It’s a risky world

By: - September 25th, 2013

Over the last few weeks Travelers and Swiss Re released polls suggesting people perceive that the world is becoming a riskier place and many are under-insured.

The main driver for public opinion is that this is a perceived period of “more extreme weather”. Although many mention that it is a riskier world, many people don’t seem to be doing much about it. Generally, preparation for extreme events is poor and there often seems to be an overreaction or under-reaction of preparation to such events. This contrast highlights the subjective nature of individual risk perception.

It seems only urgent alarms of an impending “Frankenstorm” really inspire proactive preparation, sending people shopping for batteries and bottled water. All too often people assume that their flashlights, sandbags and backup generators will protect them from the fierceness of Mother Nature. Therefore, the more control over a risk you think you have, the less worried you might feel – no matter how false that sense of control might be.

We often view these risks in terms of probabilities, but many people are bad at understanding probabilities. It’s a good bet that most people who experienced a “once in a century” storm feel that such freakish weather is not likely to happen in the next few years or decades. Sorry, but Mother Nature does not work that way. There are probabilistic patterns for assessing the risk of natural disasters over the long-term. Managing risk is a real trick as the risks over the long-term are much larger than our very brief lifetimes have witnessed or can remember.

Our short memories often refer to past historical weather patterns that tend to get replaced by what we remember seeing more recently. As a meteorologist, I am not the only one guilty of consistently watching The Weather Channel when a major weather event is occurring. Some people would say many of us have become addicted and can’t stop watching television and scanning news sites and social media, far more than we actually require to stay informed.

That brings us to the transmitters of storm news – the media, both news and social. News coverage is far more likely to warn us that the sky is falling than to reassure us that it isn’t. “If it scares, it airs”, because anything that threatens us is more likely to grab our attention. If weather forecasts include days of Frankenstorm predictions, the future is going to feel frightening. To be fair, despite their breathless alarm-ism, the news media did make the public aware of Sandy, helping us prepare. The aftermath of Sandy demonstrated why we should worry.

Risk perception determines how prepared we are — or aren’t. It determines whether we follow government evacuation orders or make sure we have candles, working flashlights, and bottled water. When it comes to flood insurance, risk perception determines whether we buy insurance and polls suggest most people are confident that their home or dwelling are properly insured. However, flood insurance take-up rates are ridiculously low, suggesting the perception of flood risk is that flooding is not a high risk, yet time and time again high uninsured flood losses occur. Opinions of “it won’t happen to me” or “I’ve been through these storms before, it won’t happen again” do persist.