Fighting Global Warming with Fear

In 2003, Bill McKibben published an essay in the literary magazine Granta ($$ Req), titled, “Worried? Us?”

What he rued then still holds true today:

People think about “˜global warming’ in the way they think about “˜violence on television’ or “˜growing trade deficits’, as a marginal concern to them, if a concern at all. Hardly anyone has fear in their guts.”

To understand why this is, read yesterday’s cover story in the The New York Times magazine. There’s a lot to chew on, much of it probably familiar to anyone who has looked at environmental issues through a cognitive science lens.

There are two take-away points, though, that bear mentioning, as the debate over how best to communicate the urgency of climate change revs up:

1) As Anthony Leiserowitz, a social scientist who directs the Yale Project on Climate Change, observes,

most Americans think about climate change as a distant problem. Distant in Time, and distant in space.

2) Research by Elke Weber, an economist at Columbia University, indicates that humans have a “finite pool of worry,” which Jon Gertner, the author of the Times piece, characterizes to mean that

we’re unable  to maintain our fear of climate change when a different problem–a plunging stock market, a personal emergency–comes along. We simply move one fear into the worry bin and one fear out.

Overcoming the way evolution has hardwired us isn’t going to be easy when it comes to climate change. A slow-moving event, like melting glaciers and rising seas, won’t focus the mind the way the Cold War once did.

The most effective fear-inducing method, according to Weber, is “personal evidence” of global warming, which I take to mean the immediacy of extreme weather events, such as heat waves, severe drought, or floods. The problem there is that it’s still so difficult to distinguish current catastrophes caused by natural climatic variability and that stemming from the greenhouse gas effect.

But if this tactic is the best means of persuasion, then we can expect a continuation of screaming headlines like this, and a ratcheting up of fire & brimstone rhetoric.

There’s got to be a better way.

6 Responses to “Fighting Global Warming with Fear”

  1. Steve Bloom says:

    Journalistic navel-gazing isn’t generally very interesting, but it would have been nice to ask those scientists about the particular sort of cluelessness that led the editors at the NYT Magazine to commission the Dyson profile.

    Re the better way, I’m all ears.  BTW, rather than engage in yet another pointless attack on Romm, you might have a look at the press release for that study and then talk to e.g. Susan Solomon about how it is that scientists have decided to both amp up the rhetoric and put more effort into researching consequences.

  2. Keith Kloor says:


    The only people who have such visceral dislike for the Dyson profile are those that can’t comprehend any reasonable, dissenting views on the long-term impacts of climate change.

    RE the Solomon article: even Real Climate felt obligated to calm the ensuing hystria. Romm has decided to use fear-mongering as one of his primary tactics. So he is more than fair game, as far as I am concerned.

  3. Steve Bloom says:

    Keith, the point re Dyson’s views is that they should not be considered reasonable (and frankly it’s just bizarre that you think they are).  All the heat and light over such things is intended to shift the Overton Window so that the acceptable range of the social/political/economic discussion is no longer different from the scientific one.  On the way to that goal some extreme (note not wrong) conclusions will be stated, and more than a few journalists and editors are going to have scorn heaped on them.  

    Re the Solomon et al paper, I think you’re confused.  RC didn’t claim to be correcting either it, statements by its authors or Romm’s take on it, nor did they do so in substance.

    Here’s current coverage of another such paper.  Expect lots more.

  4. Steve Bloom says:

    Speaking of bizarre, Joe points out in this related post (worth a read for the extended quote from systems dynamicist John Sterman, via Andy Revkin) that the Solomon et al paper didn’t make the front page of either the NYT or the WaPo.       

  5. The Romm article is over the top only to the extent that in the course of 1000 years the desertification of vast subtropical areas will no longer be perceived as a cause of misery but simply a fact of life, just as the Sahara desert is today. The poleward expansion of the temperate zone may compensate, etc. So you can argue that Romm is spinning a bit too furiously here, not that there wasn’t enough to worry about to begin with in the PNAS article.

    But I agree with Steve that reasonable people have no obligation to factor Dyson into their estimates of what to do: he has displayed an unpleasant combination of ignorance and arrogance rather than any understanding of the dynamics of the system. His arrogance appears to be based on the idea that since he doesn’t understand much about climate, no mere earth scientist does.

    This is neatly disproved by looking at predictions of climate change issued in the early 1990s, which predicted a warming surface, a cooling stratosphere, and polar amplification, all of roughly the observed magnitudes.

    In the end this is a scientific question. We need a sound scientific process to address it and solid communication between the sciences and the public to convey it. The former is perhaps a bit off its game of late under various pressures, but the latter has failed catastrophically.

    When you bring Dyson into the matter you inject pure politics into matters of substance. I can understand that you don’t have a reliable way of detecting the difference, but that is exactly the problem. That difficulty is an exemplary instance of exactly why the policy response remains grossly incommensurate with the evidence.

  6. Keith Kloor says:

    You write: “In the end, this is a scientific question. We need a sound scientific process to address it and solid communication between the sciences and the public to convey it.

    There are some in the scientific community who now suggest that it’s high time for social scientists to take the baton.

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