A couple of weeks ago, an article in New York magazine laid out a horrific scenario of global warming. The photo at the top summed up the tone: A fossilized human skull, jaw gaping beneath aviator sunglasses, hovered over a caption warning that people could be “cooked to death from both inside and out” in a hotter climate.
If that’s not doom and gloom, I don’t know what is. Yet despite being a complete downer, the article quickly became New York magazine’s most-read story ever.
The article also reignites a debate over how best to communicate the science of climate change. Scientists and others who hope to inform the public or spur action have long struggled with how to convey the high stakes of global warming without making people feel helpless or fueling deniers by coming across as alarmist.
“Certainly a lot of people paid attention to it, and it sparked a very good conversation about what we’re up against,” says Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. But its message of impending doom can have very different effects on people, he notes. “There are different audiences in this country, and they’re affected by extreme scenarios differently.”
That became clear as soon as the article was published, when just about everyone with an opinion on climate change jumped on it. Scientists questioned its accuracy — we don’t know that it will be that bad, many said. Breitbart News, aiming from the right, proclaimed that New York had “broken the world record for the scariest, most catastrophic, hysterical exercise in extravagant climate doom-mongering in the history of the universe.”
Others suggested it was just the kick in the pants that America needs. In fact, Slate said, the article isn’t too alarmist; the rest of us just haven’t been alarmist enough.
The real question now, though, is what the article’s impact will be, measured not only by how many people read it but, more importantly, by whether it will change anything. In 2015, when Kathryn Schulz wrote a chilling Pulitzer Prize‒winning article for the New Yorker about the inevitability of an earthquake destroying much of the Pacific Northwest, droves of people ran out to buy earthquake preparation kits.
But there’s no preparation kit for climate change, and it seems unlikely that a news story will change U.S. policy on climate change. So it remains to be seen whether this article, or others that might copy its doom-and-gloom tack, might change any minds or spur the public to act.
But perhaps it holds a lesson for anyone who is concerned about climate change and doesn’t know how to talk to friends and family who aren’t.
First, it depends who you’re talking to. Leiserowitz’s research has shown that there are six Americas, on a scale from “dismissive” to “alarmed” about global warming. Those groups interpret the same information differently based on the community they identify with. For instance, those who think climate change is a hoax will probably continue to think so. People in the middle, who don’t know much about the issue, might become more concerned by a vivid account of how bad things could get.
And those who are most concerned about climate change may accept a gloomy message as vindication of their views — but there’s always the chance they might lose hope about fixing the problem, Leiserowitz says.
“And that’s the critique some scientists have put forward,” he says, “that it’s not enough to just totally scare the bejesus out of people.” Indeed, as a science journalist who has covered climate change, I can vouch that scientists and the media have been told over and over that the public will ignore a message that’s too depressing. As paleoclimatologist Michael Mann of Penn State University said of the New York article, overstating the severity of climate change could feed a “paralyzing narrative of doom and hopelessness.”
This concern about public paralysis came out of communication studies years ago, when most reporters were still focused on a relentless drumbeat of bad news, Leiserowitz says. “It’s more complicated than that. We weren’t saying every piece of journalism has to present solutions.”
So maybe there’s a place for a little gloominess in talking about climate change. “The scientists should just tell us what they know and not worry too much about whether there’s too much gloom and doom in it,” says Dan Kahan, a Yale law and psychology professor who leads the Cultural Cognition Project, studying public perceptions of risk.
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What’s more, most people don’t form their opinions based on the news they read, he says. “They get the memo from their communities.” His work has shown that people’s cultural identity, not their knowledge of science, drives their opinion on climate change.
“What we need isn’t more evidence, but people seeing other people who they identify with acting on the basis of the evidence,” he says.
So while it looks like there’s an audience out there for gloomy words, ultimately it’s actions that speak loudest of all.
Erika Engelhaupt is a freelance science writer in Knoxville, Tenn., and was previously an editor and blogger at Science News. Find her on Twitter as @GoryErika.