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Fighting Global Warming with Fear

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorApril 20, 2009 8:13 PM


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In 2003, Bill McKibben published an essay in the literary magazine Granta ($$ Req), titled, "Worried? Us?" What he rued then still holds true today:

People think about "˜global warming' in the way they think about "˜violence on television' or "˜growing trade deficits', as a marginal concern to them, if a concern at all. Hardly anyone has fear in their guts."

To understand why this is, read yesterday's cover story in the The New York Times magazine. There's a lot to chew on, much of it probably familiar to anyone who has looked at environmental issues through a cognitive science lens. There are two take-away points, though, that bear mentioning, as the debate over how best to communicate the urgency of climate change revs up: 1) As Anthony Leiserowitz, a social scientist who directs the Yale Project on Climate Change, observes,

most Americans think about climate change as a distant problem. Distant in Time, and distant in space.

2) Research by Elke Weber, an economist at Columbia University, indicates that humans have a "finite pool of worry," which Jon Gertner, the author of the Times piece, characterizes to mean that

we're unable to maintain our fear of climate change when a different problem--a plunging stock market, a personal emergency--comes along. We simply move one fear into the worry bin and one fear out.

Overcoming the way evolution has hardwired us isn't going to be easy when it comes to climate change. A slow-moving event, like melting glaciers and rising seas, won't focus the mind the way the Cold War once did. The most effective fear-inducing method, according to Weber, is "personal evidence" of global warming, which I take to mean the immediacy of extreme weather events, such as heat waves, severe drought, or floods. The problem there is that it's still so difficult to distinguish current catastrophes caused by natural climatic variability and that stemming from the greenhouse gas effect. But if this tactic is the best means of persuasion, then we can expect a continuation of screaming headlines like this, and a ratcheting up of fire & brimstone rhetoric. There's got to be a better way.

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