Climate fear

Credit: Aarón Blanco Tejedor/Unsplash

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently published a report exhorting countries committed to the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to an additional 1.5º by the end of this century. As if this isn’t drastic enough, one study has also shown that if we’re not on track to this target in the next 12 years, then we’re likely to cross a point of no return and be unable to keep Earth’s surface from warming by 1.5º C.

In the last decade, the conversation on climate change passed by an important milestone – that of journalists classifying climate denialism as false balance. After such acknowledgment, editors and reporters simply wouldn’t bother speaking to those denying the anthropogenic component of global warming in pursuit of a balanced copy because denying climate change became wrongful. Including such voices wouldn’t add balance but in fact remove it from a climate-centred story.

But with the world inexorably thundering towards warming Earth’s surface by at least 1.5º C, if not more, and with such warming also expected to have drastic consequences for civilisation as we know it, I wonder when optimism will also become pulled under the false balance umbrella. (I have no doubt that it will so I’m omitting the ‘if’ question here.)

There were a few articles earlier this year, especially in the American media, about whether or not we ought to use the language of fear to spur climate action from people and governments alike. David Biello had excerpted the following line from a new book on the language of climate change in a review for the NYT: “I believe that language can lessen the distance between humans and the world of which we are a part; I believe that it can foster interspecies intimacy and, as a result, care.” But what tone should such language adopt?

A September 2017 study noted:

… the modest research evidence that exists with respect to the use of fear appeals in communicating climate change does not offer adequate empirical evidence – either for or against the efficacy of fear appeals in this context – nor would such evidence adequately address the issue of the appropriateness of fear appeals in climate change communication. … It is also noteworthy that the language of climate change communication is typically that of “communication and engagement,” with little explicit reference to targeted social influence or behaviour change, although this is clearly implied. Hence underlying and intertwined issues here are those of cogent arguments versus largely absent evidence, and effectiveness as distinct from appropriateness. These matters are enmeshed within the broader contours of the contested political, social, and environmental, issues status of climate change, which jostle for attention in a 24/7 media landscape of disturbing and frightening communications concerning the reality, nature, progression, and implications of global climate change.

An older study, from 2009, had it that using the language of fear wouldn’t work because, according to Big Think‘s break down, could desensitise the audience, prompt the audience to trust the messenger less over time and trigger either self-denial or some level of nihilism because what else would you do if you’re “confronted with messages that present risks” that you, individually, can do nothing to mitigate. Most of all, it could distort our (widely) shared vision of a “just world”.

On the other hand, just the necessary immediacy of action suggests we should be afraid lest we become complacent. We need urgent and significant action in both the short- and long-terms and across a variety of enterprises. Fear also sells. it’s always in demand irrespective of whether a journalist is selling it, or a businessman or politician. It’s easy, sensational, grabs eyeballs and can be effortlessly communicated. That’s how you have the distasteful maxim “If it bleeds, it leads”.

In light of these concerns, it’s odd that so many news outlets around the world (including The Guardian and The Washington Post) are choosing to advertise the ’12-year-deadline to act’ bit (even Forbes’s takedown piece included this info. in the headline). A deadline is only going to make people more anxious and less able to act. Further, it’s odder that given the vicious complexities associated with making climate-related estimates, we’re even able to pinpoint a single point of no return instead of identifying a time-range at some point within which we become doomed. And third, I would even go so far as to question the ‘doomedness’ itself because I don’t know if it takes inflections – points after which we lose our ability to make predictions – into account.

Nonetheless, as we get closer to 2030 – the year that hosts the point of no return – and assuming we haven’t done much to keep Earth’s surface warming by 1.5º C by the century’s close, we’re going to be in neck-deep in it. At this point, would it still be fair for journalists, if not anyone else, to remain optimistic and communicate using the language of optimism? Second, will optimism on our part be taken seriously considering, at that point, the world will find out that Earth’s surface is going to warm by 1.5º C irrespective of everyone else’s hopes.

Third: how will we know if optimistic engagement with our audience is even working? Being able to measure this change, and doing so, is important if we are to reform journalism to the extent that newsrooms have a financial incentive to move away from fear-mongering and towards more empathetic, solution-oriented narratives. A major reason “If it bleeds, it leads” is true is because it makes money; if it didn’t, it would be useless. By measuring change, calculating their first-order derivatives and strategising to magnify desirable trends in the latter, newsrooms can also take a step back from the temptations of populism and its climate-unjust tendencies.

Climate change journalism is inherently political and as susceptible to being caught between political faultlines as anything else. This is unlikely to change until the visible effects of anthropogenic global warming are abundant and affecting day-to-day living (of the upper caste/upper class in India and of the first world overall). So between now and then, a lot rests on journalism’s shoulders; journalists as such are uniquely situated in this context because, more than anyone else, we influence people on a day-to-day basis.

Apropos the first two questions: After 2030, I suspect many people will simply raise the bar, hoping that some action can be taken in the next seven decades to keep warming below 2º C instead of 1.5º C. Journalists will make up both the first and last lines of defence in keeping humanity at large from thinking that it has another shot at saving itself. This will be tricky: to inspire optimism and prompt people to act even while constantly reminding readers that we’ve fucked up like never before. I’d start by celebrating the melancholic joy – perhaps as in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1891) – of lesser condemnations.

To this end, journalists should also be regularly retrained – say, once every five years – on where climate science currently stands, what audiences in different markets feel about it and why, and what kind of language reporters and editors can use to engage with them. If optimism is to remain effective further into the 21st century, collective action is necessary on the part of journalists around the world as well – just the way, for example, we recognise certain ways to report stories of sexual assault, data breaches, etc.