In an opinion piece in the New York Times, writer David Ropeik argues that the nature of how humans perceive risk has led to some impractical, and potentially counterproductive, energy and environmental policies.

According to research cited by Ropeik, the following factors make people more likely to perceive higher levels of risk: “Human-made risks upset us more than risks which are natural; Risks imposed on us are scarier than those we take by choice; Risks grow scarier the greater the pain and suffering they cause.”

These perception factors percolate into our energy and environmental policy, Ropeik argues, sometimes leading to counterproductive outcomes. For example, the average person’s fear of the risks of nuclear power, which according to some sources are not very high, “has contributed to energy policy that favors fossil fuels,” he writes. “Burning coal to make electricity produces particulate pollution that kills thousands each year.”

“There are plenty of very real environmental dangers to worry about, and all of them … merit some concern and precaution,” he writes, “but that concern should be measured, commensurate with the actual danger, as best we understand it.”

Aside from nuclear, what other energy sources’ risks do people incorrectly perceive? What policies — or lack of policy — are tied to those perceptions? How might we achieve a energy policy-making system where risks are correctly perceived and accounted for “commensurate with the actual danger” they pose?

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