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From skiing to climate change – what the Winter Olympics can teach us about fear

The contrast between shows of bravery at the games in South Korea and inaction against bigger threats highlights the impact of psychic numbing.

When North and South Korean athletes entered the PyeongChang stadium at the Winter Olympics this afternoon, they did so under a single, unified flag of Korea. The historic decision set aside decades of separation, sanctions and fear of nuclear escalation, drawing a roar from the assembled crowd that was worthy of the giant white tiger that opened the ceremony and whose name, Soohorang, symbolises “protection”. 

In a country so famously divided and beset by the threat of nuclear conflict (South Korea's capital, Seoul, is within just six minutes of a strike from its neighbour in the North), this diplomatic thaw is to be clutched as tightly as the Olympic torch. Not least in light of President Trump’s recent pledge to exert “maximum pressure” on North Korea to de-escalate its nuclear weapons program.

Yet war is not the only shadow cast over this games. Climate change is also making its presence felt in PyeongChang, in the form of the unusually cold weather. Predicted windchill temperatures are as low as -25 degrees celcius and there are reports of skis warping in the freezing conditions. According to an article from Donga-a Ilbo, one of the country’s daily newspapers, the cold spell is linked to global warming’s impact upon Arctic weather systems and an increasingly unstable jet stream.

So rather than simply putting larger concerns out of sight and mind for the event’s duration, is there anything sport itself might teach about we assess risks and respond in the face of impending threats?

I asked Paul Slovic, a Professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and the president of Decision Research, whether there are any parallels between facing the fear of falling down a ski slope, and dealing with much larger perils.

“We know that sense of control is an important factor in how we perceive and respond to risk,” Slovic explains. Key to this is careful preparation. Hurtling through the air on skis might seem scary to those who’ve never learnt how to do it, he says, but when he saw small kids learning the basics of ski-jumping it was clear that learning slowly and building up their skill step by step gave them a sense of control and confidence.

This sense of control is lacking, however, when it comes to tackling the wider threats looming in the background of this year’s games - most notably those of nuclear war and climate change. These are, of course, vastly different types of threat, says Slovic, but both are characterised by feeling that they are beyond the individual’s scope of influence and control. Unlike learning a new sport, this sense of powerlessness can lead to something known as “psychic numbing”, which is when the consequences of a threat are so large that they are hard to emotionally compute, and can instead result in a sort of normalisation and indifference. As Slovic explains:

“I don’t think any of us can really understand the reality of the consequences of a nuclear attack; we can talk about it, we can even give numbers, but they’re just numbers. The reality is beyond horrific but we don’t even have words to describe it. And with climate change I think we have a similar difficulty in understanding the consequences because they’re so diffuse.”

There are of course many factors that can both give and remove a sense of public agency over such threats. A review of public opinion polls in a Climate Science article by Sei-Hill Kim, Myung-Hyan Kang and Jeong-Heon Chang, notes that while the perceived risks of climate change “have been consistently higher” among South Koreans than elsewhere, there is also an unwillingness to engage in voluntary efforts to solve the problem. They suggest that this disjointedness may be linked to “unbalanced and superficial” reporting in the national news.

Better understanding the way that we approach, assess and communicate different types of risk thus might just help us stave off their threats. The 2018 Winters Olympics should not play down these wider concerns but instead use the opportunity to thaw any collective sense of numbness or disbelief.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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Tackling tuition fees may not be the vote-winner the government is hoping for

In theory, Theresa May is right to try to match Labour’s policy. But could it work?

Part of the art of politics is to increase the importance of the issues you win on and to decrease or neutralise the importance of the issues your opponent wins on. That's part of why Labour will continue to major on police cuts, as a device to make the usually Labour-unfriendly territory of security more perilous for the Tories.

One of the advantages the Conservatives have is that they are in government – I know it doesn't always look like it – and so they can do a lot more to decrease the importance of Labour's issues than the Opposition can do to theirs.

So the theory of Theresa May's big speech today on higher education funding and her announcement of a government review into the future of the university system is sound. Tuition fees are an area that Labour win on, so it makes sense to find a way to neutralise the issue.

Except there are a couple of problems with May's approach. The first is that she has managed to find a way to make a simple political question incredibly difficult for herself. The Labour offer is “no tuition fees”, so the Conservatives essentially either need to match that or move on. But the one option that has been left off the table is abolition, the only policy lever that could match Labour electorally.

The second, even bigger problem is that it it turns out that tuition fees might not have been the big election-moving event that we initially thought they were. The British Electoral Survey caused an earthquake of their own by finding that the “youthquake” – the increase in turn-out among 18-24-year-olds – never happened. Younger voters were decisive, both in how they switched to Labour and in the overall increase in turnout among younger voters, but it was in that slightly older 25-35 bracket (and indeed the 35-45 one as well) that the big action occurred.

There is an astonishingly powerful belief among the Conservative grassroots, such as it is, that Jeremy Corbyn's NME interview in which the he said that existing tuition fee debt would be “dealt with” was decisive. That belief, I'm told, extends all the way up to May's press chief, Robbie Gibb. Gibb is the subject of increasing concern among Tory MPs and ministers, who regularly ask journalists what they make of Robbie, if Robbie is doing alright, before revealing that they find his preoccupations – Venezuela, Corbyn's supposed pledge to abolish tuition fee debt – troublingly marginal.

Because the third problem is that any policy action on tuition fees comes at a huge cost to the Treasury, a cost that could be spent easing the pressures on the NHS, which could neutralise a Labour strength, or the financial strains on schools, another area of Labour strength. Both of which are of far greater concern to the average thirtysomething than what anyone says or does about tuition fees.

Small wonder that Team Corbyn are in an ebullient mood as Parliament returns from recess.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.