Climate reporting has too many facts

Scientists hated New York magazine’s histrionic climate cover story, but cerebral reporting just gets tuned out.

Climate reporting has too many facts

Scientists hated New York magazine’s histrionic climate cover story, but cerebral reporting just gets tuned out.

Earlier this week, New York magazine published a terrifying story outlining the end of the world as we know it. “Famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us: What climate change could wreak — sooner than you think,” read the tagline. The tale was gripping, and the image of a fossilized human hand drove the point home: Climate change is happening, and it’s very scary. Some climate scientists took issue with just how scary, rejecting the story as clickbait. But given that 38 percent of Americans believe the effects of global warming have yet to begin, maybe clickbait isn’t such a bad idea.

Climate reporting can sometimes have the appeal of a PBS special; the cover story, written by David Wallace-Wells, is what would happen if that PBS special were directed by Michael Bay. The piece takes us through a series of worst-case scenarios: temperatures soaring to unlivable levels, oceans suffocating nearly all life within them, and terrifying diseases rising from thawing ice and permafrost to wreak havoc on our unsuspecting immune systems.

Scientists tend to be precise and conservative, acknowledging the inherent fallibility of data and margins for error; meanwhile, reporting tends to be numbers-based and abstract. A trillion-ton ice shelf calved off Antarctica. The Earth is warmer than it’s been for 120,000 years. Wallace-Wells’s piece reads almost like speculative fiction, as he describes unbreathable ozone-filled air and “perpetual war” in stark descriptive language.

Wallace-Wells’s story had immediate blowback. Some scientists called it irresponsible, inaccurate, and counterproductive. The criticism had two main threads: the first is that some of the science in the piece is exaggerated, or outright wrong. Meteorologist and climate writer Eric Holthaus laid out some of the errors in a helpful Twitter thread, such as the connection of Antarctica’s massive new iceberg to climate change when most agree no such obvious connection exists. Factual errors are unacceptable, and New York has already made at least one factual correction. However, the bulk of claims in the piece are backed up by evidence — they just happen to be at the extreme end of possible outcomes.

The second thread, which a number of journalists and climate scientists have chimed in on, is whether or not fire and brimstone is a useful framing for the issue. “Why scare tactics won’t stop climate change,” asserted a headline on The Verge. An op-ed at The Guardian admonished, “...doomsday narratives are wrong, and they are dangerous.” Eminent climate scientist Michael Mann wrote, “I am not a fan of this sort of doomist framing.” Wallace-Wells apologized for the factual errors, but defended the story’s tone. “I think alarmism is called for because I am alarmed, and think everyone should be,” Wallace-Wells wrote on Twitter in response to one critic.

There was a backlash to the backlash: David Roberts’s piece at Vox was titled “Did that New York magazine climate story freak you out? Good.” Joe Romm, at Think Progress, focused on the idea that the doomsday scenario isn’t a certainty, but we somehow keep voting to make it one.

The disagreement between these sides stems from an obvious need to grab attention for an urgent issue and how that need does not mesh particularly well with the scientist’s — and hopefully, the science journalist’s — desire to accurately portray what is known and what is unknown.

Beyond that inherent conflict in climate communications, the anti-doom crowd often cites behavioral science research, which has shown more than once that scaring the shit out of people might not be the best way to induce them to act. One study found that in younger individuals, “hope may be an independent predecessor to behavior.” Another found that “less dire messaging could be more effective for promoting public understanding.” Another paper, combining two separate studies, ended up with the title “Fear Won’t Do It.”

The scientists and communicators who are now very familiar with this brand of research saw a long story that literally starts with the line “It is, I promise, worse than you think” and mounted an immediate attack, armed with those citations (or in some cases, with just unsupported bromides that doomsaying doesn’t work). If the argument is that an average person reading that story may not follow up by installing solar panels on the roof, the research suggests they’re not wrong! But these critics are missing a really, really big forest for those trees.

Is it possible that the disaster porn approach is already working?

Even if we allow that fear-based approaches might have a counterproductive effect on the individual level, there is a stubborn reality that renders that discussion somewhat moot. For decades, generally speaking, scientists and journalists have been mostly careful to avoid the truly End-is-Nigh framing on climate change. This New York magazine cover story is the first that I can remember, in a glossy, widely-read and discussed, mainstream publication, to take such a dire approach and feature only the worst possible outcomes of warming.

Reams of climate reporting using (largely) careful, non-doomist framing over three decades haven’t exactly encouraged the world to act. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have crossed the 400 parts-per-million threshold (410 ppm, as of earlier this year, the highest in millions of years), up from 280 ppm in 1958. Last year was the warmest year on record, beating out the year before, which conquered the year before that. Sea level rise is accelerating, we are entering a mass extinction event, more and more extreme weather events are being successfully attributed at least in part to warming, and so on. (And none of those data points is likely to have as much impact on a reader as Wallace-Wells’s florid description of “heat death.”)

Our current predicament is itself evidence that patiently explaining the science leads us not to a globally embraced solution, but to a dire scenario where an international pact that came years too late and is dramatically under-powered is at risk because we elected leaders who don’t accept science that dates back to 1896.

What if the important effect of an apocalyptic approach isn’t on how individuals react, but on the collective discussion that follows? Look at the conversation we’re having now. Look at all the pieces responding to a magazine cover story on climate change — at the Guardian and the Verge and Vox and the New Republic and Mashable and god knows how many others. Yes, there are fairly dramatic disagreements on how best to frame discussion of the threat, and yes a lot of us went to sleep after reading the original piece with a feeling of paralyzing dread, but isn’t it worth at least considering the idea that the disaster porn approach already worked?

You may have heard references this year to the Overton Window, which refers to a set of assumptions or ideas that the general public finds largely acceptable or reasonable. The near-constant stream of batshittery we’ve seen out of Washington has almost certainly shifted the Overton Window for politics; things that five years ago would have been unthinkable are now just Wednesday. Maybe the climate change debate needs just that sort of shift in discourse. If climate change has a “fat tail” of risk, meaning the possibility for those worst-case scenarios is actually somewhat high, shouldn’t we be thinking and talking about doomsday at least as much as the middle-of-the-road scenarios, while being careful to maintain the focus on accuracy? Shouldn’t we shift the window toward the apocalypse? And here we are, doing just that.

Dave Levitan is a journalist and author of "Not A Scientist: How politicians mistake, misrepresent, and utterly mangle science."