Clear and Present Dangers Not So Clear, or Present

By Andrew Freedman


Let’s face it, human beings are not very good at dealing with distant, relatively uncertain threats. Whether we’re talking about environmental risks, such as climate change, or systemic economic peril, such as the collapse of mortgage-backed securities that led to the 2008 financial crisis, our brains are hard-wired to focus on dangers that are front and center rather than the hard-to-see hazards that may lurk down the road. 

As seen with both disaster warnings and climate change threats, our brains focus on dangers in the present not those that lurk down the road. Credit: NOAA Photo Library/flickr

But it turns out that even with a near-term, existential threat — such as a massive tornado barreling toward us — people still respond in complicated, often unpredictable ways that run counter to common sense.

That is what researchers have learned from the unusually deadly 2011 tornado season, in which 551 people lost their lives, mainly in southern states such as Alabama and Missouri. The findings have unsettling implications for how well we’re likely to deal with the more diffuse risk of global warming.

One post-mortem analysis, in particular, contains fascinating insights into how the residents of Joplin, Mo., which was devastated by an EF-5 tornado on May 22, responded to warnings of the approaching twister. Although this was a single tornado with, at best, tangential connections to global warming, it contains important lessons that are relevant to climate change communications and policy making.

The National Weather Service (NWS) assessment report on the Joplin tornado found that when residents received the first indication of a tornado threat, they did not immediately seek shelter. Instead, most chose to confirm the information for themselves using other means.

The NWS found that many of that city’s residents required between two and nine “risk signals” (hearing a tornado siren, receiving a call from a relative, seeing darkening skies, etc.) before taking protective action, and that these signals partly depended on a person’s worldview, such as their past experience with tornadoes and false alarms.

In fact, some people waited until they could see the approaching funnel before they took cover, a course of action that gave them precious little time to find adequate shelter. One man initially sought refuge in a restaurant, but then sat and ordered a meal, only to be saved when the restaurant manager herded customers to safety at the last minute.

The NWS report wryly notes that people did not act in ways that forecasters and emergency managers assumed they would, stating, “the actions many residents described taking were not the immediate life-saving measures desired with the issuance of a tornado warning.”

The climate challenge isn’t the same as a tornado thundering toward us, but the fact that we aren’t very good at responding to a tornado — a clear and present danger — leads me to believe that we may be even worse off than previously thought when it comes to confronting climate change, which is an enormously complicated threat whose most dire consequences are in the future.

Despite the tendency of scientists to discuss scenarios for 2050 or the end of this century, the truth is that we don’t know how distant a threat climate change is, given the very real possibility of crossing unforeseen tipping points in the climate system, like destabilizing the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, for example. We’re already seeing an increase in the occurrence and severity of certain extreme weather events.

The sneaky thing about climate change is that to avoid the worst consequences, we have to take action now. (You can thank the long atmospheric lifetime of carbon dioxide, the most important manmade greenhouse gas, for that.)

An interesting parallel between the tragedy in Joplin and climate change can be seen in the rise of websites catering to individuals who want to crunch the climate statistics for themselves to confirm or refute official warnings of climate change risks.

With climate change, a person’s worldview might shape whether they end up frequenting a website like, a site whose users help debunk frequently made arguments by those who doubt the existence of manmade global warming, or a site like, a climate skeptic blog whose writers frequently post their own rebuttals to mainstream climate science. While these two websites are not equivalent, they both cater to the “do-it-yourself” climate science demographic (although Skeptical Science has more of a grounding in the peer-reviewed literature).

While there are no blaring climate change sirens to warn of global warming (now there’s an idea . . .), there is a steady drumbeat of risk signals that are only getting louder, from melting glaciers and Arctic sea ice to increasingly frequent and severe heavy rainstorms and heat waves. And despite scientists pointing to these warning signs for more than two decades, the climate issue remains politically polarized and perpetually on the back burner of the public policy agenda. After all, the only mention of “climate change” in President Obama’s State of the Union speech was to acknowledge the lack of agreement on the issue in Congress.

Unlike with the Joplin tornado, the evolving signals of climate change are not ones that we’re particularly adept at recognizing or acting upon, since they involve massive changes over longer periods of time. This, combined with the fact that our brains are hard-wired to pay more attention to near-term threats than more distant ones, means that we may wait until it’s too late to run to the storm shelter.

Just as some Joplin residents waited until they could see the oncoming tornado, with global warming we’re largely pursuing an ill-advised wait-and-see, “it-can’t-happen-here” approach.

As we continue to burn massive amounts of fossil fuels — boosting greenhouse gas emissions to the highest level on record in 2010 — we’re ensuring that the air and seas will continue to warm for many decades to come. As numerous scientific reports have indicated, by the time some of the worst consequences of climate change clearly manifest themselves as near-term challenges, it will be too late to stop them.