Josh Rosenau's picture

Climate Change and the SEP Field

"A what?" he said.

"An SEP."

I Can Haz Cheezburger image: Cat sitting in front of many dogs, saying “someone else’s problem field - ai haz it”

"An S…?"

"…EP."

"And what's that?"

"Somebody Else's Problem."

"An SEP," he said, "is something that we can't see, or don't see, or our brain doesn't let us see, because we think that it's somebody else's problem. That's what SEP means. Somebody Else's Problem. The brain just edits it out, it's like a blind spot. If you look at it directly you won't see it unless you know precisely what it is. Your only hope is to catch it by surprise out of the corner of your eye."…

They had arrived at it. The second strangest thing about the ship was watching the Somebody Else's Problem field at work. They could now clearly see the ship for what it was simply because they knew it was there. It was quite apparent, however, that nobody else could. This wasn't because it was actually invisible or anything hyper-impossible like that.…

The Somebody Else's Problem field is much simpler and more effective,…it relies on people's natural disposition not to see anything they don't want to, weren't expecting, or can't explain.

That passage from the immortal Douglas Adams’s novel Life, The Universe, and Everything sprang to mind when I read Mark’s post the other day about Jon Krosnick’s study on Americans’ attitudes on climate change. As Mark observes, most Americans think that climate change is happening and is caused by humans, that it’s a serious problem, and that America should act to stop it on our own even if the world isn’t ready to act with us. And yet relatively few think that climate change is personally important. This is a common trend in surveys of public opinion: while people support action on climate change, it falls low on their list of priorities. That means that support for policies can be undermined by even a hint that action on climate change could even potentially do damage to some higher priority, like jobs or the economy.

That tension between people’s stated willingness to act and their actual priorities is a theme in Krosnick’s work. Indeed, given his past work, I was surprised to see him asking respondents “Is the issue of global warming extremely important to you personally?”

A 2010 paper by Krosnick and colleagues found that the wording of such questions can substantially reduce the apparent importance of climate change. When people were asked “What do you think is the most important problem facing the country today?” (a question commonly asked by major pollsters), climate change ranks quite low, not even registering in some polls. On the other hand, when you ask “What do you think will be the most serious problem facing the world in the future if nothing is done to stop it?” climate change leaps in importance, jumping from 2% of responses to 21%. “In fact,” the researchers wrote, “global warming and the environment were the most frequently mentioned problems when people were asked the new question wording.”

They explain their inspiration for the new question wording in terms reminiscent of that Douglas Adams passage above:

Some people might generate an answer to this question [“what is the most important problem facing the country today?”] by thinking in the following fashion: “I think overpopulation will be a huge problem in the future if nothing is done to stop it, but I’m confident that societies will wake up and find ways to effectively reduce reproduction rates, so this won’t end up being a big problem at all.” Thus, this respondent might choose not to mention overpopulation, but not because he/she thinks it is not or will not be a problem. So it might be interesting to consider yet another version of the MIP question: “What do you think will be the most important problem facing the world in the future if nothing is done to stop it?” This wording might avoid preventing mentions of problems that people assume will be addressed successfully and collecting mentions only of problems that people believe are unlikely to be averted.

In other words, people think climate change is a problem, but it’s Somebody Else’s Problem. So their eyes pass right over it or their brain edits it out, because it’s an issue they don’t want to see, aren’t expecting, and can’t deal with.

This might all be okay if the public were justified in believing that someone else would somehow just handle climate change, either through new technology or policy enacted independently of public interest. But pollsters’ findings of public lack of concern means that policymakers are reluctant to invest political capital in solving the problem. And technology can only be a solution if it gets deployed, which depends on policy and on funding—neither of which are likely to materialize until the broad public is able to look directly at the problem and to stop seeing it as Somebody Else’s Problem.