Risk and Pre-Traumatic Stress

Guest Post by Richard Pauli.

The term  “pre-traumatic stress” is starting to appear in discussions of climate change.  It should not be dismissed as a pop-psychology notion for anxiety.  This stress is about the real risk of human suffering predicted in climate models and scenarios.  This is something poorly addressed by culture, politicians and news media.

A serious study of risk uses simple multiplication — the same kind of multiplication with numbers – such as 2 x 5 = 10.  Simple math.  But now let us define risk by multiplying verbal concepts of probability and consequences.   This is the same formula economists use.

We can think of climate risk as the likelihood or probability of an action happening, multiplied by a measurement of how bad it could be – the consequences of an action.  Both probability and consequences can be assigned values or quantified somehow.  Each can be described in mathematical terms.

It helps us to evaluate risky behavior, for then we can know when to take a risk or to avoid it.  The probability of disaster is a  way to measure the risk of danger.  So it helps to measure risk with simple math:

     Risk equals Probability multiplied by Consequences

Or stated another way:  the level of danger can be measured by how extreme might be the disaster and how likely it is to happen.

So the high risks of global warming comes from a very high probability times a well-defined and proven set of climate models – consequences.   And the extremity of the predicted catastrophes are described in scenarios ranging from the greatly painful to the ultimate doom.  The major uncertainties that affect the calculation of risk are ‘how bad?’ and ‘how soon’ does all this happen?  Since consequences can range from dire to death – then when we multiply by the probability (which approaches certainty) – then risk could be calculated as way, way too high.  Use your own numbers.

Scientists, insurance industry actuarial and policy planners are doing serious calculations of risk.  By ignoring risk, we increase risk.  But it is difficult to evaluate.

        “…Human consequences associated with wars, disease, and natural disasters are typically measured in fatalities, or in fatalities per year for ongoing losses. Risk assessments result in estimates of expected deaths per year associated with the risk being quantified. For climate change, this is a difficult task because there is no way to validate the consequences of climate change that has not yet occurred. Nevertheless, a baseline has been established by the World Health Organization (WHO)4 which estimated in 2005 that 150,000 deaths per year were attributable to anthropogenic climate change. It can be argued that a global catastrophe threshold exists, above which civilization collapses and a significant fraction of the Earth’s population perishes. ..”   http://est.sandia.gov/earth/docs/SAND2009-4702-gsa.pdf

While in 2005 the WHO reported 150,000 deaths due to climate change –  Now in 2012, the Climate Vulnerability Monitor reports 400,000 deaths per year.  DARA  http://daraint.org/climate-vulnerability-monitor/climate-vulnerability-monitor-2012/

As consequences increase,  risk increases. Higher probability means more risk.  Because consequences increase across time, then any delay in facing the problem is a risk multiplier.  Now we can understand a  growing trend in levels of pre-traumatic stress.  This also explains the increasingly widespread expressions of denial – since that is a typical way to react to psychological stress.


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