…the first major problem with global warming: its precise consequences aren’t vivid enough. Humans are better at focusing on the moderate, specific, localized devastation of a major earthquake than on the great but murky devastation that global warming will bring in the middle part of the 21st century.
One of the best illustrations of this difficulty comes from research in a different domain: on our willingness to contribute to charitable causes. In one experiment, people were asked to donate money to save either one sick child — accompanied by a photo — or eight sick children accompanied by a similar group shot. All else being equal, eight children clearly deserve more help than a single child, but the single child tugged more insistently at the would-be-givers’ heartstrings, eliciting an average donation that was 77 percent higher than the average donation given to the group of eight. The pain of a single child — a Baby Jessica down the well, for example — has the emotional resonance of an erupting volcano or a hurtling asteroid, while the deaths of literally millions of malnourished children in Africa and Asia inspires the same muted response that we allocate to global warming.
The second problem with global warming is that it progresses too slowly. The globe continues to warm while we’re responding to fast-arriving Hurricane Sandy, tending to our wounds after devastating earthquakes in Haiti, Japan and Chile, and cleaning up after tornadoes in Joplin, Mo., and Greensburg, Kan. There will always be more pressing issues on the table, so politicians prefer to focus their time on disaster relief, fiscal cliffs and health insurance.