Let’s Stop Looking at the Downside of Climate Change

Hurrican Sandy, East Haven, CT (cc photo: Dave S)

Fundamentally altering the Earth’s climate isn’t a reason to go around alarming people. (cc photo Dave S)

The Breakthrough Institute is a group that “has dedicated the resources of their organization to trying to kill prospects for climate and clean energy action in this Congress and to spreading disinformation about Obama, Gore, congressional leaders, Waxman and Markey, leading climate scientists, Al Gore again, the entire environmental community and anyone else trying to end our status quo energy policies,” according to Climate Progress‘ Joe Romm (6/17/09).

Or, as the New York Times described it when it gave the group’s leaders the prime spot on the op-ed page  (4/9/14), it’s “an environmental research organization.”

The column by Breakthrough’s Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus is a good example of what’s known on the Internet as “concern trolling”–shedding crocodile tears over the prospect that climate advocates they have done their level best to undermine might not be getting their message out effectively. And what’s the problem with their messaging? Well, they’re too downbeat:

There is every reason to believe that efforts to raise public concern about climate change by linking it to natural disasters will backfire. More than a decade’s worth of research suggests that fear-based appeals about climate change inspire denial, fatalism and polarization.

As one example of this research, the op-ed offers this: “In a controlled laboratory experiment published in Psychological Science in 2010, researchers were able to use ‘dire messages’ about global warming to increase skepticism about the problem.” But as Romm (11/22/10) has pointed out, both messages tested in that study contained frightening, factually accurate information about climate change’s contributions to heat waves, hurricanes, wildfires and sea-level rise. (Sample: “The past decade has seen record breaking heat waves all across the world, including a major heat wave that killed at least 35,000 people in Europe in 2003.”)

WildfireWildfire in Oregon (cc photo: H Dragon)

Climate change and natural disasters: Don’t ask, don’t tell? (cc photo: H Dragon)

These are the kind of things that Shellenberger and Nordhaus suggest climate advocates should keep to themselves. Yet what that study actually found to be ineffective was following up such facts with messages like “We fear it may be too late” and “It is just too big of a problem for science to grapple with,” whereas the same alarming information about the impacts of climate change did not increase denial when coupled with messages like “it is not too late to act” and “human ingenuity can overcome this mammoth obstacle.” Turns out fatalistic pessimism is a tough sell; who knew?

Shellenberger and Nordhaus agree that climate advocates should stress solutions–so long as they are their preferred solutions:

The rejection of technologies like nuclear and natural gas by environmental groups is most likely feeding the perception among many that climate change is being exaggerated. After all, if climate change is a planetary emergency, why take nuclear and natural gas off the table?

Why? Well, aside from the very real safety issues and the inevitability of nuclear weapons proliferation, nuclear technology is just not an economically efficient way to replace carbon-based energy. As physicist Amory Lovins (Inside Nova, 3/18/11) has pointed out:

Each dollar spent on a new reactor buys about 2-10 times less carbon savings, 20-40 times slower, than spending that dollar on the cheaper, faster, safer solutions that make nuclear power unnecessary and uneconomic: efficient use of electricity, making heat and power together in factories or buildings (“cogeneration”), and renewable energy.

As for natural gas, it’s not clear that it reduces greenhouse emissions at all, given that methane, which is released by gas drilling and especially during fracking, is a more powerful heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide. But in a “planetary emergency”–which climate change certainly is–burning slightly less carbon is not a solution, anymore than switching from whiskey to beer is a cure for alcoholism.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.