Why Climate Change Pundits Aren’t Convincing Anyone

Doom and gloom essays are more likely to offend skeptical readers than to convince them. Cognitive studies suggest there’s a better way.

  • Polls suggest that even people who are alarmed about climate change aren’t particularly alarmed about the threat to themselves.

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David Wallace-Wells’ recent climate change essay in The New York Times, published as part of the publicity for his new book “The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming,” is, sadly, like a lot of writing on climate change these days: It’s right about the risk, but wrong about how it tries to accomplish the critical goal of raising public concern. Like other essays that have sounded the alarms on global warming — pieces by Bill McKibben, James Hansen, and George Monbiot come to mind — Wallace-Wells’ offers a simple message: I’m scared. People should be scared. Here are the facts. You should be scared too.

To be sure, Wallace-Wells and these other writers are thoughtful, intelligent, and well-informed people. And that is precisely how they try to raise concern: with thought, intelligence, and information, couched in the most dramatic terms at the grandest possible scale. Wallace-Wells invokes sweeping concepts like “planet-warming,” “human history,” and global emissions; remote places like the Arctic; broad geographical and geopolitical terms like “coral reefs,” “ice sheet,” and “climate refugees”; and distant timeframes like 2030, 2050, and 2100.

It’s a common approach to communicating risk issues, known as the deficit model: Proceeding from the assumption that your audience lacks facts — that is, that they have a deficit — all you need to do is give them the facts, in clear and eloquent and dramatic enough terms, and you can make them feel like you want them to feel, how they ought to feel, how you feel. But research on the practice of risk communication has found that this approach usually fails, and often backfires. The deficit model may work fine in physics class, but it’s an ineffective way to try to change people’s attitudes. That’s because it appeals to reason, and reason is not what drives human behavior.

For more than 50 years, the cognitive sciences have amassed a mountainous body of insight into why we think and choose and act as we do. And what they have found is that facts alone are literally meaningless. We interpret every bit of cold objective information through a thick set of affective filters that determine how those facts feel — and how they feel is what determines what those facts mean and how we behave. As 17th century French mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal observed, “We know truth, not only by the reason, but also by the heart.”

Yet a large segment of the climate change commentariat dismisses these social science findings. In his piece for The New York Times, Wallace-Wells mentions a few cognitive biases that fall under the rubric of behavioral economics, including optimism bias (things will go better for me than the next guy) and status quo bias (it’s easier just to keep things as they are). But he describes them in language that drips with condescension and frustration:

How can we be this deluded? One answer comes from behavioral economics. The scroll of cognitive biases identified by psychologists and fellow travelers over the past half-century can seem, like a social media feed, bottomless. And they distort and distend our perception of a changing climate. These optimistic prejudices, prophylactic biases, and emotional reflexes form an entire library of climate delusion.

Moreover, behavioral economics is only one part of what shapes how we feel about risk. Another component of our cognition that has gotten far too little attention, but plays a more important part in how we feel about climate change, is the psychology of risk perception. Pioneering research by Paul Slovic, Baruch Fischhoff, Sarah Lichtenstein, and many others has identified more than a dozen discrete psychological characteristics that cause us to worry more than we need to about some threats and less than we need to about others, like climate change.

For example, we don’t worry as much about risks that don’t feel personally threatening. Surveys suggest that even people who are alarmed about climate change aren’t particularly alarmed about the threat to themselves. The most recent poll by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that while 70 percent of Americans believe climate change is happening, only around 40 percent think “it will harm me personally.”

We also worry more about risks that threaten us soon than risks that threaten us later. Evolution has endowed us with a risk-alert system designed to get us to tomorrow first — and only then, maybe, do we worry about what comes later. So even those who think climate change is already happening believe, accurately, that the worst is yet to come. Risk communication that talks about the havoc that climate change will wreak in 2030, in 2050, or “during this century” contributes to that “we don’t really have to worry about it now” feeling.

Risk perception research also suggests that we worry less about risky behaviors if those behaviors also carry tangible benefits. So far, that’s been the case for climate change: For many people living in the developed world, the harms of climate change are more than offset by the modern comforts of a carbon-intensive lifestyle. Even those who put solar panels on their roofs or make lifestyle changes in the name of reducing their carbon footprint often continue with other bad behaviors: shopping and buying unsustainably, flying, having their regular hamburger.

Interestingly Wallace-Wells admits this is even true for him:

I know the science is true, I know the threat is all-encompassing, and I know its effects, should emissions continue unabated, will be terrifying. And yet, when I imagine my life three decades from now, or the life of my daughter five decades from now, I have to admit that I am not imagining a world on fire but one similar to the one we have now.

Yet he writes that “the age of climate panic is here,” and he expects that delivering all the facts and evidence in alarmist language will somehow move others to see things differently. This is perhaps Wallace-Wells’ biggest failure: By dramatizing the facts and suggesting that people who don’t share his level of concern are irrational and delusional, he is far more likely to offend readers than to convince them. Adopting the attitude that “my feelings are right and yours are wrong” — that “I can see the problem and something’s wrong with you if you can’t” — is a surefire way to turn a reader off, not on, to what you want them to believe.

Contrast all this deficit-model climate punditry with the effective messaging of the rising youth revolt against climate change. Last August, 16-year-old Swedish student Greta Thunberg skipped school and held a one-person protest outside her country’s parliament to demand action on climate change. In the six months since, there have been nationwide #FridaysforFuture school walkouts in at least nine countries, and more are planned.

Thunberg has spoken to the United Nations and the World Economic Forum in Davos, with an in-your-face and from-the-heart message that’s about not just facts but her very real and personal fear:

Adults keep saying: “We owe it to the young people to give them hope.” But I don’t want your hope… I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.

By speaking to our hearts and not just our heads — and by framing the issue in terms of personal and immediate fear of a future that promises more harm than benefit — Thunberg has started an international protest movement.

The lesson is clear. Wallace-Wells’ New York Times essay will get lots of attention among the intelligentsia, but he is not likely to arouse serious new support for action against climate change. Risk communication that acknowledges and respects the emotions and psychology of the people it tries to reach is likely to have far greater impact — and that’s exactly what the effort to combat climate change needs right now.

David Ropeik is a consultant in risk communication and the psychology of risk perception, and the author of “How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts.”

See What Others Are Saying

27 comments / Join the Discussion

    Unfortunately there just a large, well funded denier industry working tirelessly to obfuscate and stall the process of implementing policies that will keep us from making things worse.

    They use false science to create a narrative that does doubt, and therefore hesitation, in the hearts and minds of people.

    They can only be challenged by addressing their false claims directly.

    I bet Greta Thunberg has read the David Wallace-Wells article, and articles like his. I don’t see how there will be change without trying to describe and understand the facts as clearly as possible. What is going to motivate people if they don’t have a vision of what awaits us in the future?

    Exactly what I was going to say. The author uses too many categoricals- I was ‘woke’ quite a bit by Wallace-Wells article. Many may bury their heads but many won’t. I really don’t see much difference in their approach other than Greta’s direct action. Direct action ‘shows’ people that you’re not just talking the talk, but walking the walk.

    Folks… I have been thinking about this. This risk consultant is wrong. Fear is never a good way to drive the mitigation of risk. Sure. You will get some action. We have seen that in climate areas so far. But you will also get increased skepticism as the fear never materializes. Climate is in the basic boy who cried wolf position.

    No, the answer is to go positive. Not fear. Define actions today that have short term positive benefits with a positive ROI and argue for them independent of climate. It is the only thing of substance humanity will do. If you don’t have any such ideas then spend your time developing mitigation plans like geo engineering because we will never act until the equation is positive.

    If you are right about impact, then the equation will eventually turn positive and we will act. Or perhaps technology will change and the equation will turn positive earlier.

    But all that matters is the near term. I really don’t care if the seas are going to rise 100 feet in 200 years. I don’t care if NYC is under water. And nobody alive today will really care. Even the folks in NYC. Why? Because over the next 200 years generations will move away inland. No major lots of life. No major financial impact as the assets will have aged and been depreceated over decades. Similar adaptations will occur with every one of your scary scenarios.

    You see what I mean. Nobody cares about your scary predictions because they are far away and honestly not that scary. You want action you need to take about the next decade or two and what benefits we get.

    Stop being afraid. Start being rational. Start being logical. Address the near term issues and opportunities and stop sounding like chicken little.

    I agree to a point. There is nothing to lose by embarking on short-term actions that drive positive change, no matter the outcome. The problem with AGW is that the problem is bigger than that, and there are vested interests determined NOT to implement positive change, and are funding obfuscation to prevent people from doing it. And one of the main ways they do this is to relentlessly question, often using unfounded claims, what science is actually telling us.

    The narrative of denial needs to be challenged, and long-term solutions sought.

    This is a well-stated essay. The key takeaway here is that so few people think climate change will affect them personally. We need to lift up examples of “here and now” effects on real people and specific places. But we also need to stop “weaponizing” the weather – I’ve seen people who might otherwise be open to climate change concerns shut down and roll their eyes when they hear weather being hyped -weather that’s actually within normal parameters. If we can focus on real things happening that are truly out of the ordinary, we might get somewhere.

    You can’t simply focus on real things happening. The real things aren’t very scary and anyone who truly thinking about this issue knows there are positive impacts of warming as well as negative ones. The answer is to propose something with immediate benefits. You will never scare us. I am not scared and will die not scared. Humanity will adapt to any change. If you want me… A person who understands the actual science and knows we are warming the Earth but is skeptical that it is all that important or even negative…. to do something, you need to give me something to do that provides benefits today.

    It is that simple. Stop fighting this battle. If you are still scared go work on geo engineeringb tests and mitigation plans. But also get me to act by providing me benefits today for acting. A positive ROI in the short term.

    Panic people and they will embrace the first absurd “solution” that gets the most attention in the gutter press. Panic never solve any serious problem; solar and other renewable relatively low cost sources should be utilized where effective and more effective sources as they are developed.

    I wish that the author had given us more concrete advice for how to appeal to hearts.

    I think one way is to make the problem both immediate and local. As the author points out we are more willing to deal with an immediate problem, and a nearby one is more likely to affect us.

    Alas the state of climate modeling hasn’t gotten to the point where we can predict measurable changes on a 5 year window at the individual state level.


    As another writer points out, predictions are not facts. But change venues. In medicine, smoking is a good predictor of lung cancer. That prediction isn’t certain, but it’s the way to bet. Similarly a smart person with the form books does better at playing the ponies than does a someone who chooses his nag with the roll of a pair of dice.

    It doesn’t help that climate change is slow, and is much smaller than the year to year variations. If we could run a model, and get confirmation next Tuesday that we were on track it would be great. At present it takes a minimum of 10 years to validate a result, and even that is subject to quarrels between statisticians as to what data to include and which methods to use.

    In a game of russian roulette you have 1 chance in 6 of taking a bullet. The best way to win at Russian roulette is to not play. We don’t have that option with climate. Whether change is man made or natural doesn’t matter either. If we do nothing many people will die. If we start trying to fix it now, fewer people will die.

    You may be correct that many people will die. Whether many more will die than have died in the past is a complex question. To date, less and less people keep dying from climate issues. Changes in technology, habits, and where they live have all contributed to declining deaths from climate issues. Your prediction belies history and of not comparable to smoking in which the factors were more direct and the time frames much shorter.

    You’re right, for example, Air quality is influenced significantly by the global warming change. The air contamination brought about by excess of carbon dioxide, vehicular discharges, and power plants impacts the human respiratory framework. Many individuals everywhere throughout the world experience the ill effects of respiratory infections.

    I was really hoping for much more on effective means to motivate effective action, but all we got was a little bit at the end…

    Infantile psychobabbling twaddle. Only in those nations infantilized by their marketers and the vacuously, fatuously famous, is this effect noticeable. So one may fairly conclude that something other than a purely innate influence is at work.

    You want a story, kiddiekins, to show you where you are? Remember those old silent movie clips where the girl is tied to the railroad track, the 09£35 double freight out of Topeka is barrelling down on her, and the hero is desperately trying to get to the rail switch?

    We’re the girl, the track we’re tied to is the greenhouse track we’re on, and climate is the train. But. We’re also the hero. No other in sight for light years. We can – just about- wriggle out of the ropes, with luck and determination. Will we? Unlikely. Hasta la vista, Baby. Nice ta know ya.

    AGW is different from “climate change”. The history of climate change includes a number of factors, natural and catastrophic, other than CO2 concentrations. Core samples and other research are peeling back the pages of time concerning the warming and cooling history of climate change. The AGW proponents have dismissed climate history, changing magnetic poles, the dirty snow affect of particulates, a decreasing solar radiation cycle, etc., and attributed any climate phenomena to CO2 levels.

    The AGW proponents are spreading panic. Past history indicates a cooling cycle in the future.

    Oh my. In this piece, the author seems to ignore his own emotional bias. The fact is that predictions are not facts.

    Think about it. That in a system as complex as the climate, interacting with subjects as complex as the food supply, in a time frame of the future in which it will interact with even more complex factors such as technology, that a “fact” can be stated about what will happen, is ridiculous.

    I am not a denier of any facts. Humans have caused minor amounts of climate change. I am clear on the negative and positive impacts to date. I understand the financial implications of action. I am not uneducated or ignorant of the subject.

    But I still have a positive view. Why? That is complex. But the main reason is history. No matter what terrible ills have befallen humanity we have continued to not only be ok, but to improve as a whole. We react to problems with solutions at generally the right times.

    If the predictions start to become facts that are actually terrifying, we will react. It will not be too late. It never is. We will have minor setbacks at most and then continue to move forward.

    Bottom line is… Don’t listen to this so called risk expert. If you want to convince people do it with facts. Not scary predictions. You want to reduce emissions? Show the financial case for each action we take with each action having a near term benefit. That is what I will agree to. What thing so you want me to do today that will improve my children’s life literally in the next decade or two and provide a positive ROI. It will be a nicety that it happens to reduce the risk some amount of some theoretical terrible consequence in 50 years.

    And if you want me to listen, stop pretending predictions are facts. Stop trying to pretend that it is a question purely of science what the impact of climate is on human migration or food supply. These questions are more than science. They are economics, technology, engineering, politics AND science. Stop hurting the good name of science by mixing all this other stuff in and claiming “fact”.

    Oh, is that why the numbers — even on the rightwing side — keep rising? Who knew?

    I have serious doubts about the impending doom of the planet. First, I agree we need to be better stewards of the resources; however, I have yet to see a through explanation for extreme weather cycles on earth. We have had five(5) ice ages which are followed by warming. I believe that we need to first understand this naturally occurring process (billions of years) and then layer in our contribution to this natural process. This would require clear object objective science and not theories based upon 80-90 years of data that is not consistent, and not driven by research dollars to back one side or the other. Real science and not Money science. Once you can put together a total perspective (both natural and man made) will people believe there is a problem and be open to real solutions. Fear sales and we see that everyday in hyped-up stories.

    There are NO facts to support the notion that humans are causing climate change; there is only emotions revolving around the fear of the unknown. If there were any facts there would be no reason to “sell” this pap; it would sell itself. It seems very dark in your “Un dark” world.

    The fact that it is 2019 and people like John Emery still claim there are no facts supporting global warming is terrifying, but it may explain the Fermi paradox.

    The greenhouse effect was discovered early 19th century. In 1895 Svante Arrhenius calculated the first physical model for CO2 + H2O. Using pen & paper his result for the CO2 sensitivity was just a factor 2 off the current IPCC models. And you go la la la. It must be zero. It must be zero. Because you want it to be zero, you can ignore physical facts?

    Just because you are unaware of them doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

    There are plenty of scientific facts supporting human influence on climate change, and this article is about why they don’t “sell themselves” although they predict very bad resulting effects.

    Great points! But a huge one, I think, is that becoming emotionally invested in something you cannot affect is a recipe for hopeless misery, and people who ask you to do that are not really your friends.

    If the people writing these scare pieces presented effective ways for us to make a difference, lots of us would be eager to cooperate. Instead, their idea too often seems to be to get the rest of us upset enough to do things — like devoting ourselves to political activism — that they aren’t doing themselves. That means they are speaking from a position of helplessness to start with. What other message will their articles be able to convey? Somebody once told me, ‘people won’t follow you because they don’t want to end up where you are,’ and that advice was never more relevant than when looking at these articles.

    Wallace-Wells says ‘What creates more sense of urgency than fear?’ The answer is, hope. One Green New Deal proposal outweighs a thousand scare articles in motivating people to care about the issue. When you are actually doing something about an issue, rather than just trying to motivate *other* people to do something, you have this kind of hope to offer, and people are eager to sign on.

    Hope helps, but history mostly pivots on fear. Tapping the “it CAN happen to ME” and the “It IS happening and threatening ME, NOW” buttons – making people feel actually threatened – is critical. Adding hope that they then can do something about it is good, but people have to seriously worry first.

    The opposite of hope is despair. No amount of fear will lead to action in the presence of despair. Hope – the belief that steps we take can actually bring about an outcome we want – doesn’t just help, it’s absolutely mandatory. This kind of hope leads to action with or without fear.

    These are all great points, but I worry that hope on the macro scale leads to the notion that someone else will take care of it. Hope, in this case, feels like, “don’t worry. The 2050s will be just fine.”

    A related study to contradict my thoughts: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4298023/

    It’s unfortunate that the word “hope” has multiple meanings. One is “wishful thinking,” as in “I hope I win the lottery”, which I can say regardless of whether I think I will ever win. The other is “confidence in an outcome,” as in “I have hope for a healthy future”, which I can only say if I have some level of confidence that a healthy future will actually happen, probably contingent on my actions. Wishful thinking hope doesn’t lead to action, or at best, leads to throw away actions you don’t expect to pay off. The other kind of hope, which you might call hopeful hope, does lead to action. This is the kind of hope Pat is talking about, not the wishful thinking do nothing variety of hope.

    All things considered, experts are releasing their creative ability and investigating a fantasy, a conceivable future in which we’re conveying an unnatural weather change to a stop. It’s a world in which nursery emanations have finished. The way requires bringing the globe’s net greenhouse emissions down to zero by 2050. The first step was electric cars. That is already exist in contemporary time.

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