You have to wonder if people have ever believed in a threat before. Sure, we’ve known about threats all our lives, everything from nuclear war to shark attacks. Some of those threats have kept us up at nights; a few have even inspired people to stockpile food or have an evacuation plan. But for the most part life goes on normally.
As a species, we’re not any good at threat assessment. Familiar dangers are ignored, while the most remote ones seem the most fearsome. Years ago, my husband and I helped a Liberian friend come to the US from his war-torn country and get refugee status. He was escaping from death, disease, and the loss of his family, job, and belongings – but when he got to Indiana, he was terrified about tornados – in February. In the same way, teenagers in the rural area where I live know that being in Indianapolis will result in a stabbing, while Indianapolis teenagers know that my area is populated by toothless meth cookers.
This tendency to minimize familiar and maximize unfamiliar risks plays out in many areas of our lives. Most people drive cars daily. Every year, around the world, 1.3 million people die of car accidents, over 40 thousand of them in the United States. Far more people die of tobacco-related causes: more than 7 million per year worldwide, and 480 thousand Americans die each year just from cigarette smoke, either directly or indirectly, with more deaths attributable to chewing tobacco. Even sugary drinks kill 180 thousand per year worldwide and 25 thousand here in the US, by the most conservative reckoning. These are just three obvious threats to human survival that came to mind. I could also have looked up deaths related to over-the-counter medications, cosmetic alterations, even French fries. The point is the same: we don’t really believe in these dangers, despite the numbers, at least not enough to do much about them, because they’re familiar, and because we don’t want to change our behavior.
If truly believing in a threat means massive allocations of resources, worldwide suppression of activities, even to the point of economic depression, and changes in personal behavior on the most fundamental level, then when have we ever believed? Only now, with the coronavirus epidemic, do we go all out: shut borders, avoid human contact, shutter businesses, cancel school, install curfews, and arrest people doing things that a week before were considered normal. Yet it took decades even to have a small-print warning on cigarette packets.
What is it about the coronavirus that has convinced people that it is an unprecedented danger to our species, greater than smoking, greater than all other causes of death? I wish I knew. Because if I did, I could apply that insight to a far greater threat, not just to random vulnerable individuals but to our species and to all species on earth: climate change.
I don’t need to expand here on the predictions about life on our planet in the next decades and centuries as a result of climate change. If you’re reading this column, you already know them: sea level rise and loss of infrastructure, heat-related deaths, spread of disease, extreme weather, wars, famines, and refugees, possibly even the sixth mass extinction event in earth’s history. But judging by the behavior of governments and individuals, we don’t believe in the threat of climate change, not the way we believe that we might get sick from a new germ.
It could be that our response to threats has more to do with how costly the response is to us personally than with how serious the threat is. And part of the difference in a larger response may relate to who suffers; the tobacco industry had and still has a lot of power to prevent wholesale action against it, for example, while the minimum-wage workers who have lost their jobs in the last two months have few resources. Facing up to the realities of climate change would – will – hurt the pocketbooks of the rich and powerful, the industrialists, the stockholders, and the governments. Our extreme response to the coronavirus, though, has had little immediate impact on the rich and powerful, who have savings, pensions, and bailouts; the working class and the marginalized, who have the least power, are suffering the most from lost jobs, failed businesses, and delayed unemployment checks.
I wish our species was better not just at general risk assessment but also at understanding complexities. The dichotomous thinking that allows cigarette company executives to ignore lung cancer deaths, or manufacturers and developers to ignore environmental damage, is terribly short-sighted. Any threat that faces the poor will eventually impact the rich. Any consequence over there will eventually play out over here. We are tied to one another, for good or ill, and what affects refugees in Syria will affect investors in Manhattan. This is true of everything, but especially and dramatically true of climate change. We can’t avoid the effects of climate change by working from home, social distancing, or wearing a mask, but I sure wish we’d put the same commitment into facing it that we have into facing a new and unknown virus.