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You’re Scaring the Crap Out of Me – And it Isn’t Helpful

By now, many of you have read David Wallace-Wells 7,300-word hellfire and brimstone climate change essay in the New York Magazine. If you haven’t, you should.

The essay is a nihilistic, nightmarish, stomach-churning dive into all the possible ways our planet might respond to human-induced climate change. From out-of-control diseases released from glaciers to mass starvation to death smogs and poisoned rain, this essay will leave your knees shaking and have you looking at your kids wondering what you’ve condemned them to. It is the stuff of nightmares and the bottom line is that in less than 100 years the Earth will be more or less uninhabitable. We’re screwed. Period.

climate change fear

But….but…hold on….

I have very mixed feelings about this essay. In the first place there are a number of factually incorrect statements. Check out Andrew Freedman’s piece over at Mashable for a clean round up of how Wallace-Wells gets some of the science wrong.Daniel Aldana Cohen has another take worth reading. Finally, Dr. Michael Mann, one of the most knowledgeable climate scientists posted an excellent response to Wallace-Wells on his Facebook page. As a science writer I know how hard it is to get things just right and mistakes are inevitable (thank God for good fact-checkers!) but these kind of factual errors detract from what is an otherwise beautifully-written and powerful essay. To be fair to Wallace-Wells, he does say in his article that he is painting a baseline picture so-to-speak. He is saying that this is what might happen if we dont act at all and he leaves the door open to the possibility we will act and not go down the doomsday path. Of course David Roberts disputes that Wallace-Wells got the science wrong so be sure to read his take. The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer explains that none of us really know how to talk about climate change at the moment and I think that is a pretty honest assessment!

Second, this kind of climate change fear -mongering is not going to change any minds. Eric Holthaus rightly points out that:

The real problem is that time and time and time again, psychology researchers have found that trying to scare people into action usually backfires. Presented with the idea that the planet that gives us life might be dying, parts of our brain shut down. We are unable to think logically.

Our brain’s limbic system is hard-wired to prioritize these kinds of threats, so we shift into fight-or-flight mode. And because the odds look stacked against us, most choose to flee. If anything, strategies like this make the problem worse. They take people willing to read something like “The Uninhabitable Earth” and essentially remove them from the pool of people working on real-world solutions.

So, all that said, Wallace-Wells is not exactly “wrong”. The fact is that climate change is real and it’s really, really, really bad. Really. You should be worried. But it’s not as bad as Wallace-Wells would have us believe. There is a certain value in looking at the worst-case scenarios (Mann himself has done this – albeit more responsibly and Emily Atkin at the New Republic has a pretty fair and balanced take on the value of disaster porn) and working backwards to find the alternate paths that will lead us to an alternate future.

I’m currently working on a lengthy article for Sapiens about ability or inability of past cultures to deal with shifts in climate. What I’m finding is societies that fared best were willing and able to change: they didn’t hang on to systems or infrastructure that stopped serving them, their cultures and economies were diverse and flexible. They also allowed for what economists call “creative destruction”: letting new innovations kill off old ways of doing things (publication scheduled for August 17).  I’m not sure our culture will adapt. But I’m not sure it won’t either. We can if we chose to do so. The future is far from hopeless and we shouldn’t despair.  Dr. Mann writes:

The evidence that climate change is a serious problem that we must contend with now, is overwhelming on its own. There is no need to overstate the evidence, particularly when it feeds a paralyzing narrative of doom and hopelessness.

How we get folks to comprehend what is really going on and do something about it? I’m not talking about the deniers. They are a lost cause and not worth our time. I’m talking about the people who know what is happening and while they feel the weight of it all can be motivated toward change instead of collapsing into dystopia. David Wallace-Wells’ intention is good. He hopes to scare us into action. Unfortunately, I’m not sure he accomplished his goal and may in fact have done the opposite.

A commenter of Dr. Mann’s Facebook post put it just right:

A lot of people when they hear doom and gloom they simply think “That’s it. There is nothing I can do to change things. So what is the point?” When you present people with options to help or to change things it can give them hope and help them to realize there is still a chance. People have to be given the tools to know how to help though. If you have the chance check into Sir David Attenborough’s Stories of Hope. It is a conference they hold once a year that does just these things.

In my work, I’m telling the story of how people are adapting to climate change. How are they preparing? What changes are they making? How are they reacting? How are they adapting? And what happens when people are forced to move due to climate change? How do we build resilience and hope into our families and communities? Dealing with the human-created causes of climate change is vital. But so is adapting to inevitable change. I want people to know that they are not alone and that there are options. Holthaus is correct:

When the view is dark, hope is a radical choice.

Don’t despair. There is hope.


ADDITION July 15, 2017:

I’ve gathered a number of other reactions to the New York Magazine article that have appeared the last few days…

Susan Matthews disagrees totally with my take and Holthaus take. She says Wallace-Wells doesnt go far enough. Be sure to read this.

David Roberts disagrees with me and makes some very excellent points:  It’s okay to talk about how scary climate change is. Really.

Also. Read this interview with Wallace-Wells.

Erik Hothaus on Twitter pointing out all the factual scientific errors in the Wallace-Wells essay and disputing David Roberts defense. Here is a link to the first tweet and you can find the rest from there.

David Wallace-Wells has a Twitter response to Holthaus that is well worth reading.

Urban Geographer Stephanie Wakefield has a response and while she isnt exactly optimistic she is not without hope.

I think Joe Romm gets it exactly right:  We aren’t doomed by climate change. Right now we are choosing to be doomed.

The Problem with Doomsday Reporting and How to Move Beyond It 

Robert Scribbler: Facing Down Climate Doom — Wallace-Wells’ Truth in Fiction Warnings Earn Michael Mann’s Necessary Critiques

Dan Bloom: ‘Climate change angst’ is a global anxiety, and borderless

Brigid Delaney: Facts matter, but stories can persuade us to change our world

Ian Johnston: Climate change doomsday warning of ‘rolling death smog’ and ‘perpetual war’ criticised by scientists

Mark Tercek: Don’t Panic, Do Act: A Climate Resource With Real Solutions

Richard Heinberg: Are we doomed? Lets have a conversation.

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