A recent article in New York Magazine is an example of the perils of climate change coverage that errs too far on the side of stressing danger and inevitability. Titled “The Uninhabitable Earth: Famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us: What climate change could wreck – sooner than you think,” the article paints a picture of a world hurtling inexorably towards mass heat deaths and uninhabitability, just beyond the more often discussed sea level rise already facing coastal communities. Other coverage focuses on displaced communities in places like Louisiana, the Chesapeake Bay, and the South Pacific, as apparently helpless communities facing inevitable destruction at the hands of forces beyond their control, which have likely progressed beyond the point of no return, these narratives suggest.
Environmental advocates, political figures, and even some scientists have emphasized the most dramatic aspects of possible climate outcomes. While relying on real scientific evidence, and describing very real possibilities, these narratives leverage fear in a well-intentioned attempt to drive the public to act quickly and without hesitation. Even the scientific community has increasingly relied on this approach, in an attempt to compensate for the spread of climate change denial.
There are several problems with this approach to alerting the public to the dangers of carbon emissions. For one, it is likely to backfire, either by fostering despair that leads to inaction, or by driving people to distrust the science of climate change more generally. For another, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about humanity’s ability to reduce emissions and combat climate change – despite the new policy of inaction of the United States federal government.
As the Paris agreement was first drawn up and signed in 2015, it seemed like there might be hope for humanity taking action against climate change coverage on climate change took an optimistic turn. Since the election of Donald Trump, who has claimed that climate change is a “hoax” perpetrated by the Chinese to make the US less competitive, climate change coverage has taken an understandably bleaker turn. After much deliberation among advisors, Trump officially decided to pull out of the Paris agreement in June, painting an even darker picture.
However, all is not lost – humanity may yet reduce carbon emissions enough to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change. With governors, mayors, and the private sector in the US committing to switch to renewables and reduce emissions, and the other nations who signed the Paris accord recently reaffirming their commitment at the G20 summit, Trump’s reticence to address climate change could prove less significant than at first glance. 34 US states have a climate action plan, and 29 have a renewable portfolio standard, mandating that utility companies meet targets for the percentage of energy they sell from renewable sources. California, among the largest emitters of CO2 in the US, is leading the way with the most ambitious targets. With the costs of wind and solar power falling dramatically, 60 percent of the electricity added to the grid in the US in 2016 has come from wind and solar. Companies such as General Motors are investing in renewable energy and aiming to reduce carbon emissions. Even fossil fuel giants such as Exxon and Shell urged Trump to stick with the Paris agreement, and have invested in renewable energy themselves.
Along with commitments from the other nations who signed the Paris agreement, it seems quite possible the US, the world’s second larger emitter of CO2, could manage to reduce emissions without the federal government.
Not only is it false to portray the most dramatic effects of climate change as inevitable, it is harmful to the goal of moving the public to action. One study published last year by researchers at Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research built on past research in health communication to look at the risks involved in relying too heavily on fear to inspire climate change action. They found three important points.
For one, as with any stimulus, individuals become desensitized with repeated exposure. When it comes to fear and anxiety, the public only has room for so much. When competing with more immediate fears on issues such as war, terrorism, and the economy, climate change is likely to take a backseat.
For another, the more dramatic narratives about climate change, relying on extreme and even exaggerated imagery, can backfire and hurt public trust in these sources of information, whether that is the news media, politicians, environmentalists, or scientists. This can fuel climate change skepticism.
Finally, when individuals are given information about risks which they feel are beyond their control, and little to no information about what actions they can take to address the problem, they are likely to cope using either denial (that the situation will affect them personally) or apathy.
Indeed, massive droughts, floods, heat waves, inundated cities, water and food shortages are all realistically possible outcomes of catastrophic climate change. And yes, developments in US politics on a national level have presented setbacks to the goal of reducing emissions. But after years of successes for renewable energy around the world, the signing of the landmark Paris agreement, and now the willingness of US states and cities to take action into their own hands, the world may not have to rely on the US federal government to take action. Beyond this, it may do more harm than good to focus on catastrophic outcomes. Coverage should focus on what needs to be done, and on what’s already being done around the world, if the goal is to move the public to action on climate change.