by Judith Curry
The last time apocalyptic anxiety spilled into the mainstream to the extent that it altered the course of history — during the Reformation — it relied on a revolutionary new communications technology: the printing press. In a similar way, could the current surge in apocalyptic anxiety be attributed in part to our own revolution in communications technology?
The Atlantic has a very interesting article entitled How Apocalyptic Thinking Prevents Us from Taking Political Action.
Flip through the cable channels for long enough, and you’ll inevitably find the apocalypse. On Discovery or National Geographic or History you’ll find shows like MegaDisasters, Doomsday Preppers, or The Last Days on Earth chronicling, in an hour of programming, dozens of ways the world might end: a gamma ray burst from a nearby star peeling away the Earth’s ozone layer like an onion; a mega-volcano erupting and plunging our planet into a new ice age; the magnetic poles reversing. Turn to a news channel, and the headlines appear equally apocalyptic, declaring that the “UN Warns of Rapid Decay in Environment” or that “Humanity’s Very Survival” is at risk. On another station, you’ll find people arguing that the true apocalyptic threat to our way of life is not the impending collapse of ecosystems and biodiversity but the collapse of the dollar as the world’s global currency. Change the channel again, and you’ll see still others insisting that malarial mosquitoes, drunk on West Nile virus, are the looming specter of apocalypse darkening our nation’s horizon.
How to make sense of it all? After all, not every scenario can be an apocalyptic threat to our way of life — can it? For many, the tendency is to dismiss all the potential crises we are facing as overblown. For others, the panoply of potential disasters becomes overwhelming, leading to a distorted and paranoid vision of reality and the threats facing our world.
The media, of course, have long mastered the formula of packaging remote possibilities as urgent threats. It’s not just that if it bleeds, it leads. If it might bleed, it still leads.
Yet not all of the crises or potential threats before us are equal, nor are they equally probable — a fact that gets glossed over when the media equate the remote threat of a possible event, like epidemics, with real trends like global warming.
This over-reliance on the apocalyptic narrative causes us to fear the wrong things and to mistakenly equate potential future events with current and observable trends. How to discern the difference between so many apocalyptic options? If we ask ourselves three basic questions about the many threats portrayed apocalyptically in the media, we are able to separate the apocalyptic wheat from the chaff. Which scenarios are probable? Which are preventable? And what is the likely impact of the worst-case model of any given threat?
To understand why fewer people believe in climate change even as evidence mounts, we must look beyond the industry-funded movement to deny the reality and effects of climate change. Perhaps equally important — if not quite equally culpable — has been the extent to which both the proponents and opponents of human-made climate change have led us down a cul-de-sac of conversation by exploiting the apocalyptic metaphor to make their case.
Talking about climate change or peak oil through the rhetoric of apocalypse may make for good television and attention-grabbing editorials, but such apocalyptic framing hasn’t mobilized the world into action. [O]ur over-reliance on the apocalyptic storyline stands between us and our ability to properly assess the problems before us.
The result is that the energy we could expend addressing the problems before us is instead consumed by our efforts to either dismiss the threat of apocalypse or to prove it real. Ultimately, the question becomes not what to do about the threats before us but whether you believe in the threats before us.
The deeper we entangle the challenges of the 21st century with apocalyptic fantasy, the more likely we are to paralyze ourselves with inaction — or with the wrong course of action. We react to the idea of the apocalypse — rather than to the underlying issues activating the apocalyptic storyline to begin with — by either denying its reality (“global warming isn’t real”) or by despairing at its inevitability (“why bother recycling when the whole world is burning up?”).
JC comment: I’ve selected quotes that I think make the argument against apocalyptism. However, if you read the entire article, there is a strong theme of apocalyptism distracting from taking political action to address global warming. The author seems to view the steady trend of global warming (oops well its not all that steady) as more of an issue than possible tipping point scenarios, whereas some economic analyses have focused more on the fat tail, low probability extreme events.
Now consider the 2nd peril of apocalyptic thinking, which IMO is more important.
The 2nd peril of apocalyptic thinking
I disagree with the Atlantic article’s conclusion that the main peril of apocalyptic thinking is distracting from taking action to address global warming. The real peril of apocalyptism associated with global warming is distracting local governments from dealing with their actual problems.
Mark Lynas has a terrific article that makes this point, entitled Where sea level rise isn’t what it seems. The post discusses an article recently published in EOS that addresses sea level variations from the Tawana atoll in the central tropical Pacific. Sea level rise as an existential threat to the atoll islands is one of the primary rallying cries for action against global warming. Lynas summarizes the results from the article as follows:
To me the graph is interesting for two reasons. The first is the absence of any trend over the last 20 years towards increased sea levels in that part of the Pacific. This should be expected, because sea level rise as a computed average means that the oceans are rising in more places than they are falling, but they are falling in some places nonetheless. The second is the sheer up-and-down massive variability in actual sea levels, which is linked to the El Niño cycle. The monthly mean sea level dropped by nearly half a metre between March 1997 and February 1998 because of switch from El Niño to La Niña conditions, and peaks of 15cm were seen in each of the recent El Niño events .
So the problem with attributing sea-level rise impacts is the same as with attributing heat-waves, droughts, floods or other extreme events to climate change – you have to try to figure out what would have happened absent the global warming trend (in order to distinguish genuine impacts from noise), and also distinguish background changes from more direct anthropogenic interference which might confuse the picture.
In Tarawa atoll, direct human interference probably explains the majority of what is often pointed to as evidence of sea-level rise impact, according to Donner. Because few readers will be able to access the paper online, I will take a leaf out of Judith Curry’s book and quote extensively from it here: (JC note: embedded quotes are from the EOS article):
The combination of natural weather – and climate – driven variability in sea level and the astronomical tidal cycle can lead to flooding and erosion events, particularly in sand-dominated systems like atolls and barrier islands.
These flooding events, though statistically more likely to happen as global average sea level rises, are themselves no more evidence of rising sea level than an individual heat wave is evidence of rising global temperatures. Despite a continued global average sea level rise, the gauge height reached on 10 February 2005 in Tarawa has not been surpassed since.
The paper then goes on to discuss some direct human impacts which can impact shoreline dynamics with or without a sea-level trend:
Three types of shoreline modification that are typical in low-lying island nations have altered sediment supply and island shape in South Tarawa [Webb, 2005]. First, land reclamation, accomplished by infilling behind a constructed sea wall, has increased land area in some locations but exacerbated erosion and inundation in others.
Second, the practice of mining of beaches and barrier reefs for construction materials, common in Kiribati, Tuvalu, and other atoll nations, can make the shoreline more vulnerable to tidal extremes and storms.
Last, the construction of causeways between islets has altered islet evolution. Causeway construction allowed nearshore currents to deposit sediment along the lagoon beaches of South Tarawa islets like Bairiki and Nanikai [Solomon and Forbes, 1999].
The attribution problem is further magnified by the political situation. The Kiribati government faces the difficult challenge of raising international awareness about the local impacts of climate change to support adaptation and mitigation efforts. Many individual observations of erosion, flooding, or groundwater salinization, recorded in community consultations for internationally funded climate change adaptation programs, are thus attributed to climate change without scientific analysis.
Such unverified attribution can inflame or invite skepticism of the scientific evidence for a human-caused increase in the global sea level.
The challenge of differentiating between observed changes in the coastal environmental and the projected impact of sea level rise is not unique to Kiribati. For example, the Carteret Islanders of Papua New Guinea have been migrating from their home atoll for decades because overpopulation, human development, and natural disasters, in addition to sea level rise, have caused coastal erosion and reduced water availability. Nevertheless, the Carteret Islanders are commonly called the world’s first climate change “refugees” .
Instead of incorrectly attributing individual flood events or shoreline changes to global sea level rise, scientists and climate communicators can use such occurrences to educate the public about the various natural and human processes that affect sea level, the shoreline, and the shape of islands. This would better prepare the public and policy makers for the changes that societies are likely to experience as global sea level rises in the coming decades.
Mark Lynas summarizes: I couldn’t agree more. If island nations are making themselves more vulnerable to the slow process of sea-level rise by mining sand, destroying reefs and so on, they need to know about it – and not be encouraged to blame it all on outsiders causing climate change. In the case of the impacts currently affecting Kiribati, ‘mitigation’ means changing local practices as much as changing global ones. And therein lies a lesson for us all.