Some Earth Day Headlines Reveal a Hidden Threat to Human and Environmental Health

Study - Warming giving U.S. the type of weather we prefer - for now.

A seemingly witty little analysis by Patrick Egan of NYU and Megan Mullin of Duke suggests that since climate change has made the weather more like what we prefer, we don't care as much about climate change as a threat. As appealing as the idea sounds, it is, sadly, shallow bunk that distracts us from the important challenge of truly understanding why people don't worry enough about climate change to press our governments for more aggressive action.

As Seth Borenstein of AP reported, Egan and Mullin created a weather preference index that looked at where people choose to live, taking employment and other factors into account. Turns out we like milder temperatures, and for 99 percent of Americans, winters have warmed by 1 degree Fahrenheit a decade in the winter and only a seventh of a degree a decade in the summer, the study found.

Yeah, and we really like those droughts, and forest forest fires, and floods, and all the extreme, destructive, sometimes deadly weather that has been increasing, which many climate experts say is associated with climate change. What? Egan and Mullin didn't factor extreme weather into their study? Uh, oops!?

But besides that humongous intellectual flaw in their argument, Egan and Mullin entirely overlook what research into the psychology of risk perception by Paul Slovic and others tells us about why people don't feel deeply worried about climate change. We don't worry that much about threats that don't threaten us personally, and don't threaten us soon. Surveys by Anthony Leiserowtiz and Ed Maibach and others repeatedly show that only a small minority believe that "climate change threatens me or my family." No personal or imminent threat? Not much fear.

And Cultural Cognition research by Dan Kahan has found that a sizeable minority of Americans aren't that worried about climate change because solving such a huge problem will move society toward a communitarian 'we're all in this together' kind of world which is not the way more individualist 'leave me alone' type folks want society to operate. Solving climate change will also require more government intervention, which is not the way people who identify as politically conservative want society to operate. So those folks, millions of them, deny that anthropogenic climate change is even happening,

Yes, it's a problem that more people don't care a lot more about the huge threat of climate change. But it is also a problem when studies like the work of Egan and Mullin distract us from what the research tells us are the real roots of this Risk Perception Gap, a gap between our fears and the facts that poses danger all by itself.

Here's another dangerous Risk Perception Gap on Earth Day 2016. Gizmodo reports that We Should Be Very Worried About That Leaky Nuclear Waste Facility in Washington. A leak in a double-walled tank containing radioactive waste from Department of Energy work on nuclear weapons has gotten bigger. It's still small, and it's only in the inner wall of one of dozens of tanks, and nothing is getting out through the outer wall that could expose workers or the environment (that's the purpose double-walled tanks in the first place). So the actual risk is, well,...there isn't any, at least not yet.

But the site at Hanford Washington has been a mess for decades, and government promises to clean it up have been repeatedly broken. Gizmodo's Maddie Stone correctly identifies this as the real problem.

"..this is a symptom of a much bigger problem that has been festering for decades."

Broken promises erode trust, which increases fear that the leaks could get worse and the nasty waste inside those tanks could one day come oozing out.

But even if the outer wall of that tank breaks wide open and the radioactive waste leaks all over the place, the risk to people or the environment is still tiny. That's because the actual biological impact from exposure to ionizing (nuclear) radiation is nowhere near as bad as is commonly feared. The Life Span Study of 86,600 survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki who were within 6 miles of those blasts and were exposed to atomic bomb level doses of radiation, has found that those humongous doses increased the lifetime cancer death rate by just 2/3 of one percent. Among the survivors who were further away and were exposed to lower doses (below 100 milliseiverts, which is still three times higher than the average Chernobyl survivor was exposed to), there were no increases in radiogenic diseases compared to rates of those diseases in 20,000 non-exposed Japanese who have also been followed. And 70 years later, there have been no multi-generational genetic effects from radiation exposure, genetic damage passed down to the kids or grandkids of the survivors.

The risk from even high dose exposure to nuclear radiation, while real, is nowhere near as great as we have come to fear.

But the Risk Perception Gap about nuclear radiation promotes fear of and resistance to nuclear energy, which could help fight climate change. Dyed-in-the-wool old school environmentalists just can't let go of their resistance to nuclear power - "Solar and wind power can entirely replace fossil fuels!" they naively claim - and that resistance, just as much as lack of general public concern about climate change, makes it harder for our leaders to try to minimize what is far and away the largest environmental risk the human-occupied earth has ever faced.

Happy Earth Day, 2016. We face huge problems, huge threats. One of them, it turns out, is our failure to recognize the threat from the Risk Perception Gap our risk perception psychology leaves us too worried about some things and not worried enough about others, leading to dangerous choices and behaviors all by itself.
The good news this Earth Day is that we've studied this risk perception psychology carefully. We understand it well. Now it's time to use what we've learned to help ourselves make wiser and safer choices, for ourselves and the environment we need and want to protect.