As climate scientists are fond of saying, most of the tools and technologies we need to solve the climate crisis already exist. The problem, often, is driving those solutions to commercial viability and widespread public adoption.
That’s why Sweta Chakraborty sees behavioral science as the missing piece of the puzzle. Understanding how humans are "predictably irrational" could be the key to reframing climate risks and spurring swift behavior change, according to Chakraborty, a behavioral scientist and president of U.S. operations for We Don't Have Time, a social media network focused on climate solutions.
"We're living in the real impacts of climate. And yet there is still this disconnect between what we know to be true — because we're seeing it when we turn on the television — and our preparation for our communities, for our companies, for our families. We're still not preparing ourselves; 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 evolved to react to clear, present dangers — like a poisonous snake or a shark — more readily than vague, slow-moving risks such as extreme heat and sea level rise.
She gave an example to prove her point: Most people perceive shark attacks to be a greater risk than radon gas poisoning. But while shark attacks kill only a handful of people globally each year, radon gas is responsible for 20,000 annual deaths in the U.S. alone.
"Because [shark attacks are] easier to recall, we attribute more frequency and probability to the likelihood of them occurring," Chakraborty said. "So you can see the flipside of that, why something like sea level rise or heat doesn't get the attention cognitively for us that it deserves."
In essence, humans are simply not good at accurately estimating risk from something such as 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 to be able to thoughtfully and carefully come up with the proactive preparedness strategies to protect us against what we know is a warming planet," Chakraborty said.
This is not a bad thing, in Chakraborty’s view. It’s simply a human characteristic we need to understand, recognize and leverage to our benefit.
"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 dual crisis. We're in a climate crisis, we're in a communications crisis."
To solve the communication crisis, Chakraborty said we need to acknowledge our biases and get better at talking about climate risks. She urged the VERGE 22 audience to look up baseline statistics for certain risks to test how "well-calibrated" their understanding is compared to reality.
"If we begin to transform ourselves as individuals, we can be that much more effective in our companies, help companies internally across the value chain, across sectors, across society, and really encourage this widespread behavioral change that aligns to the reality of the risks we're facing, that aligns to the science and the evidence and the facts," Chakraborty said.
Doing so could have positive spillover effects. Policymakers, for example, might be more willing to push through climate solutions when they see they have the backing of the public at large.
"Regardless of where you are in the world, we all have this innate wiring of our brains, but we can overcome it by thoughtfully taking the time to think through how we close that perception and reality gap," Chakraborty said.