Why is it so hard to have a panicked, hysterical conversation about climate change?

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.

“They’re irrational.”


†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?

19 thoughts on “Why is it so hard to have a panicked, hysterical conversation about climate change?

  1. spetzer86

    I have a PhD in pharmacokinetics. The current datasets don’t appear very worry some. If people would stop messing with past data, or at least explain why past temperatures keep getting reduced, I might be more interested in their results. In my job, you get fired for playing with past data.

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  2. Pingback: AndPhysics frightens himself – Shub Niggurath Climate

    1. Brad Keyes Post author

      So that’s one vote in favor of the public irrationality thesis. I suppose my main reservation about agreeing with the prominent scientist who came up with it—”Pete Person”—is that science communication as a profession needs to believe in the common man’s capacity to reason, at least minimally. This faith may or may not be naïve, but without it we’d all be futilitarians. Nevertheless, Person is not a person to be dismissed lightly. (He’s already being called a young Ehrlich.)

      I’m glad you found the title apt. I don’t pretend to have the solution, but asking the right question is always the first step.

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  3. markx

    Ahh… ! Quite brilliant. “They’re the general public,” he shrugged. “They’re irrational.”

    Captures it all so well. Especially love the title!

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  4. pinroot

    In a 2010 Nature editorial Professor Paul Ehrlich mentioned that, “Everyone is scared shitless.” A comment like this might have been dismissed as hyperbole if it had come from anyone else, but we all knew Ehrlich’s reputation.

    Yeah, we all know his reputation. He’s the guy who said the following, among other things:

    I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000 (Quote from 1969).

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    1. David Pittelli

      And he began his most famous book, The Population Bomb, with this statement: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.”

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  5. Paul Matthews

    Brad, are you familiar with the book “Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life” by Kari Norgaard?
    You can see some of it here on Amazon
    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Living-Denial-Climate-Emotions-Everyday/dp/0262515857

    Norgaard went to stay for a while with people in a small town in Norway, during an unusually mild winter. When she asked people about climate change, they said, yes, they were concerned about it. But, amazingly, despite the mild winter and saying they were concerned, they CONTINUED TO GO ABOUT THEIR EVERYDAY LIVES! They would take their children to school, and even watch TV. Norgaard was so astonished that they were not all marching on parliament in protest, that she wrote a book about it. Well worth reading, or even blogging about, if you haven’t already.

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    1. Brad Keyes Post author

      Thanks for calling my attention to this book, Paul. No I haven’t read it, but it sounds too important to wait. I should really just start blogging my opinion about it right now, as my science-communication idols Peter Gleick and Dana Nuccitelli would do. Amazon can take up to a week to deliver.

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  6. Paul Matthews

    Ha, and don’t forget top scientist wotty, who in a post earlier this week announced that he was alarmed by the IPCC report, though he hadn’t quite got round to reading any of it yet.

    I was reminded of the Norgaard book by your final statement about how irrational the public is and the clever social scientist who spotted this. Her book is exactly this. If you search Wuwt I think you will find an article about her.

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    1. Brad Keyes Post author

      Fair enough—perhaps the scientist whose bowels had turned to water should have asked me incredulously, “Are they not-reading the same IPCC reports as us?!”

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  7. Pingback: Communication Dilemmas #1: Wishing Death on People Without Losing Them | CLIMATE NUREMBERG

  8. Steve McDonald

    Steve mcdonald

    Disgraceful alarmism again from the ABC and the BOM. When will they learn that we not as dumb as they demand we should be.

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  9. Old Griffo

    If you are among the 12% of climate scientists who are regularly shiting themselves,would they need to be taking advice from a qualified dietician?, I imagine that if you were in this category it might be good idea to lay off the lentils,chickpeas ,refried beans and move into something more constipating like rump steak and potatoes,any suggestions?

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    1. Brad Keyes Post author

      A quick Google search fails to indicate that you have any qualifications whatsoever as a climate physician, Old Griffo.

      Please respect our unwritten Moderation Policy against citation-free, uncredentialled scientific and medical advice.

      Commenting at ClimateNuremberg is not a right but an honor.

      Thank you.

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  10. K. Kaprow

    “You don’t become the world’s most respected ecologist if you’re in the habit of being wrong about shit.”

    Are you serious? Ehrlich has made a career of “being wrong about shit.”

    Liked by 1 person

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  11. Peter Dunford

    Just to be clear, are the categories all in ascending order? You describe the top category as shitting themselves and the one below as scared shitless. I’m no climate scientist, but surely you can only be scared shitless AFTER you’ve finished shitting yourself. Does the fear not build incrementally, or are some scientists leapfrogging categories of fear?
    Climate science is hard!

    Liked by 1 person

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