Overplaying the Climate Fear Card

By Keith Kloor | July 30, 2012 12:31 pm

In her recent Mother Jones story, Julia Whitty mentions that “destruction of nature” has become a “dominant meme” in environmental discourse and politics. Her excellent piece does not follow this familiar script. Rather it chronicles the extraordinary conservation successes of a few unsung individuals.

Anyone who follows environmental writing knows that Whitty’s article bucks a long established theme. As Michelle Nijhuis noted in an essay last year:

Environmental journalists often feel married to the tragic narrative. Pollution, extinction, invasion: The stories are endless, and endlessly the same.

In her Mother Jones piece, Whitty references a 2011 paper by two conservation biologists in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution. Here’s the section in the paper that jumps out:

Relentless communication of an impending mass extinction is, self-evidently, having insufficient impact on politicians, policy makers and the public, and could eventually even be counterproductive for improved conservation. Instead, we contend that there is ample evidence from other disciplines, such as medicine, public health, and road safety, to show that achieving political support and lasting behavioral change requires ‘bad news’ to be balanced by empowerment. Berating people about biodiversity decline ignores fundamental human behaviors. In broader society, people ignore delivery of bad news because it reflects badly on the deliverer. Indeed, denial of major biodiversity loss might intensify in the wider public, even as scientific evidence accumulates, because of the way in which people respond to threats of this nature.

Sound familiar? Just substitute climate change for biodiversity and the same applies.

A lot of people have lauded Bill McKibben’s recent Rolling Stone article, titled “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.”  In the Huffington Post, Neil Wagner said it

is probably (pound for pound) the best piece ever written about the dire straights anthropogenic climate change has presented the human race.

Wagner also advised:
  1. Read the first couple of paragraphs
  2. Feel sick to your stomach
  3. Continue reading while curled up in a fetal position.

A recent video by Peter Sinclair connecting climate change to this summer’s heat waves, wildfires and extreme weather in the United States was called, “Welcome to the Rest of Our Lives.”  Translation: Global warming has arrived and this is what it looks like. I think there might be some quibbles with that (in terms of the implied linkages), but no matter. If you don’t pay attention to the details, then watch the video and weep. If it doesn’t inspire utter helplessness in the average person, I’d be surprised.

Along those lines, I’ll be curious to see how the emerging climate movement motivates people to act while they are curled up in a fetal position.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: biodiversity, climate change

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Collide-a-Scape is an archived Discover blog. Keep up with Keith's current work at http://www.keithkloor.com/

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets.From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine.In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest.He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.


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