Theses Doctoral

Natural Hazards and Climate Change as Dread Risk

Fox-Glassman, Katherine Thompson

People judge the risks in their environment not only based on objective measures such as lives lost or dollars spent, but also based on their subjective perceptions of those risks. These perceptions can depend on a number of different characteristics of risk, including: how voluntarily the risk is undertaken, how immediately effects are seen, how known the risks are to scientists and to those exposed to them, how controllable those risks are, how new the risks feel, how catastrophic the effects tend to be, how likely the effects are to be fatal, and how dreaded the risk feels on a gut level. These nine characteristics of risk tend to load onto two orthogonal factors, or risk dimensions: unknown risk, and dread risk. While past research using such a psychometric approach to risk perception has established dread and unknown risk levels, as well as relative risk ratings, for a slate of 30 common technologies and activities (e.g., nuclear power, pesticides, skiing, fire fighting), most of these studies are now over three decades old. Chapter 1 of this dissertation replicates and updates the findings from those original psychometric studies of risk perception, showing that the dread-unknown factor space is still a useful framework for studying risk perceptions, and illustrating some of the ways that risk perceptions for technologies have changed since the 1970s. Chapter 2 applies the same methodology to study people’s responses to the risks of natural hazards and climate change. Although the slate of nine risk characteristics used to assess technological risk in Chapter 1 does not apply perfectly to a study of natural hazards on their own, Chapter 2 shows that this framework does work well as a means of assessing the differences in risk perception between natural hazards and climate change–related risks. We find that climate change and sea-level rise are not treated similarly to natural hazards like floods and wildfires; relative to the natural hazards, they fall at the extreme low end of the dread risk dimension, and the extreme high end of the unknown risk dimension. Chapter 3 goes on to apply the dread-unknown risk framework to directly compare attitudes toward technological risks, natural hazards, and climate-related risks. Nearly all natural hazards rank higher on dread than nearly all of the man-made risks, but the natural hazards tend to cluster near the mean on the unknown-risk dimension while technological risks vary across the full unknown-risk scale. Climate change and sea-level rise, on the other hand, both fall among the highest-unknown items on the list, and lie just below the mean on dread risk. Climate change and sea-level rise continue to show risk profiles that clearly differentiate them from the natural hazards; instead, they more closely resemble the profiles for low-dread, high-uncertainty technologies like pesticides. This characterization of climate change as highly uncertain but relatively non-dread is consistent with theories that link the public’s failure to engage on climate-related issues with a lack of vividness or immediacy to the concept of climate change. Since dread risk invokes the affective processing systems that can be more successful than analytical risk estimates at inspiring action, communicators or policymakers who are currently struggling to engage the public on the risks of climate change might find more success by linking these topics to hazards, such as hurricanes and floods, which appear to naturally invoke these desired qualities of dread risk.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Weber, Elke U.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 6, 2015