Individual Climate Risks at the Bounds of Rationality

In Adriana Placani & Stearns Broadhead (eds.), _Risk and Responsibility in Context_. New York: Routledge. pp. 249-271 (2023)
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All ordinary decisions involve some risk. If I go outside for a walk, I may trip and injure myself. But if I don’t go for a walk, I slightly increase my chances of cardiovascular disease. Typically, we disregard most small risks. When, for practical purposes, is it appropriate for one to ignore risk? This issue looms large because many activities performed by those in wealthy societies, such as driving a car, in some way risk contributing to climate harms. Are these activities morally appropriate? In this paper, I first summarize and respond to some arguments that purport to show that it is appropriate to ignore or discount very small risks. I argue that because our rationality is bounded, it is impossible for us to include every small risk in our decision-making process, and so we may reasonably use heuristics to guide many decisions. However, contrary to some thinkers, I argue that this does not violate the spirit of expected value theory; it merely shows that we should adopt a so-called "two-level" view. Our use of heuristics allows for the reasonable ignoring of some risks, and this perhaps explains why one might be inclined to think that individual climate-related risks are negligible. However, virtually all greenhouse-gas emitting activities in fact have some climate risk on the negative side of the ledger, and the use of heuristics does not permit the general ignoring of climate-change-related risk by individuals on grounds of expediency of judgment and decision-making.

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Avram Hiller
Portland State University


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