In what New York Magazine is calling the most-read article in the publication’s history, David Wallace-Wells writes about what will happen if we don’t stop burning fossil fuels soon. In a nutshell: the climate “will now go to war with us for many centuries, perhaps until it destroys us.”
This has made more than a few climatologists rather cross. The argument is that because “The Uninhabitable Earth” focuses on an unlikely worst-case scenario, and therefore might needless scare the public into inaction.
There are a few questionable statements regarding the science of climate change. You can see them in the annotated version, to which I’ve linked above, and in commentaries by the likes of Michael Mann, whose credentials are impeccable on these matters. But not that many mistakes. Indeed, if you look at a Climate Feedback‘s comprehensive scientific review of the whole thing (which is thousands of words long), Wallace-Wells does rather well for someone who hasn’t written much about climate change until now. So the real question about the wisdom of running the piece isn’t “Does it fairly describe the science?” but “Should we really be telling people how bad things might get?”
First, it helps to know that Wallace-Wells bent over backward to ensure readers were under no illusions about what the feature is all about:
What follows is not a series of predictions of what will happen — that will be determined in large part by the much-less-certain science of human response. Instead, it is a portrait of our best understanding of where the planet is heading absent aggressive action. It is unlikely that all of these warming scenarios will be fully realized, largely because the devastation along the way will shake our complacency. But those scenarios, and not the present climate, are the baseline. In fact, they are our schedule.
The emphasis is mine, because it’s important. Wallace-Wells knows we’re not going to do nothing about global warming. But he and his editors at New York agreed that is fair to talk about the consequences of business as usual, even if that business is evolving rapidly (though probably not fast enough).
David Roberts of Vox comes down on the side of those who believe we shouldn’t be hiding the truth, even if it is scary. “Did that New York magazine climate story freak you out? Good” is his response to the responses.
Over my 407 years in the climate-o-sphere, I’ve cycled through just about every school of thought on the right way to communicate climate change. What I’ve come to believe is that on this, as on most matters, nobody really knows anything. Even if there are accurate statements about how people in general respond to messages in general, they won’t tell you much about how you ought to communicate with the people you want to reach.
Here’s the thing about science communication theory: it’s complicated. I’ve been writing about greenhouse gas emissions and sinks for 30 calendar years now (longer even than Roberts’ hyperbolic 407) and the one thing everyone in this field can agree on is that we really have no clue about best practices.
For a while back in the early days of blogging, “framing” was the buzzword. But it turned out that that means either a) unethically spinning your message to make it more palatable to a given reader/listener/viewer or b) just using conventional hooks that journalists have been using all along. Then Al Gore came along with his famous/notorious Keynote presentations (as an Apple board member he wasn’t going to use PowerPoint), and talked about a “hope budget” so his army of presenters didn’t depress their audiences.
Do scare tactics spur populations to action, or do they paralyze? Obviously, it depends on the issue. Fear about overbearing government regulators seems to work pretty well in mobilizing gun owners to get out and vote, if recent history is any guide. And did all those pictures of mushroom clouds not lead to citizen movements that in turn led to nuclear disarmament treaties? And Wallace-Wells has another ally from an surprising source: Tech writer Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times points out that all the craziness about the Y2K bug 17 years ago was probably warranted, because it actually led to solutions for what would have been a nightmare scenario for anyone who uses a computer.
On the other hand, it’s easy to imagine situations in which, if you just tell people how bad things are but don’t give them the tools to do something about the threat, you’re probably only going to make matters worse. Cyncism is not a good thing for civilization to embrace.
The problem is climate change is a threat without precedent. Although some of the damage can already be seen — just ask residents of Vanuatu and other island states that are losing significant land mass to sea level rise at this moment — most of the really bad stuff is a generation or two removed from our here-and-now brains. We’ve never really faced this kind of challenge before, and so have no way to know what will and won’t work when it comes to getting people to care enough to change not just a few lightbulbs, but their choice of candidates for public office. Maybe fear will do the trick. Maybe we should emphasize the fact that just about every other facet of life will benefit from a low-carbon economy.
Every strategy is well represented in the climate communications business today. It’s no longer the purview of volunteer and semi-pro bloggers, but involves Pulitzer-winning websites and well-rounded teams at established national newspapers. The industry exists because everyone knows that most scientists aren’t very good at communicating their work themselves, and (with rare exceptions like Michael Mann) need the help of professionals dedicated and trained in the subject, which just happens to be the biggest public policy challenge of our time.
So when you read about scientists taking umbrage at the notion of discussing in public what business as usual means for the planet, first ask yourself one question. If even professional communicators can’t agree on whether scare tactics are wise, how likely is it that introverted lab rats with no communications background will have a deeper insight into a fundamental question about human cognition and behavior?
I still wish Wallace-Wells had treated a couple of items differently. This is why I think magazines like New York should not assign climate change stories to those without a science background. But I don’t think he was wrong to write “no matter how well-informed you are, you are surely not alarmed enough.” My experience working alongside scientists who study things like climate change and other environmental problems makes it clear to me that they are by and large a conservative sort who loathe to be saddled with the label of alarmist, as the deniers are wont to call them. They prefer to couch their published predictions in cautious, moderate language. It’s only when you get them alone and off the record that they’ll admit how bleak things really are.
Maybe that’s the way science should be. But every now and then we need to hear the unvarnished truth.
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