In light of climate change and other global threats, policy commentators sometimes urge that society should be more concerned about catastrophes. This paper reflects on what society’s attitude toward low-probability, high-impact events is, or should be. We first argue that catastrophe risk can be conceived of as a spread in the distribution of losses. Based on this conception, we review studies from decision sciences, psychology, and behavioral economics that elicit people’s attitudes toward various social risks. We find more evidence against than in favor of catastrophe aversion—the preference for a mean-preserving contraction of the loss distribution—and discuss a number of possible behavioral explanations. Next, we turn to social choice theory and examine how various social welfare functions handle catastrophe risk. We explain why catastrophe aversion may be in conflict with equity concerns and other-regarding preferences. Finally, we discuss current approaches to evaluate and regulate catastrophe risk.
TSE Working Paper, n° 16-635, mars 2016