This week we focus on a story in New York Magazine about the extremes of climate change and the media backlash to the article. Ironically, the story came out the same week as an ice sheet the size of Delaware calved off of Antarctica—a topic for another week!
On July 9, 2017, David Wallace-Wells penned a controversial article, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” for the New York Magazine. “The Uninhabitable Earth,” is a horror story of what terrors climate change will bring to us. The piece sums up Al Gore’s line about “a nature hike through the Book of Revelation.” Wallis-Wells based his article on the direst predictions from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—the 8C rise in temperatures—presenting the bleakest possible scenario for global warming outcomes. A scan of Wallace-Wells headings provides the flavor of the article—Doomsday: Peering Beyond Scientific Reticence, Heat-Death: the Bahraining of New York, The End of Food: Paying for cornfields in the tundra, Climate Plagues: What happens when the bubonic ice melts?, and Perpetual War: The violence baked into heat. The theme and the tone of the piece suggest that Wallis-Wise believes that human destruction is the direction that we are going. It leaves little room for hope, which sent the cyber-world into a flurry of criticism. Across the board, the critiques of the article say that it is well-written, but inaccurate and works against the cause of climate action. Michael Mann, Professor of Meteorology and one of the scientists behind the hockey stick graph depicting the sharp temperature rise in recent decades, provided the most poignant eviscerations of the article. According to Mann, some specific areas of concern in the article are the exaggeration of the methane feedback loops (melting creates more methane that leads to more melting, which releases more methane and so forth), the misinterpretation of a dataset that was corrected and showed “data showing the globe warming…more than twice as fast as scientists had thought” when, in fact, the dataset had initially shown lower warming and the correction put it in line with all of the other datasets; and the extraordinary claims with little supporting evidence.
An article such as “The Uninhabitable Earth” places into the hand of climate deniers the perfect foil to scientists’ carefully researched and documented writings. It is only a matter of time before Breitbart, The Daily Caller, and similar media forces grab it and say look how alarmist and hysterical these tree-huggers are. We have to keep in mind the asymmetry of the media, particularly how certain sources will cherry-pick the inaccuracies in “The Uninhabitable Earth” to depict an alarmist agenda based on incorrect facts. Wallace-Wells’ article plays directly into that rhetoric due to poorly sourced data, lack of citations, hyperbolic claims, and sloppy research; these mistakes overshadow his discussion of key and actual effects that he presents.
An additional problem with the article is that when you suggest that we are past the point of no return, you spiral the human brain into despair. Fear may be a strong motivator in the immediate term, but it is a lousy long-term motivator. Responding to a threat that is insurmountable, as Wallace-Wells puts forth on climate change, may put people in an intellectual paralysis, believing that there is nothing they can do to stop the train. So they will keep polluting and curtail efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions. People need to rage, rage against the dying light. The piece doesn’t hammer away at the fact that there are things we can do and technologies we have in our grasp that can keep us far away from this bleak vision of what the future is. This article focuses on the business-as-usual, do nothing scenario. We can still mitigate things and that is important to have in line with the presentation of alarm.
There is an upside to David Wallace-Wells article—it has engendered a flurry of discussion surrounding climate change again, such as we saw when Trump disavowed the United States participation in the Paris Climate Agreement; prior to these two occasions, climate change did not make the regular hot topic of the nightly news list. And perhaps this article will serve as a glass of ice water on the face to wake up folks who aren’t inclined to confront the ultimate grim consequences of climate change. We give Wallace-Wells credit for sparking this conversation and creating some teachable moments.
July 12th marked the fifth anniversary of Bill McKibben’s article, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” featured in Rolling Stone Magazine. That was a piece that inspired the first People’s Climate March in New York. Wallace-Wells article attempted to do something similar. He was trying to say that climate action needs to be number one on the list of issues we care about—what Scott Pruitt is doing to the planet is far more dangerous than what Vladimir Putin is doing. But we can’t help but contrast Wallace-Wells’ messaging approach with Al Gore’s. Have you ever heard Gore present anything that could be construed as despair? Never. Because the moment that you start implying it is a hopeless situation, the bad guys win.
So please read the article but don’t give into the unintentional promotion of despair. Use it as a motivator for what we don’t want to happen to our world and raise your voice. Take Bob Marley’s advice, Get Up, Stand Up, Stand up for your rights…and don’t give up the fight!
Because we recognize the necessity of personal accountability for our actions, because we accept responsibility for building a durable future and because we believe it is our patriotic duty as citizens to speak out, we must insist that the United States put a price on carbon.
Thanks for listening.
And thanks to Mariah Tinger for composing this post!