Overline: Study
Headline: Why Systemic Risks Are Often Underestimated – and how Science Can Help

Systemic risks are often contradictorily assessed and underestimated by society, leading to delayed policy action. How can science help? A team from the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) has developed recommendations for policymakers and academics working on the governance of systemic risks such as climate change.

Australien in Flammen Brände Waldbrände Känguruh
Fires like the ones witnessed in Australia are viewed as a systemic risk because forest fires not only destroy the natural habitat of wild animals such as kangaroos, but also of the people who live there. Shutterstock/ lllonajalll

In their study published in the journal “Risk Analysis”, risk researchers Pia-Johanna Schweizer, Robert Goble and Ortwin Renn investigate why systemic risks play a subordinate role in public perception and what dynamics are linked to this problem.
They found that one reason is that people draw on cultural memories of risks and dangers from previous generations that no longer protect them in today's world. Climate change, for instance, is leading to major changes in climate conditions – even in the North – and to more frequent extreme weather events. Yet “tipping points” in the Earth system can only be tracked after they have already been reached, at which point it is too late to take countermeasures.

Before reaching a tipping point, systemic risks appear to many people to be distant in space and time and thus less dangerous than risks that threaten people directly, the authors conclude. The former are less easily understood and less present in most people's minds because of their complexity and non-linearity.

"Even when a systemic risk like climate change threatens the functioning of vital systems in society, many feel less urgency to change their own behaviour or accept stricter regulatory measures," explains IASS scientist Schweizer. "We social scientists observe two interlocking effects here: First, people wonder what difference they can make with their own actions when large corporations and the majority of people carry on ‘business as usual’. On the other hand, people have the fatalistic perception that it is too late to counter systemic risks such as climate change anyway.”

The authors also outline dynamic processes in the social perception of systemic risks and examine the reasons why they are disregarded by both policymakers and the public. "We found that social communication processes tend to reduce rather than increase the perception of systemic risks among a large part of the population," says lead author Schweizer, "which effectively reduces willingness to act, as in the case of climate change, for example. Current efforts to meet the temperature targets of the Paris Agreement are insufficient. But there is confidence that techniques such as climate and geoengineering, which are not yet applicable on a large scale, will be instrumental in meeting climate goals in the future."

Risk is downplayed in public discourse

In dealing with systemic risks, the team identifies the lack of willingness to act and change as the main obstacle to effective risk governance. They find that the following factors in particular lead to the underestimation of risk:

  1. Because most systemic risks are complex and dynamic, they seem to defy human intuition. People thus tended to classify them as less plausible and obvious.
  2. Science cannot deliver deterministic and unambiguous models for systemic risks. As a result, people consider information that is associated with uncertainty and ambiguity as not yet fully developed and especially as not very actionable, even if this information is based on sound scientific analysis.
  3. More trust in scientific assessments is needed. Few people are in a position to judge the accuracy of scientific arguments in a public debate. The fact that, in addition, evidence changes over time and is often contradictory irritates and frustrates many, ultimately leading to fatalism and inaction.
  4. The misinterpretation of systemic risks is spread through digital media, bolstering echo chambers in public discourse. As a result, knowledge camps are polarized and differentiated approaches that are crucial for dealing with systemic risks are marginalized.

The IASS team thus sees two tasks for science: One is to support decision-making processes with expertise. In interdisciplinary teams, scientists should compile their knowledge of the complex mechanisms of systemic risks and communicate it to policymakers and the public by means of comprehensible narratives and realistic illustrations (graphic representations and simulations). Similarly, the author team recommends gaming tools to teach a participatory, deliberative approach to comprehensive risk governance.

These communicative forms of understanding should enable decision-makers and the public alike to initiate prudent measures which are appropriate for tackling a given problem.
The other task is to take an integrative approach to risk governance, bringing together diverse scientific disciplines as well as organisations and authorities. This will make commissions and steering groups interdisciplinary, cross-sectional and integrative. Different interests, perspectives and values must be taken into account in order to be able to assess risks comprehensively.

The team concludes that systemic risks can have devastating effects. However, this danger can be minimised and systemic risks better managed if the social processes that influence the perception of systemic risks are identified.


Pia-Johanna Schweizer, Robert Goble und Ortwin Renn: Social Perception of Systemic Risks, Risk Analysis 2021. DOI: 10.1111/risa.13831