A new course teaches sustainability students how to manage risk, rationally
March 15, 2022
By Paul Wagner
If there’s one thing we’ve heard about a lot in the past couple of years, it’s risk. There are, of course, all the debates around risks related to COVID-19: vaccine safety, masks, gatherings, travel, school closings, etc. We’ve also been hearing about risks related to extreme weather such as hurricanes, drought, wildfires, and floods, and how climate change influences those risks.
We face risks all the time
Consciously or unconsciously, we are making decisions every day about which risks to ignore, which to assess and manage in systematic ways, and which to panic about. Some aspects of risk assessment and management, such as estimating the probability of harm should a particular event occur, are primarily science-based. Other aspects, such as deciding which risks we’re willing to take and which we aren’t, are intensely personal.
There are also ethical aspects of who gets to decide how to evaluate and manage risk. A risk assessment focused only on loss of life and property would see the destruction of a small community by wildfire very differently than an assessment that also focused on loss of community, identity, or sense of security.
Rational is not always ethical
In the United States, there’s a history of “rational” decision makers siting toxic waste facilities or other environmental hazards in lower-income or primarily minority areas because the lower economic value of those areas (and by extension, those people) meant that the potential for harm was lower.
How do we balance environmental, social, cultural, and economic risks across regions, and over longer time horizons? What are the risks of pushing to change local, regional, or global practices in pursuit of sustainability? How do we incorporate diversity, equity, and inclusion in risk governance?
Making the right call
Decision making can be tricky and, like a lot of things we have to do every day, we sometimes assume we’re good at it without really thinking if we could be doing better. One of the most crucial areas of decision making relates to risk. That’s why the “Risk and Rationality in Global Sustainability” course will help students explore different concepts of risk and rationality, including the basics of probability and risk assessment, the psychology of risk perception, and ethical considerations related to defining, assessing, and managing risk. The goal of this course is to enable students to identify the distinct roles of values, science, and emotion in decisions involving risk and uncertainty.
This is critical for fields such as global sustainability which confront challenges of understanding, identifying, and communicating risks across cultures. In addition to core concepts in risk and rationality, students will learn about risks related to climate change in a variety of sectors such as agriculture, infrastructure, and public health, and how risk management approaches can sometimes backfire. The course will address concepts in probability and their relationships to risk assessment, as well as common errors of reasoning under conditions of uncertainty and how they can be avoided in climate-related decision making.
Paul Wagner serves as the Deputy Associate Director of an ecosystems research program and also teaches courses on climate change and climate adaptation. Previously, Paul worked on a wide variety of global change science and policy issues at the Institute for Water Resources. In 2014, Paul was detailed to the White House Council on Environmental Quality where he served as a Deputy Associate Director for Climate Adaptation and Resilience, working on and leading initiatives under President Obama’s Climate Action Plan. He has also worked as a landscape ecologist for the Environmental Protection Agency and as an aquatic ecologist for The Nature Conservancy. He received his Ph.D. in Biology from Virginia Tech in 2001.