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Trump and global warming: Americans are failing risk management

Posted on 8 June 2016 by dana1981

Currently, about 40% of Americans support Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, and about 40% of Americans are not worried about global warming. While short of a majority, this is a substantial fraction of the American public failing to grasp the risks associated with a Donald Trump presidency and potentially catastrophic climate change impacts.

In Business InsiderJosh Barro recently wrote about the former:

Trump calls for a huge risk premium because, while he probably wouldn’t be a disastrous president, the low-probability disasters that he might cause would be immensely costly. Some of them involve nuclear weapons and global mass deaths. Pricing those risks in properly should push his share price comfortably below Clinton’s, even if you think she is very bad.

In most cases, Americans are good at managing risks. We buy insurance for our homes, cars, and health. We wear seat belts in cars, and far fewer Americans smoke today than just a few decades ago.


The smoking analogy is particularly apt. In the mid-20th century, scientists were just beginning to make the connection between smoking and lung cancer, and over 40% of Americans smoked cigarettes in the 1960s. Today, Americans are aware of the risks associated with smoking, and the number has dropped below 17%.

The structures of the risks themselves are similar. Each time we smoke, we slightly increase the risks of a catastrophic outcome (developing lung cancer). Each time we burn fossil fuels, we slightly increase the risks of irreversible and potentially catastrophic climate change impacts. To mitigate those risks, we need to smoke as little and burn as little fossil fuels as possible.

Americans have been successful in the former case, but we’re struggling with the latter. Our carbon pollution has started to decline, and the Obama Administration has made great progress in tackling climate change. But Donald Trump has explicitly threatened to reverse that progress, and 40% of Americans don’t seem to care.

The threat of catastrophic climate change isn’t as tangible as a burning house, car accident, or lung cancer. Americans tend to view climate threats as distant in both time and space. According to research by scientists from Yale and Utah State University, 55% believe that global warming won’t harm them personally, and just 51% think that it will harm Americans. 61% believe that global warming will harm future generations. In other words, Americans don’t think global warming is a problem now, and not much of a threat where they live.

It’s a challenge – Americans support policies to mitigate climate change risks, but not strongly enough to vote for politicians who will implement those policies; at least for the 40%. As Barro put it:

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Comments 1 to 10:

  1. Prior to pandering to the extreme right-wing nuts in the US, Donald Trump (and three of his children) sang a different song about manmade climate change...

    As negotiators headed to Copenhagen in December 2009 to forge a global climate pact, concerned U.S. business leaders and liberal luminaries took out a full-page ad in the New York Times calling for aggressive climate action. In an open letter to President Obama and the U.S. Congress, they declared: “If we fail to act now, it is scientifically irrefutable that there will be catastrophic and irreversible consequences for humanity and our planet.”

    One of the signatories of that letter: Donald Trump.

    Also signed by Trump’s three adult children, the letter called for passage of U.S. climate legislation, investment in the clean energy economy, and leadership to inspire the rest of the world to join the fight against climate change.

    “We support your effort to ensure meaningful and effective measures to control climate change, an immediate challenge facing the United States and the world today,” the letter tells the president and Congress. “Please allow us, the United States of America, to serve in modeling the change necessary to protect humanity and our planet.”

    Donald Trump once backed urgent climate action. Wait, what? by Ben Adler and Rebecca Leber, Grist, June 8, 2016

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  2. John Hartz@1,

    Thank you for bringing this piece of evidence here. I want to follow up with further evidence I found referenced therein.

    It only confirms that Trump does not care about veracity of his comments and the consitency of his positions on any issue facing Americans, that he should be nominally concerned as a presidential candidate. That applies not only to climate change mitigation but any policy imaginable.

    With respect to the climate change policy, in Feb 2010, just two months after having signed the open leter to Obama you're quoting here, Trump told members of the Trump National Golf Club that Al Gore should be stripped of his Nobel Prize because that winter had been cold.

    “With the coldest winter ever recorded, with snow setting record levels up and down the coast, the Nobel committee should take the Nobel Prize back from Al Gore”

    Such self-contradiction signifies at least childish-like irresponsibility. We've seen similar contradictions over and over. It's hard to imagine a presidential candidate who could rival him in his inaptitude as a leader of any country, needless to say the most powerful country in the world. If he'd been elected in November, it'd have been an unprecedented paradox in the history of humanity.

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  3. chriskoz @2, as bad as a President Trump would be (and he would certainly be inimical to the USA's national interest, and even more so for the demographic that most supports him) he cannot be considered as bad as the current president elect of the Phillipines, Rodrigo Duturte.  Against that, Duturte will be disasterous for the Phillipines, but for no other nation while a President Trump would be a disaster for the western world.  That is not, however, a measure of relative incompetencies, but of the relative power and economic significance of the USA.

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  4. There is the problem that there is no unique/unambiguous understanding/definitions for the concepts of Climate and Climate Change, not even for IPCC/UNFCCC.

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  5. Worth noting: thought I would poke around yesterday and see who was hyping the Arctic sea ice "recovery" in 2014. I came across this comment from Judith Curry (who is featured in the cartoon): "The relative recovery of the Arctic sea ice last September has pretty much put the kibosh on forecasts of an imminent ‘spiral of death’ for the Arctic sea ice."

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  6. Jaimesaid @4, the IPCC defines "climate", saying:

    "Climate in a narrow sense is usually defined as the average weather, or more rigorously, as the statistical description in terms of the mean and variability of relevant quantities over a period of time ranging from months to thousands or millions of years. The classical period for averaging these variables is 30 years, as defined by the World Meteorological Organization. The relevant quantities are most often surface variables such as temperature, precipitation and wind. Climate in a wider sense is the state, including a statistical description, of the climate system."

    That is clear and concise, but if you want a more concise gloss on that definition, "Climate is the 30 year mean, and distribution of all meteorological values."  If follows from that definition of "climate" that if the 30 year mean and/or distribution exhibit a statistically significant change, the climate has changed.  From that you have a clear and precise definition of "climate change".

    You can assert there is a problem with the definitions here, but that represents a rhetorical stance, not a rational one. 

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  7. Tom Curtis@3:  Regarding Duterte,  I think John Oliver said it best: "When you don't know how many people you've killed, it's 'Too Many' !"

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  8. Despite all the contrary views, irreversible rapid climate disruption and ocean acidification is under way due largely tothe emissions from fossil fuel usage. That is the stark reality.The most society can do is adopt as rapidly as physically possible measures that will reduce the rate of greenhouse gas emissions, so slow down what is happening in the atmosphere and oceans, while adopting measures to cope as far as it may be possible with such consequences as sae level rise and additional storms. Thta will have to be done even as the services provided by the existing aging infrastructure declines as the natural resources it uses runs out. 

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  9. The comic has too many low risk examples. There's not a small chance the house will burn down - we've thrown a party with 20 toddlers and are letting them all play with lighters.

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  10. Nice article, but I think you need to be a bit careful with your risk management analogies, specifically the one about car seat belts. After seat belts were made compulsory in the UK there was a drop in driver KSI numbers, however there was an increase in pedestrian and cyclist KSI (KSI = killed or seriously injured). This is an example of the law of unintended consequences, drivers wearing seat belts felt an increased level of safety behind the wheel of a car, and as a result engaged in more risky driving (the consequences of which are externalised on vulnerable road users). This type of behaviour is commonly referred too as risk compensation.

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