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Policy gets to grips with reality

March 2, 2007 By Lucy Odling-Smee This article courtesy of Nature News.

Virtual tours could help build better policy decisions.

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How would a sneak preview of the destruction caused by rising sea levels in a warmer world, say in 50 years' time, affect how much you'd be willing to invest now in carbon-capture technologies?

The film The Day After Tomorrow, which showcases some extreme, fictional impacts of climate change, gave one answer — of a kind — to that question (see 'Disaster movie highlights transatlantic divide'). But now an experiment is being developed by a group at the University of Central Florida in Orlando to check on the impacts of slightly more realistic sneak previews.

Their first project will tackle the slightly less emotive issue of forest management — checking how a virtual experience of walking through a burning forest, or of flying over the scorched trees in a helicopter, affects people's decisions about how much to invest in measures that reduce the risk of wild fires.

"Our goal is to get better-informed judgments for policy by rendering environmental damage in a more realistic manner," says project member Glenn Harrison, an environmental economist, who described the project at The Frontiers of Environmental Economics conference in Washington DC this week.

Survey says

It's standard practice for environmental economists to conduct surveys that ask people how much they would be prepared to pay to protect a natural resource, or how much they would expect the government to compensate them for damages to one. Such estimates are routinely used by policymakers.

But a major point of contention is how valid survey results are. Lab experiments have shown that people asked to answer a hypothetical question in a survey give quite a different response when they have to dig into their pockets for real. Also, studies in psychology and economics have shown that responses are hugely context-dependent; answers can be influenced by how the question is framed, the person's state of mind, what information they are given and so on.

To see how a dose of 'reality' can affect decisions, Harrison and his colleagues plan to expose several hundred people from central Florida — including firefighters with expert knowledge about wild fires and normal citizens, both with and without first-hand experience of a wild fire — to a range of surveys about fire policy. Some will be a standard written questionnaire including a brief description, some statistics and a couple of two-dimensional pictures. Others will include a full-blown virtual experience of life in a fire-risk region of Florida for 30 years.

Save my land!

In the virtual-reality scenario, each person will be given a patch of imaginary land and a few hundred real dollars. Over the 30-year simulation, compressed to an hour or so in real time, people will be able to watch forest fires as they happen, check on factors such as wind speed and temperature, and see first hand the damage done.

Each person will then choose a forest-management policy whereby controlled burns reduce the risk of severe damage but incur a predictable cost every 3-5 years, or a high-risk strategy, whereby nothing is paid over 30 years but the risk of an enormous blaze is much higher. They'll be given money back based on the end value of the land.

Harrison and his team-mates predict that the more comprehensive and realistic a picture people get during the survey, the more likely their policy choices will converge with those of the experts.

But it's not going to be easy to decide which is the 'right' answer, notes John List, an environmental economist at the University of Chicago, Illinois, who is not involved in the project. Not everyone agrees that policy choices made by experts in the real world are the 'best' ones.

Harrison agrees that that is something for policymakers to thrash out. "I would argue that the most informed decision is the best one. But our goal is to provide many answers to policymakers and let them decide which is best," he says.


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