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Summer 2012 – Second story
 
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No Worries? The New Science of Risk and Choice
VOLUME 26, NUMBER 4, SUMMER 2012              

No Worries? The New Science of Risk and Choice
By John H. Tibbetts                                                                       back to main story  


Memory and disaster forecasting

We create our life’s forecasts out of our most recent or vivid memories.

If we’ve had an exciting first year at a new job, we expect many more. If we’ve enjoyed a happy first month of marriage, we forecast further happy ones. If a recent hurricane has left our home undamaged, we tend to think that it won’t get damaged next time a hurricane strikes.

Scientists have a term for this: availability bias. Our strongest, most recent experiences and memories are more available to our conscious mind than older, less compelling ones.

“You react to what you’ve seen most recently,” says Daniel Petrolia, an economist at Mississippi State University. “But what you’ve seen most recently might not be the key event.”

If you’ve never experienced a hurricane, for instance, you are more likely to believe that your home and community are safe from tropical storms.

Smitty Harrison, executive director of the South Carolina Wind and Hail Underwriting Association (also known as the state’s coastal “wind pool”), recalls a visit to a barrier island to meet local property owners and discuss trends in coastal hazard insurance.

“A lot of people have lived on the South Carolina coast less than five years,” says Harrison. “Many are from Ohio and other states, and they have no experience of hurricanes. So Hurricane Hugo, in 1989, has been totally forgotten. Hurricane Floyd, in 1999, has been totally forgotten.

“A woman said to me, ‘They made us evacuate last year because of a hurricane. If they call for another evacuation this year, I’m not leaving.’ Another woman told me, ‘We had a hurricane just two months ago.’ And I said, ‘No, that wasn’t a hurricane. That was a bad thunderstorm.’ ”    

Experiments show that our brain often depends on direct experience of a problem before we can comprehend it. Reading about a problem or hearing about it often doesn’t suffice.

Perhaps that’s why so many Americans have been skeptical of the science of human-influenced climate change—they believe they haven’t directly experienced it.

The recent volatile weather in the United States, however, seems to be reshaping the public’s comprehension of climate change.

There’s virtually no doubt that climate change will increase the number of weather-related risks around the world, scientists say. Over the past 30 years, global temperature has risen 0.6 degrees Celsius. This temperature rise will accelerate over time because of increasing greenhouse-gas concentrations in the Earth’s atmosphere, which stores more heat in the planet’s climate system and disrupts weather patterns around the world.

An Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2012 report says: “A changing climate leads to changes in the frequency, intensity, spatial extent, duration, and timing of extreme weather and climate events, and can result in unprecedented extreme weather and climate events.”

In 2011, Americans experienced a record-breaking 14 weather disasters that caused $1 billion or more in damages and killed scores of people. These disasters included a severe drought in the Great Plains, tornadoes in the Midwest, and floods in the Mississippi River Valley.

None of these disasters and weather extremes in isolation can be blamed directly on climate change, according to Jessica Whitehead, -regional climate extension specialist with the South Carolina and North Carolina Sea Grant programs. “The most we can do is to draw parallels to climate change and say that this pattern of extreme weather events will become more common,” she says.

But 69% of surveyed Americans already agree that global warming is affecting weather in the United States, according to a poll released in April 2012 by Yale University and George Mason University.

Surveyed Americans were asked whether they attributed certain extreme weather events to climate change. By more than a two-to-one margin, Americans agreed that the unusually warm 2011-2012 winter, the record high temperatures in 2011, and the drought in Texas and Oklahoma could be linked to a changing climate.

Smaller but still strong majorities linked climate change to the Mississippi River floods in 2011, record winter snowfall in 2010 and 2011, and Hurricane Irene in August 2011.

One of the poll’s surprising findings is that 35% of the public reported being affected by extreme weather in the past year. In 2011, a long string of disasters—droughts, floods, hurricanes, heat waves, and tornadoes—affected virtually every region of the country.

In the past, climate change seemed far away in time and space, potentially affecting South Carolinians in 2050 or polar bears today. But now many Americans believe that they have had immediate experience with disasters caused by global warming.

Yet this new perception of links between climate change and extreme weather events might not last.

If the United States experiences a few colder winters in a row and fewer weather-related disasters, many Americans might do an about-face and say that climate isn’t changing after all. “People,” says Whitehead, “have such short memories.”

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Last updated: 9/17/2012 9:17:33 AM
Summer 2012 – Second story

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