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.

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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.