How concerned are people about climate-related risks to health?

Centre for Decision Research

Irene Mussio is a Lecturer in the Department of Economics and is affiliated with the Centre for Decision Research at Leeds University Business School. Her research focuses on the interaction between individual behaviour and risk in the environmental and health domains.

Irene Mussio


Climate change is significantly affecting people’s lives and livelihoods. We are experiencing more heat spells, even here in the UK where temperatures have reached record highs in the last few years. Extreme weather has an impact on physical and mental health, and ultimately, the risk of premature death.

Over the past few decades, temperatures have been rising, and the effects of climate change are expected to get worse with additional warming, putting a spotlight on how much our lives are influenced by temperature. What is more concerning is that it is often the populations with lower incomes that feel the brunt of these extreme weather events the hardest.

With the negative impact of climate change looming, there is a need to understand how citizens trade-off climate-related mortality risks with other daily risks such as traffic accidents, and what values they place on reducing such risks.

In our previous study, we focused on calculating a value for extreme weather events for the UK. We found that people value the risk of death from extreme weather events (floods and heatwaves) more than the risk of death from traffic accidents. For this study, we focus on India, which enables us to offer insights on the impact of heatwaves on mortality from a different cultural context. India provides a relevant context for this study as it is one of the countries most impacted by the adverse consequences of temperature change.

India has become a hotspot in the last decade, particularly notable in 2015, 2016, 2019, 2022 and 2023. In 2022 and 2023, a prolonged heatwave from March to May set new temperature records, with highs nearing 47°C. The country witnessed an increase of 55% in deaths due to extreme heat between 2000-2004 and 2017-2021, being one of the countries with the highest heat-related mortality.

Measuring how much people value heatwave mortality risks

In countries with lower incomes, many people have limited financial resources. Therefore, relying on willingness to pay (WTP) measures to estimate the monetary value of reducing the risk of climate-related deaths might not accurately represent what people can truly afford to pay. The risk-risk trade-off method we leverage in this study does not use money to assess people’s preferences but collects data on how people weigh the trade-offs between two types of risk changes. Using this method, people express their preferences by choosing between risks, making it easier for them to understand and respond without the added complexity of monetary considerations.

The results are summarized as a ratio, also known as the context premium, which indicates how much people value avoiding specific risks (in this case the risk of dying from a heatwave versus a traffic accident). This approach is thought to ease the cognitive burden on participants because they are only comparing risks, not risks and money simultaneously.

We also introduce a methodological innovation in this study, used previously to study WTP: by asking individuals two back-to-back questions about their tolerance to mortality risks, we are able to get a range of tolerance for each participant, which is much richer information than a single data point.

Introducing psychological and behavioural insights

In response to growing calls for a deeper understanding of how behavioural insights might inform the economic assessment of different policies, especially in the context of climate change, we also analyse the determinants of the context premium, such as psychological or socioeconomic factors.

Many people do not engage with climate change as they see it as something happening far off in the future or in distant places. This perception often leads to low levels of public participation in the efforts to address climate change. For this reason, we introduce a concept widely used in psychology - the psychological distance (to climate change). Depending on how distant or close to climate change each individual might be (e.g. one of the areas included in psychological distance is whether a person lives closer to or in regions more affected by heatwaves or flooding), the response to mortality risks might be different.

We also explore how perceptions about the relevant risks and individual experiences with heatwaves and traffic accidents might influence choices. We use traffic accidents as a comparison for three reasons: Traffic accident deaths are a common risk people could face in their daily life. In addition, traffic accident mortality is the risk commonly used to put a monetary value on mortality. Lastly, traffic or road accident risks have previously been analysed using risk-risk trade-offs methodology (detailed below); this is the same methodology we have used in this study for climate-related risks.

People place a value on heatwave-related mortality

On average, we find that individuals in our sample of seven states in India (Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu) weigh reducing heatwave-related mortality risks between 2.3 and 3 times that of reducing traffic accident mortality risks. (I.e. we could also say that people are 2 to 3 times more concerned about heatwave-related deaths compared to traffic accident deaths).

This suggests that the public might have a preference to reduce climate change fatality risks. Also, those who are psychologically closer to climate change (for example, people who experience heatwaves now, in the area where they live and with a higher frequency of occurrence) place greater importance in reducing heatwave-related mortality risks. This means that their context premium, or the value they attach to avoiding these risks, is higher than average.

The context premium can be converted into a Value for a Prevented Fatality (VPF) for heatwave-related policy purposes. VPFs are used in governments for allocating budgets to improve safety and reduce mortality risks (or “save lives”) as well as for benefit-cost analysis of different policies or regulations. We can create the VPF for heatwave risks by multiplying the premium we obtained in this study and the VPF for traffic accident mortality for India. The VPF for a reduction in heatwave-related fatalities in India can be translated into a range of values of 0.37 – 2.61 million dollars.

What do we do with this information now?

Our findings mean that there is a discrepancy between the VPF for traffic accident fatalities in India and the VPF for heatwave fatalities. Thus, using the VPF for traffic accidents for the analysis of heatwave mortality could potentially bias, for example, policy recommendations.

While we do not propose using our VPF estimates directly for policymaking purposes (given that we are extrapolating from one domain – traffic accidents – to another – heatwaves), the evidence is strong enough to warrant caution in applying VPFs for traffic accident mortality to heatwave-related climate policies without discretion.

Instead, we advocate for further research to determine whether such context premiums in the allocation of public resources should be more broadly applied, including willingness to pay studies to properly quantify a VPF for climate-related events. This approach would better reflect the preferences of those most impacted by heatwave risks and would be mounting evidence towards more budget allocation and more policies to mitigate and communicate the impact of climate change, heat and heatwaves on the health of at-risk populations.

In addition, given our findings on the psychological distance to climate change, changing how people perceive climate risks and reducing the sense of distance associated with climate change could be key strategies for encouraging behavioural change. This suggests that altering communication methods to make climate change feel more immediate and relevant to individuals' lives could be an effective way to promote action.

Read the journal article – A double-bounded risk-risk trade-off analysis of heatwave-related mortality risk: Evidence from India”, Journal of Risk and Uncertainty.

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