As a science communicator my job involves taking the emotional temperature of the climate community—something we can measure on well-known, well-validated anxiety scales. I’m often surprised by the disconnect between scientists and the public.
To say the scientists were worried would be old news—and an understatement. When we first asked them in the mid-90s, most climatologists were already Worried or Very Worried, with fewer than 30% claiming to be Not Concerned about climate change.
But then, in a Nature editorial in 2010, Professor Paul Ehrlich mentioned that “[e]veryone is scared shitless.” Such a comment might have been dismissed as hyperbole coming from anyone else, but we all knew Ehrlich’s reputation. You don’t become the world’s most respected ecologist if you’re in the habit of being wrong about shit.
We tested the scientists again. Guess what?
The “Unconcerned” scientists now made up a tiny 3%.
Meanwhile, the entire mainstream had become Worried or higher.
22% of climate scientists today are Very Worried, 28% are Scared Shitless and a whopping 15% are now Shitting Themselves. In this top category the median scientist has involuntarily shat him- or herself eleven times in the last 30 days.
So whenever a climate scientist sets foot off campus, he or she is understandably appalled by how out of touch the general public is.
“Are they reading the same IPCC reports as us?!,” one colleague asked me incredulously.
You’d never guess from watching shoppers at the average suburban mall that an ecological sword of Damocles was hanging over them, or that science had no way of telling when it would drop.
But it wasn’t always like this.
What went wrong? At what point did the public decide things weren’t so bad after all—and why? The scientists never said you could stop panicking. The scientists never said you could get on with your lives. Yet that’s what everybody appears to be doing.
It’s easy to forget that only a few years ago, pre-Copenhagen, you could actually find laypeople who ‘got’ the science so well they were almost as incapacitated by terror as the scientists themselves. To hear their narratives of despair and resignation you might have been forgiven for expecting Western consumerism and economic activity to collapse at any moment. (Which, incidentally, would have solved 90 percent of the problem in one fell swoop.)
As a communicator I heard the same question wherever I went:
If the scientists are right, why bother getting out of bed? We’re fuck_d. We’re all fuck_d.
People everywhere were giving serious thought to starving themselves. (Yep. Even Americans.) What was the point of eating, they asked? They’d only shit themselves again when the evening news came on.
The Zeitgeist was unmistakeable: we’re all climate scientists now.
Child psychologists and counsellors kept detailed statistics on the young people who presented with climate-related bedwetting and nightmares. The growth in cases, month to month, was so rapid in the 4-to-7 age bracket that we fully expected an epidemic that would—if nothing else—lock in a cohort of kids emotionally receptive to the message†.
But for whatever reason, it wasn’t sustained. Today, clinics everywhere in the Western world are reporting the same bad news: the traditional terrors of childhood—most of them imaginary!—are overtaking climate change once more.
It’s vexing. Perhaps it’s a lost cause to even try to explain this so-called Fear Gap.
Sometimes I wonder if we shouldn’t adopt the attitude of a certain top scientist.
I can’t tell you his name, but suffice it to say he’s rumored to be the first researcher to shit himself in the middle of his own lecture. As a brilliant climatologist, he knows he’s a high-priority target for the Subterranean War on Science—and that anything he says can and will be taken out of context, misrepresented, cherry-picked, totally ignored and used against him.
Let’s call him Professor Peter Person.
At a scientific conference a few years ago, a group of us communicators were racking our brains to understand the lack of public fear. Where had we gone wrong? Was it something we’d said?
Failed to say?
Overhearing our orgy of self-pity, Prof. Person began to chuckle. In his entire career, he told us, he’d never doubted or second-guessed himself just because some non-scientist didn’t ‘get’ it.
“What do you expect? They’re the public,” said Person with a shrug.
†Therapists were faced with an unusual ethical dilemma at this point: was it right to treat a “symptom” like recurrent, obtrusive nightmares about climate change when even the world’s top scientists were having them on a nightly basis, and considered them perfectly appropriate to the horrific nature of their predictions?