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Of Frogs and Men

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

In An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore famously used the example of a slowly boiled frog as a metaphor for climate change. That turns out not to be accurate, as biologists say the frog is smart enough to jump out of the pot long before it becomes frog soup. But the problem Gore described is real enough.

Are frogs better than humans at responding to slow threats?

  • Averaged over the past 50 years, the rate of global warming was just 0.13 degrees Celsius per decade, but if the world continues down its carbon-emitting course, the average global temperature could rise by up to a staggering 4.8 degrees Celsius (8.6 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century.
  • Global deforestation has been creeping along for decades at under 1% annually, but this seemingly low figure results in losing swaths the size of Panama each year.
  • The rate of species extinction has gradually grown at least since the late 19th century, when global population growth began to accelerate. Now, it is estimated to be in the range of 1,000 times the normal background rate.

In the February issue of ELR’s News & Analysis, authors Robert L. Olson and Dave Rejeski seeks to better understand why it is so difficult to galvanize attention to slow environmental threats and sustain efforts to deal with them. They explain that these problems stretch out beyond the time frame in which governments make budgets or do strategic planning. “In the U.S. government, where political appointees remain on average for two years, problems of this kind are typically treated as low-priority or politically irrelevant, if they are even noticed,” they write. “Without that awareness and sense of alarm, the problems are likely to continue worsening until their impacts become severe and obvious, stressing our ability to respond, or, in the worst cases, passing tipping points where no amount of effort can prevent catastrophic impacts.”

No single explanation is sufficient. But insights from several different fields—evolutionary psychology and neuroscience, behavioral economics and decision theory, social psychology, journalism, and political science—help us see what we are up against so we can devise better strategies for approaching this class of problems. A fundamental reason it is hard to motivate action on many problems is that our brains are simply not wired to respond to large, slow-moving threats. But, warn the authors, it gets worse: “Our brains are not only poor at attending to slow environmental threats, they also have trouble assessing the risks these threats pose even when they are noticed.” Social and psychological dynamics can also keep us from accepting the reality of problems, as people tend to hold viewpoints that are consistent with the values and outlooks held by groups with which they self-identify. And slow threats seldom meet the criteria for being newsworthy.

Olson and Rejeski offer a number of strategies that can help environmental practitioners work through these barriers to action. Some of them, such as having an appropriate message delivered by a credible messenger, are conventional communications strategies. Others, such as the use of playable models or citizen science, are more novel. But because slow environmental threats are the most difficult to deal with, using as many strategies as possible is the best path forward to a sustainable future.

Download Slow Threats and Environmental Policy, this month’s featured article, free of charge.

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All blog posts are the opinion of its author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of ELI the organization or its members.