Climate change: Will doomsday scenarios backfire?
However alarmed you are about climate change, said David Wallace-Wells in New York magazine, you are “not alarmed enough.” After years of attacks from climate skeptics, the scientific community has become overly cautious in its predictions of how climate change may impact life on Earth, and how quickly. Behind the climatologists’ public “reticence,” however, there is growing evidence that unless we act now to dramatically cut carbon emissions, by the year 2100 the human race could be living, or rather dying, on an “uninhabitable planet.” Temperatures are already rising rapidly, particularly in polar regions, and within the next few decades warmer air could melt the Arctic permafrost, releasing 1.8 trillion tons of trapped carbon—twice as much as is currently in the atmosphere. This chain-reaction effect will greatly accelerate the rate of warming, rapidly raising global temperatures by more than 8 degrees. Baking heat and drought will quickly turn most of the planet’s agricultural regions into deserts. Seas will rise by as much as 10 feet, inundating coastlines. People all over the world will literally die of 110-degree heat and suffocating humidity. The worst can still be avoided, if this scenario shocks us out of our complacency, but right now, we’re on course to destroy our planet.
What hysterical nonsense, said Oren Cass in City-Journal.org. Many climate experts are discrediting Wallace-Wells’ dire predictions as “disconnected from reality.” Predictably, however, liberal pundits have heaped praise on the hyperventilating article, in their fervent hope that “climate catastrophism” will help scare the public into supporting intrusive government efforts to restrict carbon emissions. The reality is that alarmism only creates a backlash, said Jonah Goldberg in NationalReview.com. The public remembers past doomsday predictions about environmental catastrophes that didn’t happen, because they were either overblown or solved by human ingenuity. So it’s all too easy to laugh off a wild-eyed climate-change alarmist shouting, “The end is nigh!”
“Climate doomism,” in fact, can be just as destructive as climate-change denial, said atmospheric scientist Michael Mann in WashingtonPost.com. By painting an “overly bleak” picture, people like Wallace-Wells risk demoralizing the public into fatalistic passivity. If an overcooked Earth is all but inevitable, why should we change our way of life now? Actually, Wallace-Wells didn’t say the situation was hopeless, said David Roberts in Vox.com. In laying out the worst-case scenario, he said explicitly that the planet could still be saved with prompt and concerted action. The fact is that “most people simply have no idea how scary climate change is.”
The problem, said Robinson Meyer in TheAtlantic.com, is that there are two equally true but conflicting narratives here. On the one hand, our hotter planet is already experiencing more “megadroughts,” wildfires, and long-lasting heat waves, at the same time President Trump has pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate-change agreement. “On the other hand, a strategy for addressing climate change is coming together,” with the plunging cost of solar and wind energy, the dawn of electric cars, and serious emissions-control efforts by most nations. To focus on the first story risks demoralizing the public, while to focus on the second risks sending the message that the problem is well in hand. The truth is that at this point in history, no one knows whether our efforts to head off disaster will be successful. Did Wallace-Wells exaggerate the threat to terrify his readers into action? No doubt. But a steadily warming climate is still “the worst problem in the world,” and terror is appropriate. ■