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The Power and Peril of “Climate Disaster Porn”

Climate scientists say New York magazine's cover story about global warming is unnecessarily apocalyptic. But can fear help the planet?

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

New York magazine’s latest opus on climate change, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” is a horror story. Over 7,000 words, reporter David Wallace-Wells lays out global warming’s worst-case scenario in excruciating and apocalyptic detail. If humanity does nothing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Wallace-Wells writes, prehistoric ice could unleash million-year-old bacteria, sparking devastating disease outbreaks. Thicker, hotter air could bring a “rolling death smog that suffocates millions.” Drought, heat, and crop failure in conflict-ridden zones could create “perpetual war” and violent death. It is, I promise, worse than you think,” he declares. “No matter how well-informed you are, you are surely not alarmed enough.”

The article has generated significant controversy, and not just from the usual denier crowd. “I am not a fan of this sort of doomist framing,” Michael Mann, a climate scientist who often warns of the potentially devastating impacts of global warming, wrote in a lengthy Facebook post. “It is important to be up front about the risks of unmitigated climate change, and I frequently criticize those who understate the risks. But there is also a danger in overstating the science in a way that presents the problem as unsolvable, and feeds a sense of doom, inevitability and hopelessness.” In a Medium post, Daniel Aldana Cohen, an assistant sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania who works on climate politics, called the piece “climate disaster porn.”

The complaints about the science in Wallace-Wells’s article are mostly quibbles. Climate scientist Kevin Trenberth took issue with a section titled “The End of Food,” noting that while climate change could have a significant impact on food systems, food itself won’t disappear. “It is overly dramatic but has a basis in fact,” he said. Mann only disputed the threat posed by the release of methane frozen in permafrost, and the characterization of a study about the pace of global warming. He left the rest of the piece untouched.

The more common critique is that Wallace-Wells engaged in some hyperbole to describe what might happen, and then didn’t present enough solutions or optimism to counter it. After spending 6,000 words on the worst-case scenario, Wallace-Wells devoted fewer than 1,000 words to possible solutions—and yet, gave credence to geoengineering, the controversial and highly unlikely idea that we deliberately manipulate the atmosphere by dumping sulfur dioxide into the the lower stratosphere to block sunlight. Wallace-Wells then described many of the scientists he interviewed as “improbably” optimistic, adding that “climate scientists have a strange kind of faith: We will find a way to forestall radical warming, they say, because we must.”

Critics say such doom-and-gloom is unpersuasive and discouraging. “My own experience in speaking to public audiences is that doomsday stories such as this article are so depressing that people shut down and stop listening,” Jennifer Francis, an atmospheric scientist at Rutgers, wrote in an email to me. If there is no hope, there will be no action, and goodness knows we need a lot more action to reign in greenhouse gas emissions right now.”

Wallace-Wells responded to the criticism with this tweet:

The notion that fear is a motivating force may be true in some political arenas, but research suggests that’s not quite true for climate change. A 2015 paper in the journal Sustainability, focused specifically on adolescents’ perspectives, noted that while fear-based messaging can be effective in promoting behavioral changes, it can also backfire “when individuals perceive low levels of agency or control.” Fear must be combined with hope, so that people believe they can do something about the problem. “Because individuals perceive climate change as out of their control or fail to see how they can make a meaningful difference, they may cope with feelings of fear by denying that there is anything to be concerned about or conclude that attempts to build concern are manipulation instead of education,” the paper reads.

John Cook, a professor at George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, said that fatalistic scenarios run the risk of being self-fulfilling, but he added that fear is effective.If we communicate the solutions only,” he said, “people lack the urgency that the situation requires.”

Wallace-Wells is upfront about the improbability of his doomsday scenario, writing early in the article, “What follows is not a series of predictions of what will happen—that will be determined in large part by the much-less-certain science of human response. Instead, it is a portrait of our best understanding of where the planet is heading absent aggressive action. It is unlikely that all of these warming scenarios will be fully realized, largely because the devastation along the way will shake our complacency. But those scenarios, and not the present climate, are the baseline. In fact, they are our schedule.”

Indeed, it’s hard to convey the truth about climate change without freaking people out. And people should freak out, because the basic thrust of Wallace-Wells’s piece is correct: If we keep pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at this rate, there will be terrifying, devastating consequences—to our economies, infrastructure, and public health, for starters. Some of those consequences could be even worse than what Wallace-Wells describes, according to Trenberth, who told me that some of the piece “is not alarmist enough,” particularly when it comes to how soon some impacts could occur. Eventually, unchecked climate change could have consequences for civilization itself.

Mann argues that there’s no need to overstate those consequences because “it feeds a paralyzing narrative of doom and hopelessness.” But there are other reasons to avoid hyperbole. Fossil-fuel companies, and the politicians beholden to them, regularly accuse climate activists of being “alarmists.” They say scientists and journalists are exaggerating the impacts of climate change, or outright deny that humans are causing the planet to warm. Unwarranted hyperbole emboldens that political opposition, allowing them to claim liberals are engaging in politically motivated hysteria.

This is not to say Wallace-Wells’s piece is wrong, or that it shouldn’t have been written. After all, he has pulled off an impressive feat: On a day featuring yet more bombshells about the Trump administration’s Russia connections, he managed to get Americans talking about a much more distant and nebulous threat to the nation. He also happens to be right that a doomsday scenario could happen, and he provided an accurate picture of what that would look like. Now we must decide what to do with that information—to push for the many known solutions, or to do nothing at all. If we choose the latter, at least we know what to expect.