Why we fear the coronavirus more than climate change
Over the last couple of weeks, my Twitter feed has had plenty of “why are we happy to disrupt daily life over the coronavirus, but we won’t lift a finger to deal with the much bigger danger of climate change?” The reason is, of course, a psychological one.
Our brains have evolved to assess risk in quite a different way than an engineer or a policy wonk would carry out a risk assessment (risk = probability x impact). We tend to fear immediate, tangible, local risks much more than delayed, intangible, distant risks, no matter what the impact. Our forebears had much more to fear from a circling wolfpack than from overexploiting a source of food, and we have never shaken that primal instinct. I am reminded of the lady I used to see cycling on our neighbourhood, riding on the pavement, wearing a helmet and hi-viz vest, but with a lit cigarette clamped between her lips.
The main reason that the average person does not fear climate change is, in my view, the intangibility. People are almost certainly dying from the effects of warming, but it is always via a more immediate effect – a forest fire, or a drought – with the fingerprint of climatic shifts buried in probabilities (“scientists say…”). Compare that with the grim daily body count in the press over the virus and it is clear why people react differently to the two threats.
The problem is that once the virus has come and gone, as it almost certainly will, there will be another short term challenge, followed by another and another, to distract us again from long term threats like climate change. We’ve got to accept that and work around it, it’s just the way it is.