. Politicians, for example, may be more willing to push through climate solutions when they see they have the support of the general public.
“No matter where you are in the world, we all have this innate wiring of our brains, but we can overcome it by carefully taking the time to think about how to bridge this perception and reality gap,” Chakraborty said.