Con­tro­versy of the week

Will dooms­day sce­nar­ios back­fire?

The Week (US) - - 6 News -

How­ever alarmed you are about cli­mate change, said in 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.

Rea­son for pes­simism

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