Crying wolf after the sheep are dead: A message to journalists

I want to talk about the reporting on a paper that was recently published in Earth System Dynamics, and about the “act now before it’s too late” message. The paper reports on some work done modeling our climate’s behavior, how it might respond to different scenarios, and what has to be achieved to avoid the 2 Degree mark. Most of the paper is over my head, so I’m not going to try to pick it apart, but the way it’s being talked about seems like a problem to me.

For anybody who has spent time following the talking points and strategies of climate deniers, anything published these days with an “x years left before it’s too late!” model headline should raise at least an eyebrow, if not an alarm bell. We’ve been hearing these stories for a long time now, and that’s a problem. I get why individual politicians, pundits, and reporters might think it’s a good line, but it has been over-used.

We don’t have 10 years to stop the planet from passing 2 degrees Celsius. I don’t think we had 10 years in 2008. 1998? Probably.

But in the decades since the 10-year alarms started sounding in the public square, the climate hasn’t waited for us to heed those warnings. The planet has warmed, and the proverbial Sleeping Giant has awakened. The Permafrost is melting, and it has enough carbon stored to more than double the current atmospheric CO2 levels.

Does that mean we shouldn’t keep fighting? No. There will never be a point at which we can’t do something to make the problem better or worse.

But it does mean that the message needs to change. As far as I can tell, there’s nothing wrong with this paper as far as it goes. The problem is more with the attempt to make it seem like a dramatic new warning, rather than just another paper indicating that delays are dangerous. Our margin for error is gone, as a society. We’re in an era of permanent recovery now as the climate hits us with one costly disaster after another. That means that when journalists misrepresent where we’re at, they’re not just being irresponsible to get attention, they’re actively causing harm. They’re undermining our ability to grasp what’s happening to us.

After a generation or two of talk and warning about climate change, papers like this are more likely to persuade people that it’s not a serious problem, otherwise why have we been getting these “10 years left” warnings every decade for the last 20 or 30 years? Some of that is misrepresentation, of course, but anyone claiming the title “journalist” should be aware of that, and be taking action to avoid making it worse.

If any journalists are reading this, maybe rather than trying to make fairly mundane science sensational, you should focus more on what changes we’re already seeing because of climate change, and I don’t mean fires and storms. The entire planet is changing. Talk about how fisheries are being affected by warmer water. Talk about how rising temperatures are moving whole populations.

There’s no lack of sensational material in climate science. Literally the entire planet is changing in a way that our species has never experienced. Help people learn how to see it. Write about what’s happening, not about the chances of preventing the changes that are already underway.

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  1. says

    Maybe it’s perpetually looking 10 years out because fusion power is also 10 years out (as is generalized AI) and if we just keep kicking the can down the road, there’s a pot of gold at the off-ramp.

    The problem is, it’s a hell of a drop at the off-ramp.

    This has been obvious since the 80s and it’s why I decided not to breed. For one thing, it means I am not dropping a new life into a horrible fate, and for another – it’s the single best thing I can do to stop the situation from getting worse. I’m trying to lead a low-impact life, too, but opting out of humanity’s future reduces the beejeebers out of my carbon footprint.

    All of the signs continue to point toward massive Malthusian-style collapse. Malthus was right – endless growth doesn’t just mean that you may run out of food, you may also choke on your byproducts. People forgot that part. What drives me nuts is that the military knew about this, the oil companies knew about this, and they deliberately chose to kick the can down the road. It was not ignorance – it was completely amoral greed.

  2. coragyps says

    My pet climate change denier goes on about this all the time – “You guys said that ten years ago!” I guess if you dismiss what is actually happening…..

    I worry about my grandkids, and I’m worrying more about me, as well. Like you say, we’re already too late.

  3. says

    I want to be clear – I believe we have the resources and technology to ride out this multi-generation storm and build a regenerative society that takes atmospheric and oceanic chemistry as something we have a duty to monitor and maintain.

    The thing that makes hope difficult is human behavior.

  4. says

    Delaying action and kicking the can down the road, hoping the problem resolves itself, is a really good algorithm – except when it isn’t. If things resolve themselves, then you’ve saved any expenditure of effort. For most of the problems humans have encountered in history, I think that algorithm works well. “Sorry about your civilization, bro.”

  5. Callinectes says

    I always thought they were moving not the goalposts, but the goals. In the nineties, the goal was prevention. As we approach the new twenties, the goal has become reducing severity from apocalyptic to the merely globally catastrophic.

  6. brucegee1962 says

    I’ve been starting to see a new danger now from the libs who were at the forefront of the battle: “It’s too late now, we’ve already doomed our species to extinction, so there’s no point in knocking ourselves out to cut carbon anymore.”

    The line I take is usually something along these lines, although I’m not an expert and am just spitballing: “For sure, millions of people are going to die because of climate change; that’s pretty much baked in, literally, at this point. But we can still act now to try to prevent that number from ending up in the tens of millions, hundreds of millions, or billions.”

    Does that sound right to those of you who are experts? I’d like to have some more data to back up my wild guesses.

  7. says

    There’s no upper limit to how bad this can get. If we were to burn all the fossil fuels we know about, it could be enough to make this planet unable to support human life.

    We also know that if we were to get our act together, it might be possible to start pulling CO2 OUT of the atmosphere, even if it’s just by growing a lot of plant matter and storing it somewhere where it can’t rot.

    I get the urge to give up. I even give in to it every now and then for a month or two. Unfortunately, that’s not a choice that’s available to us, if we also want to consider ourselves good people. It sucks, but that’s the reality.

  8. says

    Oh, and one thing to add – be aware that those who want to block action will be trying to encourage that defeatist attitude. Isn’t propaganda fun?

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