It’s Time to Scare the Bejesus Out of People about Climate Change

In a recent Report (Feb 2014) we covered a study of Dutch ideas for a robust environmental policy for the 21st century, where we said that:

Contrary to others who are reluctant to use scare-mongering language or tactics, the Dutch report argues that if people will not pay attention to the dire consequences of a world where the global temperature will rise by 2°C, maybe we need to let them know, directly and graphically, what our world will be like with a 4°C or 6°C temperature rise.   See “Think Local, Act Global…”

Well, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in a recent report, What We Know: The Reality, Risks and Response to Climate Change has done just that. Finally.

The AAAS is a very large and prestigious scientific body that, like most similar groups, tends to be cautious in its use of language. But in this report, they purport to tell it like it is, or like it may be.

Substantively, the report is high-level, articulate and valiant.

The key sound bite is: “As scientists, it is not our role to tell people what they should do or must believe about the rising threat of climate change. But we consider it to be our responsibility as professionals to ensure, to the best of our ability, that people understand what we know: human-caused climate change is happening, we face risks of abrupt, unpredictable and potentially irreversible changes, and responding now will lower the risk and cost of taking action.” At 4-5.

The substance of this message is familiar, but the tone is new and welcomed. We see this tone in full display in a following section on “High-risk scenarios: the high-side projections.” At 13.

Most similar reports present, rather dispassionately, a range of possible outcomes or scenarios from the consequences of climate change, and usually they choose an outcome in the middle range, a safe middle-ground, befitting scientists. The authors of the AAAS report toss away that safety net and instead lay out for us, as the Dutch report urged, some of the worst cases. They use the analogy of “tail risk” from the world of finance where you are advised that your investment likely will pay dividends, but you have to accept and even prepare for a very bad outcome where you lose almost everything— called the “tail risk.” It’s not the most likely outcome but you have to account for it, for example by not investing more than you can afford to lose. So even if not as likely as other outcomes, you need to take action to prepare for it. If that makes sense for preserving one’s finances, surely one’s earth deserves the same treatment.

So what are the climate change tail risks? Global temperature will rise by 8°F by 2100 and that temperature change will be irreversible for several hundred years; extreme weather events (floods, heat waves, droughts) that now occur once every 20 years will occur every year; sea levels will rise by 6-7 feet by 2100 threatening 7-8 million people in the US from coastal flooding that will occur almost every year and many cities and communities will be uninhabitable, with sea levels rising by 16 feet after 2100, higher than the elevation of many major cities around the world.






Creative Commons: Calder Monroe, 2011

And, by the way, if abrupt climate changes start to erupt, here’s what further impacts we can look forward to: ecosystems collapsing with extinction of lots of species; arctic sea collapse; large-scale ice sheet collapse with sea level rising even more; release of sea floor methane; and, release of carbon and methane from melting permafrost.

These outcomes and catastrophes are displayed by the authors in graphic terms through their use of comparisons, usually either metaphors or analogies, to accentuate their message.

The first analogy is one that is being used more frequently and is most effective. They point out that: “The science linking human activities to climate change is analogous to the science linking smoking to lung and cardiovascular diseases.” At 6. Its usefulness is that not only do all reputable scientists agree that smoking causes cancer, but everybody except the most contrarian people agree with the science. The AAAS authors could have, and should have, extended the analogy further by pointing out that there is also wide-spread consensus on the dangers of second-hand smoke, as evidenced by all the bans on smoking in bars, restaurants and most public spaces in many countries. Analogously, if you spew out emissions from fossil fuels, you’re harming others as well as your self. Suicide is one thing, murder is quite another thing.

AAAS-The Climate Reality Project copy 2





Climate Reality Project

Next the authors discuss extreme weather events and whether any particular event can be traced directly to climate change. To illustrate they point out that: “Greenhouse gases have supercharged the climate just as steroids supercharged hitting in Major League Baseball. Over the course of a baseball season in the steroid era, we witnessed more – and longer – homers, even though we cannot attribute any specific homer to steroids.” At 7. That comparison seems to work well.

Then the authors note that the earth’s global average temperature has risen by about 1.4°F since the late 19th century and that while that may not seem like a significant increase, it is. They add that: “Just as a 1.4° F fever would be seen as significant in a child’s body, a similar change in our Earth’s temperature is also a concern for human society.” At 8. Here the analogy does not work as well. If a child has a temperature of 100 degrees, that is of course worrisome and needs to be dealt with, but it is likely not life threatening and, more importantly, it can be brought down quickly with little effort. That’s not true for climate change.

Other comparisons help move along their argument. In their discussion of how we need to manage the risks from climate change, they draw comparisons with our behavior in buckling our car seats, latching our kids into car seats, buying insurance and eating healthy foods in efforts to live long lives free of serious illness (At 13). They use the “tail risk” analogy from finance, discussed above, and to illustrate the consequences of an abrupt climate change they remind us of financial bubbles bursting with sudden and severe impacts, and the consequences of sudden brake and steering failures. At 16.

These concrete metaphors and analogies enable people to imagine more sharply what climate changes can do. For the next attempt to reach as broad a non-scientist non-expert audience as possible here are a few other suggestions: try writing a report on climate change without any numbers; and, avoid as much as possible the adjectives “slight” or “unknown” or “uncertain” no matter how loud your scientific gut screams for it.

If you are feeling particularly adventuresome, or angry, try using a few f… words. And if anybody complains that in doing so you’re acting un-scientific, tell them to f… off. It is all about getting the message across.


American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), What We Know: The Reality, Risks and Response to Climate Change (March 2014).

Joe Romm, “Climate Scientists: We’re Alarmed. Here’s Why You Should Be, Too,” climate progress (20 March 2014).

Brentin Mock, “Please, scientists: Tell us how you really feel about climate change,” Grist (19 March 2014).

John Upton, “Scientists to Americans: This climate change thing really is a big deal,” Grist (18 March 2014).

Zadie Smith, “Elegy for a Country’s Seasons,” The New York Review of Books (3 April 2014).

Nick Cohen, “The climate change deniers have won,” The Guardian (22 March 2014).

“Think Local, Act Global: Dutch Ideas for a Robust Environmental Policy for the 21st Century,” in Reports section of irish environment (February 2014).


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