As climate scientists like to say, most of the tools and technologies we need to solve the climate crisis already exist. The problem is often getting these solutions to commercial viability and widespread public acceptance.
That is why Sweta Chakraborty sees the missing piece of the puzzle in behavioral research. Understanding how people are “predictably irrational” could be key to redefining climate risk and spurring rapid behavior change, according to Chakraborty, behavioral scientist and president of US operations at We Don’t Have Time, a social media network , which focuses on climate solutions.
“We live in the real effects of climate. And yet there is still this disconnect between what we know to be true – because we see it when we turn on the television – and our preparation for our communities, for our businesses, for our families. We’re still not preparing; there’s still a disconnect,” Chakraborty said during a keynote address at VERGE 22 this week.
Why is this happening? Chakraborty said it’s due to the quirks of the human brain, which has evolved to respond to clear, present-day dangers – like a venomous snake or a shark – rather than vague, slow-moving risks like extreme heat and the rise of the sea sea level.
She gave an example to support her point: Most people see shark attacks as a greater risk than radon gas poisoning. But while shark attacks kill only a handful of people worldwide each year, radon gas is responsible for 20,000 deaths a year in the US alone.
“There [shark attacks are] easier to remember, we attribute more frequency and likelihood to the likelihood of their occurrence,” Chakraborty said, deservedly.”
Essentially, humans are just not good at accurately assessing risks from something like climate change.
“The risk landscape around us has changed since that of our ancestors. We find ourselves in a complex, interconnected global risk environment. And we need to override that innate wiring in order to thoughtfully and carefully develop the proactive defense strategies to protect us against a planet we know is warming,” Chakraborty said.
From Chakraborty’s perspective, that’s not a bad thing. It’s just a human trait 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 brains,” Chakraborty said. “We are in a double crisis. We are in a climate crisis, we are in a communication crisis.”
To solve the communications crisis, Chakraborty said, we need to acknowledge our biases and get better at talking about climate risks. She challenged the VERGE 22 audience to look up baseline stats for specific risks to test how “well calibrated” their understanding is compared to reality.
“When we start to change as individuals, we can be much more effective within our companies, helping companies internally across the value chain, across sectors and across society, and really driving that widespread behavioral change that aligns with the reality of the risks we are facing that is consistent with the science and the evidence and the facts,” Chakraborty said.
This could have positive spillover effects. For example, policymakers might be more willing to push through climate solutions if they see they have the support of the general public.
“Regardless of where you are in the world, we all have this innate wiring in our brains, but we can overcome it by carefully taking the time to think about how we are closing this gap in perception and reality,” Chakraborty said .