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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