Yesterday we posted a recommendation to read the “The Uninhabitable Earth” article written by David Wallace-Wells and published by New York. It’s a staggering, 7,000-word portrait of the effects of global warming—famine, climate refugees, war, uninhabitable deserts, and so on—designed specifically to wake people up to the urgency of the threat. Polls have shown that while almost everyone in America believes global warming is real, they still think it won’t affect them personally; an article like Wallace-Wells’ illustrates with powerful prose and striking clarity how incorrect they are. It was intended to spur a conversation, and it has.
Many people from within the climate community have responded not so much to the facts of his piece—though there are some allegations of mishandling facts and misstating data—but more with his fatalist tone. Scientist Michael E. Mann, who was interviewed for the piece, wrote a response on Facebook:
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.
The New Republic encapsulated some of the broader responses, which dubbed the article “climate disaster porn,” saying that the result was likely to spur inaction:
The notion that fear is a motivating force may be true in some political arenas, but research suggests that’s not quite true for climate change. A 2015 paper in the journal Sustainability, focused specifically on adolescents’ perspectives, noted that while fear-based messaging can be effective in promoting behavioral changes, it can also backfire “when individuals perceive low levels of agency or control.”
But even if the tone itself isn’t one to adopt permanently, the literal scorched-earth rhetoric and imagery of his piece was powerful enough to disrupt the normal conversation about climate change. It’s a shock to the system. Perhaps most illuminating is an interview with the author himself in Gothamist, which is sort of a required salve after reading the main article. In the wide-ranging interview, Wallace-Wells says:
My hope is that readers will read the piece and feel motivated to think more about the choices they make, but also to this sort of consumption choices they make. And to agitate politically for policy options that will have a positive impact, and not think of climate change as a third or fourth order political priority, but as probably the most important issue we’re facing the world today, and one that should be at the top of our minds whenever we’re thinking about public policy at all. (...)
As I said before, I think basically we’ve been treating the median/optimal outcome as almost a stand-in for the worst case scenario. The science is very complicated and uncertain, it’s not at all the case for sure that we have the models right, and even if we take action, that we’ll end up in a responsible place where people are secure and the planet is stable. It may be that our science will evolve in ways that make the outcomes considerably scarier. Given all that, it seemed like a much bigger concern that people weren’t worried enough, than that they would get too worried.
It goes on to detail the sort of work being done at the consumer, state, national, and international level, and what people can do to avoid the harrowing post-apocalyptic hell-scape he painted in the New York article. The whole dialogue also serves as a good example of one solution to the core problem of environmental journalism, which has often struggled to make its most urgent stories heard in a world where, for example, the president’s son might just casually post some emails that suggest he colluded with Russian agents to rig an election. Sometimes it just takes the right article to cut through the noise.
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