Chicken Little Comes Home to Roost

If you’ve studied climate change lately, you may be aware that there’s a gulf between what the public thinks and what the research suggests.  There was an article in scientific glory rag Nature a while back about why. The article presents evidence that we resist warnings which are too dire. We subconsciously assume that our world is mostly just, which makes it hard to believe warnings ominous enough to contradict the assumption.

Sadly, climate change is hard to discuss without now and then sounding like an end-times tin-hat nutter.  It’s a problem.

Assuming the article is on to something, two questions:

  1. Why do we think the world is just?
  2. Why does that belief trump contradictory evidence?

I’ll point out here that probably not everyone thinks the world is just.  Sudanese refugees for example.  The participants in the Nature study weren’t Sudanese refugees though. They were first-worlders, and that may be a clue to the first question.

First-worlders are on easy street. Our lives are defined by material and technological progress, domestic peace, and plenty of comfort.  We think the world is just (or at least stable) because for us, it is.

But how are we able to hold onto that belief so tightly in light of warnings about Climate Change?  The evidence that we risk cataclysm isn’t enough. Why?

Here’s my guess: I think our belief in a just world is hard to kill because we’re inundated with scare stories that aren’t true. Because media tells those stories to get eyeballs. Consider any number of stories:  9/11, flu bugs, a democratic president. None have turned out (so far fingers crossed) to be true threats to civilization, but there have been plenty of news stories portraying them that way. We’re swamped with false positives. So you can forgive us for taking doomsaying with a grain of salt. Especially those which have persisted for 40 years without ending the world. Like Climate Change.

Now we come to my point.

We should ask ourselves: what happens if, anonymously marching among the false alarms a real apocalyptic threat were to sneak up? Would we recognize it? Could we distinguish it from the other scary stories?  Maybe not, at least not until the consequences were well and truly upon us.

It would behoove to figure out how to make the distinction forthwith because Nature isn’t just – it’s indifferent, and Earth’s history is riddled with, uh, “uncomfortable times”. For example, 250 million years ago, in what’s referred to as the End Permian Extinction, up to 96% of all marine life and 70% of all life on land died. It took tens of millions of years for Earth’s biome to recover.  Coincidentally perhaps, one hypothesis for the cause of that die-off is the release of methane from the ocean floor, leading to runaway global warming, a repeat of which climate scientists are increasingly worried about as our oceans warm.  Anyway.

Later of course the dinosaurs ate it. In fact there have been 5 major extinction events in Earth’s history, and we’re now told that a 6th has begun.

More than 99% of all species that have ever existed are extinct. It’s inevitable that humanity will face a cataclysmic threat at some point. It would be great if we could see it coming and prepare. I don’t think we’re now capable, because I think climate change is it and we appear to be missing it.

We may be perfectly capable of a transformative effort which would allow us to avoid the worst and adapt to the rest.  But it will take a lot more people deciding to become personally involved. By “people” I mean you.

I’d love to live through an effort like that.  I can’t think of a more exciting possibility. It’s preferable anyway to the descent into chaos toward which we may be edging.

-From the Sea

Chicken Little Comes Home to Roost: Another Way Media May Fail Us on Climate Change.

If you happened to have studied climate change lately, you may have become aware that there’s a discomfiting gulf between what the public thinks and what the research suggests.There was an article in scientific glory rag Nature last week about why that‘s so.The article presents evidence that we resist believing in warnings that are *too* dire.We subconsciously assume that the world is to some degree just, and that makes it hard to believe warnings ominous enough to contradict the assumption.“Unlikely!” we think, and go back to sucking on the hip beverage we were sucking on.

Sadly, climate change is hard to discuss without now and then sounding like an end-times wacko.It’s a problem.

Assuming the article is on to something, two questions:

1.Why do we think the world is just?

2.Why does that belief trump contradictory evidence?

I’ll point out here that probably not everyone thinks the world is just.Sudanese refugees for example.The participants in the Nature study weren’t Sudanese refugees though.They were first-worlders, and I suspect that’s a clue to the first question.

First-worlders are on easy street.Our lives are defined by material and technological progress, domestic peace, and plenty of comfort.We think the world is just (or at least stable) because for us, it is (more or less).

The second question is harder to answer.The evidence that we’re headed toward cataclysm on our current course isn’t enough to trump our “just world” belief.Why?

Here’s where my hypothesis comes in.I think our belief in a just world is hard to knock off because we’re totally inundated with scary doom saying that turns out to be untrue.Because that’s what the media does to get eyeballs?They get attention by spooking the pants off their audience.Consider any number of stories:the recent recession, 9/11, various flu bugs.None turned out (so far!) to be true threats to civilization, but there have been plenty of news stories portraying them that way.We’re swamped with false positives.So you can forgive us for taking scare stories with a grain of salt.Especially scare stories that have persisted for 30 years without having come true, like climate change.

I’m not the first to complain about media scare hype.But I have a novel point to make.Normally, when critics bring the problem up, it’s to point out that sensationalism drives over-reaction.But I think there’s another problem, which could be more damaging.

We should ask ourselves:what happens if, anonymously marching amongst all those false alarms a real, an honest to goodness apocalyptic threat sneaks up?Would we recognize it?Could we distinguish it from all the other scary stories?Maybe not, at least not until the consequences were well and truly upon us.

How can we recognize a real threat amongst fakes?Because Nature isn’t just – it’s indifferent, and Earth’s history is riddled with, uh, “uncomfortable times”.For example, 250 million years ago, in what’s referred to as the “End Permian Extinction”, 95% of all life died.Coincidentally perhaps, one hypothesis for the cause of that die-off is the release of methane from the ocean floor, leading to runaway global warning, a repeat of which climate scientists are increasingly worried about as our oceans warm.Anyway it took tens of millions of years for Earth’s biome to recover.

Later of course the dinosaurs ate it.In fact there have been six major extinction events in Earth’s history, the last of which we’re in the middle of right now, *before* the effects of climate change have kicked in much.

Sooner or later, humanity will face a true cataclysmic threat.It would be great if we could see it coming and prepare.I don’t think we’re now capable, because I think climate change is that threat, and we appear to be missing it.

If it’s not climate change, it might be the more general problem of which climate change is one manifestation: peak everything.Thanks to exponential population growth in recent decades we’re running up against finite resource limits and exceeding environmental tolerances of many kinds at once. On the upside of exponential growth, everything seems peachy.When it inevitably stops, population crashes can happen.Remaining willfully ignorant of the risk won’t make their consequences any more pleasant.

Sad, because we may be perfectly capable of a concerted, transformative effort which would allow us to avoid the worst and adapt to the rest.I would *love* to live through an effort like that.I can’t think of a more exciting possibility.It’s preferable anyway to the descent into chaos toward which we’re edging.

Not that I have suggestions regarding how to make anything better.My next post will actually have an actionable idea in it.[\Useless Post]

-From the Sea

Posted August 27, 2012 in Random Thoughts | No Comments

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