Scary, scary,scary: do we need more eco-alarmism?

One of the principle charges against climate change alarmism is that it is… well, alarmist. In other words, the strongest foundation of skepticism is not of course to question the basic science that CO2 is a Greenhouse gas, that the earth has been warming for some time, that this could lead to negative effects in some areas, or even that the rate of warming could be cause for concern, but simply that the level of concern expressed is frequently alarmist and over-blown, frequently going far beyond what is justified by the science.

This is exacerbated by the evidence for political activism amongst some scientists and a strong drive to usurp every other problem in the world to this one rather abstract Cause which can be blamed for nearly everything.

In short, alarmism- over-egging the pudding as it were- defines the climate change debate. Its rawest form can be found in some of the more ill-advised campaigning tactics such as the notorious Splattergate video, which still has the power to shock and evoke expressions of disbelief that anyone could think this would help their Cause.

I was rather nonplussed then to read Joe Romm’s recent piece claiming that alarmism is largely a myth.

Shortly after I read it I had a brief Twitter exchange recently with @DarkOptimism who tweeted first this:

The Myth of ‘Constant Repetition of Doomsday Messages’ on Climate: http://thinkprogress.org/romm/2012/02/26/432546/apocalypse-not-oscars-media-myth-of-repetition-of-doomsday-messages-on-climate/

followed immediately by

Scary, scary, scary. Oceans’ current acidic shift may be fastest in 300 million years: http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/03/01/us-climate-oceans-acid-idUSTRE82025S20120301

I thought this rather ironic- first a link to a post claiming “constant repetition of Doomsday messages” is a myth;
then a post about ocean acidification which is prefaced by the rather Doomsday words “scary, scary, scary.”

On the face of it these two tweets seem directly contradictory. As an ex-doomer myself, someone who had preached a somewhat apocalyptic message of Peak Oil/Climate Change and Ecological Armageddon message for several years- the idea that actually the charge of doomerism is a “straw man” seemed somewhat eye-brow raising.

Romm starts his piece with an apparent contradiction:

The two greatest myths about global warming communications are 1) constant repetition of doomsday messages has been a major, ongoing strategy and 2) that strategy doesn’t work and indeed is actually counterproductive!

So first a denial that the doomsday message is constantly repeated; then a claim that when it is repeated, it works!

The piece gets more bizarre in the next paragraph:

The only time anything approximating this kind of messaging — not “doomsday” but what I’d call blunt, science-based messaging that also makes clear the problem is solvable — was in 2006 and 2007 with the release of An Inconvenient Truth (and the 4 assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and media coverage like the April 2006 cover of Time). The data suggest that strategy measurably moved the public to become more concerned about the threat posed by global warming (see recent study here).

This is frankly astonishing- because Al Gore’s film cannot of course be considered “blunt, science-based messaging” but is quite clearly an example of extreme non-science-based doomerism. Indeed, a closer scrutiny of Al Gore’s film was what alerted me to the doomer message in the first place. Nor does An Inconvenient Truth make clear that this problem is solvable in any kind of rational way- first we are treated to visions of Manhattan going under water- very much in the vein of the sci-fi movie The Day After Tomorrow which Romm also refers to- among other messages of eco-doom- and then we are told we can solve this civilization-threatening issue with airy gestures such as changing light-bulbs and cycling more.

Romm’s message is nothing if not mixed. AIT won an Oscar; Gore shared a Nobel Peace Prize with the IPCC, and Romm likewise links the two- strongly suggesting to the innocent observer that the lack of science in the one is reflected in the other. Indeed, the continued mentioning of AIT and the IPCC report in the same breath would appear to be an extraordinary own goal, an open admission that the whole climate change thing is little more than a doom-mongering scam.

But it gets worse: Romm argues that alarmism, when it does happen works, and is therefore a good thing:

And the social science literature, including the vast literature on advertising and marketing, could not be clearer that only repeated messages have any chance of sinking in and moving the needle.

{my emphases}

So which is it, Joe? That the alarmist message was a rare event- Gore’s film and the IPCC report- but that empirical evidence shows that repeated messages are needed to have the desired effect?

This issue- that, far from being jaded by the doomsday message, its continued repetition is working, is such an important point to get across that Romm is going to write a series of articles on the subject, to encourage yet more alarmism that he starts off by saying is really just a myth.

Confused? Well he now gets to the real point which is that the alarmist message is not coming from MSM, the public a large is not getting the message of “impending doom unless you change your lifestyles” at all:

Since this is Oscar night, though, it seems appropriate to start by looking at what messages the public are exposed to in popular culture and the media. It ain’t doomsday. Quite the reverse, climate change has been mostly an invisible issue for several years and the message of conspicuous consumption and business-as-usual reigns supreme.

This is of course very likely largely true- most people have other concerns than alarmist propaganda, and the “mainstream” culture is indeed more interested in selling stuff and economic growth, but the question is why, when Gore et al got off to such a good start back in the good old days- Oscar, Nobel Prize- that this suicidal society that seems hell-bent on destroying itself just wont sit up and take notice.

Romm makes the usual claim that the public’s apathy is because of denialists, the culture of consumerism and right-wing think-tanks:

At least a quarter of the public chooses media that devote a vast amount of time to the notion that global warming is a hoax and that environmentalists are extremists and that clean energy is a joke.

This is largely true in America Im sure, as in the UK, although the Guardian does a pretty good job of raising the alarmist petard on a fairly regular basis- as evidenced by the bizarre claims of Bill McGuire the same week that climate change will lead to increased volcanoes and earthquakes (odd that we havn’t heard much about such things from the IPCC reports?).

There is plenty of alarmism coming from activists however, and despite Romm’s claim that even the blogs are fairly moderate, some activists- Romm for example- do come across as being rather extremist. Roger Pielke Jr. reviewed some of the more outlandish claims here the same week, arguing that there is a “bottomless well of nonsense on disasters and climate change”.

Another example of the frequent exaggeration and false attribution of effects solely to climate change was rebutted here, The Death of Outdoor Hockey Has Been Greatly Exaggerated.

Now we have artists getting in on the act with an installation called “Plunge” with rings of blue light on various pillars around London to indicate sea-levels some 1000 years in the future: {read Ben Pile on this story here.}

In other words, climate alarmism is coming from some sections of the media (like the Guardian), and from scientists like Hansen, and certainly from activists, such as those who made The Age of Stupid. The message imbibed by so many is so apocalyptic in tone that even the suspension of democracy is deemed justifiable by some in order to implement the necessary policy.

But while there may be evidence that alarmism can indeed lead to change of behavior and increased concern, however unnecessary such concern really is, Romm seems to ignore the much more obvious and fundamental reasons for inaction: the recession- which has itself of course been far more effective at reducing carbon emissions than any emissions reduction strategy- the price of oil, and the fact that “clean” renewables like wind and solar are still too expensive.

Indeed, the current state of “clean energy” really is rather a joke in terms of its ability to quickly replace fossil fuels, while the one low-carbon alternative that really could fulfill this role- nuclear- is itself a primary target of environmental opposition and alarmist rhetoric.

The main solutions proposed (Kyoto-style treaties) have been complete failures, in part because so much of the developing world is on an unstoppable path of industrialization that will outweigh any lip-service lifestyle change that can be effected by affluent westerners trying to compensate for the revenge fantasies of Manhattan floods.

This is not because they have been seduced by a consumerist MSM in the pocket of Big Oil- it’s just called development.

Romm is correct that the MSM does not dwell too much on alarmist claims, but extraordinarily seems to feel that it would be good if they did. The problem is that most such claims are not well supported by the science (HimalayGate being another high-profile example). This is because Romm, like many activists – possibly including Chamberlin?- are so wrapped up in the narrative of doom that they allow the need for “effectiveness” at getting their “message” across to “trump truth.” -as Pielke says of some journalists.

I am not sure how concerned we should be about ocean acidification (one rebuttal can be found here) but since the whole environmental movement, from Rachel Carson onwards through Ehrlich and his still-influential neo-Malthussianism
is so deeply imbued with alarmist claims- “The earth Passed away 11 years ago”- that I think we have good reason to be skeptical, and focus on more pressing issues in the here and now.

The tragedy is, environmentalists have failed almost completely to reconcile the need for development to tackle immediate problems like poverty and hunger with the inevitable rise in CO2 emissions this will result in. And until they do, it will make really no difference how many people Al Gore has managed to scare into changing their light-bulbs.

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9 Comments

  1. Lewis Deane

     /  March 9, 2012

    Nicely put – followed the reference from Ben Pile.

    Reply
  2. Not sure if this is public access or not, but this is a good summary of ocean acidification so far (the research not having changed view much since then) http://www.sciencemag.org/content/321/5885/51.full?searchid=1&HITS=10&hits=10&resourcetype=HWCIT&maxtoshow=&RESULTFORMAT=&FIRSTINDEX=0&fulltext=caldeira – a key point is that the important thing is saturation state, not the absolute pH (but acidification rolls off the tongue better than ocean carbonate saturation state decrease).

    Reply
  3. Graham, having pondered your piece I still don’t see any contradiction in my RTing a comment that the mainstream media are expressing relatively little alarm about climate change and then expressing my own alarm about a related phenomenon (do you really consider “scary, scary, scary” as “Doomsday words”?), but if you do, that’s entirely your right.

    Totally agree with the ridiculousness of Al Gore’s advocacy for changing light bulbs and carbon trading, but don’t have the energy to engage with the claim that climate change is a “doom-mongering scam”. I’ve done my time on that one. We both know well where the latest arguments/evidence to the contrary of our own viewpoints is to be found, so better that we each focus on seriously considering our own viewpoints (again) in light of it than pointing each other at it again.

    Romm’s point in his piece was clearly that there was once more repeated climate change messaging and that is was more effective in communicating to the public than what we have now, but that it has now tailed off. He has no need of my defence, but it’s clear enough to me that there’s no contradiction there, despite that you disagree on this matter (“which is it, Joe?”). Just as there is no contradiction in arguing that people are insufficiently alarmed and then quoting alarming evidence in an attempt to redress this

    Claiming here that Romm (and “possibly” I) believe that “‘effectiveness’ at getting our ‘message’ across ‘trumps truth’” just appears to be straight-up defamation. I can’t speak for Joseph Romm, but you have produced no evidence to justify this belief about me, and don’t even reveal to me what you believe my “message” to be. The sentence in question appears to be in a mess, so perhaps you accidentally deleted this evidence, but if so, I’d love to know what it is.

    To quote a few environmentalists who you disagree with, assume that I likely share their agenda (perhaps because I have written on climate change, or RTd an article you don’t like?), and then publish a piece hinting that I deliberately play fast and loose with the truth because of my mysterious need to propagate some unspecified “message” is quite uncalled for.

    As it happens, you pick a strange target – I have little love for Green NGOs, agree that they fail to reconcile development, emissions and peak energy and am deeply committed to addressing poverty and hunger. Yet in my experience environmental concerns rank highly for many of those suffering these indignities, especially in the majority world. They know that their environment was not always as hostile as they now find it, and so it is in your argument that we should focus on “more pressing issues in the here and now” rather than on addressing issues with more delayed, long-term consequences that I find a grim irony.

    Reply
    • Thanks Shaun
      My point about Romm is that his stance is essentially a straw man, and/or a matter of perception: there are lots of doom-mongering messages to be found in the MSM (eg the examples from the Guardian I have given- dont know if there is a US equivalent), but who claims that the MSM is primarily focused on such messages (rather than on advertising etc.).
      However, the more important point is that environmentalism and doom-mongering are pretty inseparable- the narrative of doom is so strong that neither you nor Romm seem able to see beyond it. So no please dont accuse me of defaming you personally – I am not implying that you are deliberately deceptive or have anything other than genuine intentions- I am simply pointing out that you, in common with the majority of the environmental movement, operate within a narrative of doom. Thus, while we might agree that Gore’s proposed solutions are inadequate, we probably dont agree that the message itself is based, not on science or fact, but ideology: the film is essentially a work of propaganda to further a political end.
      I think that this is pretty endemic and goes largely unquestioned within the environmental movement. It seems to me that Transition Timeline for example is fully rooted in this ideology. Thus, in your book, the “story” of growth and progress is seen as just that- a story- while the narrative of catastrophe unless we change course radically (Transition) is based on solid science. So I am not accusing you of dishonesty or deception, but of confirmation bias (“scary, scary, scary”). I am inviting you to question whether these repeated scary messages really are true or based on irrefutable science.
      But it does concern me that in your response you seem to unquestioningly repeat Romm’s assumption that, because scary messages constantly repeated will lead to more concern amongst people- and possibly some change of behaviour (less evidence of that) that it would be good to have more such scary messages. In my view this is very close to suggesting that, since such messages may be effective at causing alarm and/or behaviour change, (the “message”) it doesn’t really matter if they are not strictly factual…and might therefore “trump truth”.

      “They know that their environment was not always as hostile as they now find it,”
      not quite sure what you mean here. Poverty and hunger, as you know, have multiple complex causes. How do “they” “know”- through science, or in the same way that people “know” that homeopathy works (see Transition Timeline Ch.11 on Health and Medicine.)
      Apologies for the garbled sentence- now corrected.

      Reply
      • Thanks for the thoughtful reply Graham, and for clarifying your meaning. It is much appreciated.

        To address your point, no, I don’t think that it is a good idea to exaggerate the science in order to bring about behaviour change, even where that behaviour change might be a very good idea. However, when I do find that general public perception of (and alarm over) climate science is very different to that of the climate scientists I work with, who are considerably more alarmed, as reflected in my book. This also reflects my own (lesser) understanding of the latest science. Consequently I share Romm’s perspective that mainstream media reporting of climate science is less alarming than a clear communication of the implications of the science would be.

        You clearly do not share this perspective, based on your own reading of the science and that of the experts you respect. This leads you to find that the media is overstating the cause for alarm. Fair enough. We differ on our understanding of the science. There’s no reason for either of us to accuse the other of distorting the “truth” in order to get our message across. We simply have different perceptions of the truth on this matter.

        As I said before, I no longer find the time to spend hours in online discussion over the detail of such scientific matters (I eventually realised it was making v little difference to either me or my interlocutors and decided to get on with more productive work), but we both know where to find the presentation of evidence to the contrary of our own viewpoints, and I imagine that we both take care to consider it and strive to overcome our own confirmation bias (imperfectly, inevitably) while doing so. Hopefully over time this process of healthy scepticism will lead our views on the scientific truth of the matter to converge to some extent.

        Regarding the other point made in your comment – that environmentalism and “doom-mongering” are inseparable both in my work and elsewhere – I’m afraid I must disagree. I know plenty of techno-optimist environmentalists, for example, and I imagine you do too. You also appear to be the only person who has read my book as doom-mongering (or the only one to mention it to me, at least!). e.g. Heinberg :”Will the future be as rosy as The Transition Timeline suggests it might be?”, Holmgren: “Shaun Chamberlin paints the picture of how we got to a better world by 2027″, Hagens: “In this refreshingly real and hopeful book…we are offered vision and hope” (reviews are collected here: http://www.darkoptimism.org/books.html#Reviews)

        I’m afraid you do appear to have misread it, as in there I also explicitly emphasise that the narrative of doom is one of three dominant stories that our culture holds regarding the future (along with ‘business as usual” and ‘techno utopia’). It is a story just as much as any other, and I emphasise therein that even if some story is scientifically based, it is still a narrative. It is important to understand that in this context I do not use the term ‘cultural story’ to mean a fiction, but rather a narrative – a lens if you like – through which we make sense of our world (see Chapter 1). In this sense, nobody operates outside of stories, whether Al Gore, climate scientists or either one of us. I hope that makes my perspective clearer.

        All the best,
        Shaun

        Reply
        • Thanks again Shaun
          Yes I understand the scenarios concept- but as I read your book, there is an implied assumption that we are on a fundamentally doomed course unless we adopt the Transition model, with its emphases on localism, rather than continuing on the course of technological development and global trade. So from my POV it looks like their is an assumed “solution” or preferred scenario which leans heavily on the doomsday narrative to promote it- without the doom, we dont really need the Transition solution.
          Of course I am these days more with the techno-optimists- but that is partly as a response to the prevailing doomerism of the enviros, peak oilers and CAGW-ers. Hopefully we will see more pragmatism and less doom- but it still stands I think that the green movement was born and nurtured on doom.

          no, I don’t think that it is a good idea to exaggerate the science in order to bring about behaviour change, even where that behaviour change might be a very good idea.

          but Romm does- leastwise, he refers to Gore’s film as being still a credible and reasonable, and something which we should have more of!! – this is why I take such strong issue with him- Al Gore’s film is the main example of high-profile doomerism NOT based on the state of the science; my point about the IPCC report was that, to link them with AIT does them no good at all, but throws the whole edifice into question. So Id be interested to hear your views specifically on Gore’s film.

          Reply
          • Can’t say I’ve given An Inconvenient Truth much thought since I saw it when it first came out, but I too welcome the impact it had on getting people thinking and talking about these issues. I think this entertaining short video sums up pretty well how I feel about it (and Christopher Monckton) now actually:
            http://www.darkoptimism.org/2009/11/25/the-final-word-al-gore-debates-climate-sceptic-monckton/

            I do think it’s quite laughable though to think that anyone would question the IPCC on the basis of a Hollywood film! There are big problems with the IPCC, as highlighted in my book, but An Inconvenient Truth certainly isn’t one of them, regardless of any errors it might contain :)

            And yes, as a general point, I certainly do think that the future we’re headed for right now ain’t pretty, as a glance at the state of the world’s oceans, forests etc will confirm. I don’t know what “doomed” would even mean, but certainly there are an awful lot of species going extinct, and people living in misery, and an awful lot more to come in the ‘business as usual’ scenarios. I don’t really need to look to the future at all to justify my motivation to change things. But yes, localisation and technological development definitely strike me as critical tools in our collectively choosing a more desirable future.

            To use your terms, I firmly consider myself an environmentalist, a peak oiler and a CAGW-er (on the basis of my guess that “C” stands for “catastrophic”? I’m not familiar with the term), and have great distaste for the corporate Green NGOs, probably not least because I used to be a member, back when I was first exploring the state of our world!

          • I too welcome the impact it had on getting people thinking and talking about these issues.

            what issues?! eg Gore used sophisticated graphics to scare us into thinking Manhattan will go under water unless we change our lightbulbs!! It is a fabrication, scare-mongering to elicit a specific policy response. Why would anyone welcome that? The film, remember, was sent to every high school in the UK as part of the syllabus. See the opening scenes of Lomborg’s “Cool it!” for a response. You are basically telling me that you support unsubstantiated scare-mongering on a grand scale.

            I do think it’s quite laughable though to think that anyone would question the IPCC on the basis of a Hollywood film!

            but once again you are missing the point- my OP is a response to Romm’s article, in which he explicitly links AIT with the IPCC as the main examples of the same thing, ie. scaremongering based on “reasonable science” – and they are linked because they shared a Nobel Prize; also of course, AIT made prominent use of the still controversial Hockey Stick graph- science in the service of ideology. So you are contradicting yourself it seems to me- first you say you welcome the film for getting people to think about these “issues”; then you dismiss it as “just a Hollywood film” – on a par with The Day After Tomorrow perhaps. Since you are such a doomer, I would strongly urge you watch AIT again, using the pause and replay buttons, and carefully check what the science actually says about the different issues covered; and then maybe consider how much other messages of doom we are subjected to are really faithful representations of the science.

            (…my guess that “C” stands for “catastrophic”? I’m not familiar with the term)

            Astonishing!

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