The Climate Doom Drumbeat

There is a popular belief in some quarters that the media is timid with its coverage on climate change. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. The dominant narrative for some time has been that global warming is real and will soon wreak havoc with the planet and civilization.

Some in the climate concerned community think this message should be be drummed into us until we submit. At the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media, I argue that this approach is having the opposite effect. Sara Peach, a colleague there, discusses some recent examples of engagement that is a refreshing departure from the traditional gloom and doom mantra.

33 Responses to “The Climate Doom Drumbeat”

  1. harrywr2 says:

    Seal reasons that the prospect of global warming is “so horrifying” to readers “that you may feel like clicking away from this article right now.”
    Ms Seal might want to visit a place called ‘war’, or experience a car wreck or airplane crash, or watch the life drain from a newborn in a neonatal intensive care ward, or spend a Friday night in an emergency room in a big city or try being homeless for a week in January.
    The problem with the ‘doom and gloom’ message of climate change is that it doesn’t hold a candle to the ‘doom and gloom’ millions live with as the ‘normal course of life’ right now.

  2. Menth says:

    @1 +1,000,000

  3. Jarmo says:


    Very much to the point.

    I wonder what e.g. the Somalis are thinking, having lived for 20 years in the ruins of a collapsed state, warlords, man-made famine with no prospects for education or health care where the young aspire to become pirates or worse.

    Now their plight makes headlines….. because it might be connected to this global warming thingy. How comforting.

  4. Keith Kloor says:


    Yes, Harrywr2 makes a good point. But it’s not accurate to say that Somalia is now in the headlines because of global warming. Even before the recent famine (which made plenty of headlines) , Somalia was often in the news because of its pirates. And before that, periodically as the world’s poster child for failed state, and before that, Black Hawk Down… 

  5. Alexander Harvey says:

    There is a alternative to framing, mesaging, packaging and it is known as “doing stuff”.
    But while you are about it, you can make a broadcast quality documentary about the stuff you did.
    A good example of this is Nick Broomfield’s
    “A Time Comes – the stroy of the Kingsnorth Six”.
    Now what they did and got away with, may be especially British in character and perhaps best not attempted in many less tolerant countries, but equivalent activities could be documentarised.
    A lot of people respect people that “do stuff” even if grudgingly so, they support their right to “do stuff”.
    The video (19 minutes) is available on YouTube, and no matter what one might think of their cause, (which is not much dwelt on), one could admire their organisation, nerve, commitment, and sheer cheek. It is a bit of a hoot and not deadpan, doom gloom, hand wringing. Not bad from a bunch of “yoghurt weavers”.

  6. kdk33 says:

    That drumbeat is much like the bell one hears entering the big box stores this season.  It’s the audible signal that someone else wants in your wallet. 

    At least the Salvation Army is honest about it and puts some of the money to good use.

  7. Alexander Harvey says:

    Do your media ever cover some of the other aspects of Somalia, its tourism, its culture, its private sector enterprise, its struggle for getting any of these initiatives supported or even recognised?
    There are parts that are waving furiously and it is almost as though we wish they would stop and behave like a proper failed state.
    Those areas are drought affected too, but they do have governance, civil society, partake in the democratic process, but almost zero coverage. Their virtues may be relative, they may fall short of some of our standards but they trying not to live in a failed state but are struggling for international support seemingly because of what they are attempting, being to go their own way and achieve something.

  8. Anteros says:

    @1 – + quite a few from me.
    I’m always wary of arguments that use ‘dying children’ as the emotional weight of evidence – somehow I feel manipulated. Having said that, and therefore with caution, I’d extend harrywr2 point to include doomers contention that ‘lots of dying’ is going to result [somehow, somwhere, somewhen] from CAGW. If you could quantify it, and say yep, seems like 5000 children are going to be dying every day in 2100 directly as a result of climate change, would it be motivation to start spending trillions on the problem now? No – because any money would be hundreds of times better spent on the 25,000 children under 5 who die every day now – from cheaply preventable causes. 
    I do find it quite offensive that the likes of Al Gore use the emotional card of claiming to ‘care’ about the potentially poor [yet to exist, even] people of a hundred years time when his vast wealth could be used for the good of some poor – and very real – people today. It goes back to the sensible reasoning that people are vulnerable to climate because they are poor not because the climate might become windier or rainier – in the future.
    I’ll admit that the whole way of looking at problems in terms of how many deaths are involved – or how many dollars each is worth usually turns me off. This is true for Lomberg’s reasoning especially – even though I agree with the broad thrust of his assertions. But my point is that it can maybe used legitimately to rebut contentions that are clearly out of proportion – as @1 does.

  9. Keith Kloor says:

    I just read it and it blows my mind. Amazing when liberals act like neocons in 2002/2003.

  10. grypo says:

    I don’t think the comparison to the Iraq war is valid, but I don’t think his message will work for what he wants either, which appears to a climate zeitgeist.   While I agree with him about the need to for a movement, the 10 percent, or assigning any percent to believing in a certain level of alarm-ism, is not the way forward.  A true movement bases itself in values and ethical inclusion.  Any climate movement will need to do the same, based on the scientific risk which is already established.

  11. Nullius in Verba says:

    I thought the article was a good read.
    I think he’s right to say that one shouldn’t avoid apocalyptic talk if that’s what you really believe just because people don’t like it. I think the problem is that it can’t just be a message – you have to act as if you really believe it in every aspect of what you say, do, what solutions you’ll consider, the rigour and attention to detail you demand, the pragmatism and blindness to politics.
    Belief is an odd thing – it’s not simply a one-dimensional scale from belief to disbelief on which people move. People divide their lives and minds into compartments – frames – and they can have different beliefs depending on what frame their working in. There are different frames for when you’re at work, when you’re at home with your family, when you’re at the church/temple/mosque/whatever. Public faces and private faces and ‘party animal’ faces. There’s the political frame, and the consumer frame, and the neighbour frame. And when you’re thinking as one, you don’t always note the conflicts with your beliefs in others.
    Sometimes these come into conflict when one sphere of life intrudes on another. I saw this arise when kids put their ‘party animal’ antics on facebook, and their prospective employers checked them before job interviews. The kids saw this as an invasion, because their ‘at work’ frame was a different personality, and was all their employer was supposed to see. Many people get accused of hypocrisy because of the effect, but it’s not always the case. When conflicts are pointed out, people often modify one frame to conform to their others, holding a sort of mini-debate internally. But it’s difficult to maintain.
    Thus it is that even in countries where everyone is a believer in some apocalyptic religion, you still get sin. Even priests are not immune. How can they do that, if they genuinely believe in the judgement and hellfire and all that? Because they’re particularly good at separating their ‘everyday life’ frame and their ‘church’ frame.
    I’m guessing it’s probably the same with climate catastrophe believers. It’s not that the doom turns them off, or that they lack faith; it’s that their ‘climate change activist’ frame is isolated from all the rest. When you ask the question, they believe, but the rest of the time they’re amongst the disengaged. Both beliefs and degrees of belief are held simultaneously – Orwell called it ‘doublethink’ when it was about politics, but it’s a general feature of all human thinking.
    I thought neocons were originally liberals who had switched sides? It’s not so strange, really.

  12. Anteros says:

    NiV –
    Well put. From a much more esoteric perspective Gurdjieff observed that it would take extraordinary amounts of energy to keep one frame in all situations and it would drive us mad to have a multiplicity at one time. The route of least energetic resistance [strife?] is the path we tend to follow, although there are other variables like consistency and coherence that occasionally have to be catered for.
    Why is it we find some people hard work – even when we agree with them? Sometimes it’s because they have crude social filters so they use inappropriate frames – they’ll just bang on about hunting with guns, say, at every opportunity – weddings, funerals, wherever – and we wish they’d switch that frame off – even if we share it.
    Then again it can be seen as courageous to ‘speak up’ when social conventions call for small talk. Some people love the role of ‘alarm raiser’ and if it didn’t piss people off, they wouldn’t feel they were doing a good job.
    To me, all this is a reminder that ‘evidence’ and ‘reasoning’ rarely have much to do with belief, particularly when it concerns the slightly scary possibilities of the distant future. Mental pictures, images, ‘signs and wonders’ maybe, but reasoning? Not often.
    As I like to say, that is why alarmists cannot be reasoned out of their position – because they didn’t use reason to get themselves there in the first place.

  13. Again I have so much trouble understanding the Serious Person mentality. I absolutely can’t make any sense of #10.
    I think David Roberts is on a real tear, articulating things with precision and hitting the bullseye.  What exactly is incorrect about what he is saying?
    Again, stipulate for the purpose of argument that “global warming is real and will soon wreak havoc with the planet and civilization”, and that, as you say, this is not motivating commensurate action. What exactly should those of us who want to minimize said havoc (which is almost identical with those who actually understand the situation, by hypothesis) do?
    Shut up and pretend matters aren’t all that serious? Yes, indeed, that will increase the probability of the moderate response.
    Remember that the moderate response is far the most accessible one: it is the response large enough to damage short term prosperity but still grossly inadequate and ill-conceived to deal with the long term viability problem. In practice, moderation is worse than denial.
    It is clear that we cannot front burner this issue until the damage gets worse than we already see. I am sure that the rational outcome that David describes will not happen. But that is no reason to sugar-coat the matter. I remain convinced that telling the truth includes not only the “narrative” (a word that irritates me no end) but also the proportion.
    That we can still approach an election as if “the environment” were a niche interest like it was still 1980 is a sign of a very severe failure of some sort. I am much more interested in grappling with the failure and getting past it than in excusing it. There are reasons we are where we are, but that is a very bad place and people of good will and good sense should be working very hard to get out of here as soon as we can manage it.
    Whatever this has to do with liberals and neocons seems to me to be from a different universe than any one I have any experience with.

  14. Anteros says:

    MT @ 14
    Your final comment about how another person’s perspective seems to be from a different universe than any you have any experience with, resonates with me. Sometimes the distance to another person’s view seems to far to bridge.
    You say “There are reasons we are where we are, but that is a very bad place and people of good will and good sense should be working very hard to get out of here as soon as we can manage it” which to me sums up a world view arrived at by emotional disposition and one that makes no sense in any universe I have any experience with.
    The only way to begin to understand it is to say how do things look compared to 100 or 500 years ago. In the broadest sense, they are remarkably similar – the world remains the same and human nature is identical to how it was described by Bernard Shaw or Shakespeare. From a slightly narrower perspective, unless you want more pain, suffering, starvation, illness and poverty, it is clear that the lot of mankind has improved greatly.
    If you are, by constitution, utterly determined to see, imagine, or anticipate bad things there is nothing that anybody can do to stop you – people have been doing it since the beginning of our species. But it isn’t – however much it appears to be – objective. Unless of course my own country – England – is the only environmental paradise on earth and everywhere else is turning into a hellhole.

  15. BBD says:

    I grind my teeth when I get told to ‘do some reading’ just as I’m sure you do. Nevertheless, it’s still vital to do one’s best.

  16. AMac says:

    Michael Tobis #14 —

    You should keep doing what you’re doing, for the most part.  You, and Grist’s David Roberts, and many blogosphere commenters, believe firmly and passionately that your view is the objectively correct one, and that Earth’s situation is urgent and perilous.

    In the linked article, Roberts writes,

    > Since honest (read: terrifying) talk about the severity of climate change doesn’t win over the uncommitted or disinterested, it is deemed unhelpful to that effort and scolded whenever it pops up.

    And later,

    > What complicates matters, of course, is that there’s a roughly equally sized (but vastly better funded and organized) cadre of people who are passionately intense about spreading doubt and blocking action.

    I — and many others who are not passionately intense about spreading doubt and blocking action — remain unconvinced by your and Roberts’ assessment of the threat. 

    Roberts and you could probably increase your effectiveness by soft-pedaling your Manichean view of the world, for reasons that are obvious to scientifically-literate people-like-me.  But it’s more genuine for you to call things as you see them.  I think this honesty is helpful, in the long run.  Whether or not the planet’s circumstances are as dire as you  believe.

  17. It turns out to be far from uncomfortable to steal from your descendants.
    For those of managing to stay in the middle class or better, it’s not a bad time to live in the way a bad hotel is a bad hotel. Not by any means. It’s a bad time in the way a bad person is a bad person.

  18. Anteros says:

    BBD –
    It would be pointless for you to learn to read, unless you opened your closed mind first.

  19. harrywr2 says:

    It turns out to be far from uncomfortable to steal from your descendants.
    I remember polio being a ‘major’ concern as well as TB. I’ve tested positive for TB exposure since the age of 6.  By the time I graduated high school everyone personally not only knew someone who had ‘been to war’ but everyone knew someone who had been killed or maimed in a war.
    Sit down and make a list of all the ‘trials and tribulations’ our generation had to contend with and our parents generation had to contend with then compare them to the younger generation.
    Our children aren’t going to get a perfect world, it’s a lot better then what was handed to us by our parents and it’s a lot better then was handed to our parents by their parents.

  20. Anteros says:

    It’s not only our personal health, prosperity and life expectancy that has been transformed out of all recognition. In England there are three times as many trees as there were a hundred years ago, there are vastly more nature reserves, parks, and wetlands than there are urban areas and I’m told I live on a crowded Island. London’s air is cleaner than is has been for 400 years and even my cat is guaranteed clean drinking water for life.
    Of course, and forever, if before I open my eyes in the morning I’m desperate to  see ‘biomes struggling everywhere’ that is exactly and and happily what I shall see.

  21. Keith Kloor says:

    Michael (14)

    You seem to have read my post at the Yale Forum, so you should be aware of my larger point: the climate doom narrative has been a constant in the press for some time. What more could the media do to help you (and Roberts) make your case? (You presumably linked to some of the stories I referenced.) The message has been loud and clear. So if all the scary stories haven’t done the trick, what makes you think raising the volume a few decibels higher will work any better?

  22. EdG says:

    OK. Let me try that.

    We’re all doomed.



    Now do you believe me?

  23. Anteros says:

    MT @ 18 –
    What did your antecedents steal from you, apart from optimism?

  24. #24: Amazingly, I consider myself an optimist.
    But as for what has been taken from me,  I will not answer your question on a personal basis except to say “it’s complicated”.
    Collectively, I can answer with ease. In North America most biomes have been damaged or almost entirely  destroyed, and adaptive regional morays along with them. Forests in the northeast and southeast, Florida mangroves and hammocks, western riparian systems, estuaries and sandbar habitat, plentiful supplies of oysters, shrimp and crab, plentiful supplies of cod, much of the high plains and about 99.99 per cent of the native habitat of Illinois and Indiana. Songbirds. Amphibians. Beautiful corners of the countryside where nobody would ask you your business. For starters. I’m sure I’ve missed some. Not to mention a planet with a stable climate, which sure was nice for a while, but that was mostly our own generation.
    I’m an optimist because I don’t believe we have no more cards to play. We’re probably not totally hosed yet. We still have a few more tricks up our sleeves.
    But I don’t think we should sit around saying “yep, yep, still a few more cards to play”, for much longer, no. Time to start figuring out what order to play them in, and start playing them.

  25. Keith re #22, please summarize what you are happy to call “the climate doom narrative”.
    I am pretty sure that is not a good name for what I am saying, or what Jon Foley is saying for instance, or what David Roberts, or me and most of the rest of the old sci.env gang, or Bart, or Gavin etc etc are saying. But I forgive you for being facetious, and for saying “narrative”, all in two words in a row.
    I really want to have some definition to what you propose the story that the American mass news media have delivered is shaped like.  Note that if you entirely neglect the Murdoch press and/or the Republican Party, I will consider your answer at best incomplete.
    No obligation of course; you owe me nothing and I appreciate the space to engage. But I am not lying or being ornery when I say I do not understand what you are thinking.
    The press should be examining risks and benefits and tradeoffs and ethics, not spouting “doom” thankyouverymuch. The press should be treating the problem as a governance problem, not as a hypothesis and certainly not as a dang political football.

  26. Keith Kloor says:


    We have gone back and forth on this many times. I’ve made myself clear. I’m sorry you don’t understand what I’m saying. But I will agree with part of your last paragraph, that the press should be giving much more space to “examining risks and benefits and tradeoffs and ethics.” That would greatly help move the debate forward.

  27. OPatrick says:

    Keith, I think your clarity comes at the expense of telling a false, or at least incomplete and oversimplified, version of the message being put out by the ‘climate concerned community’.

    You see ‘doom and gloom’, but how is this distinguished from realism? More importantly you disregard the message which virtually always comes with this realism, the message about solutions, the positive actions we can take to address the reality we are facing.

    In the Yale forum piece you link to Sara Peach uses The Lorax as an example of the ‘doom and gloom’ approach, which mystifies me. The Lorax is a fundamentally positive story, which celebrates nature and ends with the message of hope. The message coming from the ‘climate concerned’ is a more sophisticated and more nuanced version of this and overwhelmingly contains that same positive message of hope and a vision of a future path that is better than the one we are on. Of course you can always dismiss anyone who sees positive signs of change as being hypocritical, if we haven’t got a full solution why welcome any signs of progress?

    The vision of ‘doom and gloom’ is being projected onto the message by those who don’t want to accept the solutions.

  28. Nullius in Verba says:

    That’s an interesting difference of viewpoints. A lot of people are seeing plenty of doom and depression, and that it puts people off – either less likely to take it seriously, or less likely to want to have think about it, or whatever. A few people are seeing only too tightly restrained realism, with all the properly scary apocalyptic stuff kept out of public view, and see this as the basic reason people are not acting urgently on it. At the same time, they see this scary apocalyptic stuff as an optimistic message of hope.
    “There were occasional newspaper articles, more in the U.K., in which climate scientists waved red flags, but the average American — who gets their news and cultural attitudes from TV — has not been exposed to anything scary at all about climate.
    Just to pick one example, consider this. About a minute and a half in, dear old uncle Ted gives a picture of the future that some here might consider ‘realism’, followed by his ‘hopeful’ plan on how to solve what he sees as the fundamental cause. Is this the sort of thing we want to see more of?
    Or given that the average American apparently hasn’t seen anything scary on TV, does that mean this is too tame and we want something even scarier?
    Because while I admit that I found the interview quite scary – albeit probably for quite different reasons to the climate-concerned – I found it very noticeable that when it first came out the clip got a lot of coverage on sceptic blogs. Now why would they do that, if this sort of thing is just what we need more of to encourage action?

  29. OPatrick says:

    Some might consider it realism, most would consider it a deliberately provocative statement by someone seemingly known for his controversial pronouncements.

  30. Nullius in Verba says:

    Sure. So is this sort of deliberately provocative realism what we want more of, to get action on climate change?

  31. OPatrick says:


    And I don’t think it’s realism. 

  32. hunter says:

    Anyone who claims that Americans have not been exposed to cliamte alarmism on TV is either profoundly ignorant of American TV, fibbing, or delusional.
     The surprisingly good news about Americans is that they have been able to smell the unmistakable aroma of bs fromthe AGW movement despite the fawning uncritical support given by the American media.
    The actions of the climate fear promoters have spoken far more clearly to the American people than the hype of climate doom.

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