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This item was posted on November 7, 2010, and it was categorized as Climate Change, Fear Appeals.
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A scholar traces the history of fear about global warming, leading to current conceptions of a “climate catastrophe.” Let the blogging Rorschach tests begin.

This image of the Cologne Cathedral submerged by rising sea level ran on the cover of Der Spiegel in 1986

A new paper on climate change is starting to make the rounds in the blogosphere, but this one isn’t about the latest report of rising sea level or increasing drought — it’s about fear of the consequences of climate change.

In the paper, “Climate Catastrophes and Fear” (sub rqd for full text), University of Strasbourg  historian Matthias Dörries traces the history of fear — in his words, “asking how our current society has come to conceive of climate change in terms of catastrophe and fear, in line with historians’ demands for a more subtle cultural and historical understanding of climate and fear in human society.”

If there is a single bottom line in the paper, it’s this (from the abstract):

The current discourses of fear over climate change reflect the attempts to come to grips with the long-term issue of anthropogenic climate change; they are appeals for action (or calls to inaction) and imply claims to power, while stressing that the issue is political and cultural, not merely a matter of science and reason alone.

If the conclusion is not exactly revolutionary stuff, the history Dörries traces is fascinating and in many instances illuminating. We are moving, he argues, from “the grand narrative of the Enlightenment interpretation of science as antidote to fear” to one in which historians examine how fear is framed within the realms of science, culture and politics, and how that framing can be both “constructive” and “destructive.”

The current framing of fear, in the context of climate change, began with the end of the Cold War. Referring to the German sociologist Ulrich Beck, Dörries writes:

Fears in the Western world were no longer immediate—persecution, war, hunger, or nuclear holocaust—but rather the long-term fears of the environmental consequences of our own actions. For Beck, strongly influenced by the German environmental debates over ‘Waldsterben’ (forest death) and the German antinuclear movement, the affluent Western societies of the 1980s now had the time and the money to worry about lasting and partly invisible environmental problems, like pollution and nuclear radiation. Instead of saying ‘I am hungry’, a new generation now said, ‘I am afraid.’

Scientists have “contributed to provoking fear and anxiety.” But these emotions have not been “manufactured by science and technology themselves,” Dörries argues.

Fear of climate and anthropogenic climate change did not result from technological artefacts, but from scientific modeling and its claims about the future. The 1960s and 1970s, I suggest here, were characterized by an increasing appropriation of the future by science.

This “appropriation” came about as science increasingly was capable of identifying the huge impact of ice ages and catastrophes such as meteorite impacts and volcanic eruptions. And over time, the environmental sciences “expanded considerably the repertory of dreadful imagination, providing fresh new reasons for fear,” Dörries writes.

These projections not only operated on vague, cosmic time scales, but also, helped by rapidly developing computer technology, took on a more imminent importance, moving into the more human timescales of a few years and—with increasing computer power—decades. Scientists’ claims about the future started to seriously interfere with politics and economic planning. Though Enlightenment thinkers believed that scientists should know better than to be afraid themselves, now, scientists relying on modeling were confronted with possible futures, some of which were bleak. Increasingly, they stood up and made their worries known to politicians and the public. In Germany and elsewhere, anthropogenic causes of global warming were first brought up by atmospheric scientists, and only then spilled over into the political and public realms.

No doubt, the paper will become something of a climate change Rorschach test for climate bloggers. Already, Anthony Watts has has written a post about it, appropriating this EurekAlert press release headline: “Should our biggest climate change fear be fear itself?”

The bottom line for Watts:

For Professor Matthias Dörries from the University of Strasbourg, a culture of fear is alive, and doing very well.

The implication is that the culture of fear has been manufactured by misguided scientists, and that we actually have very little to fear.

But to Watts’ credit, he also quotes this from the conclusion of the paper, which provides a different perspective:

For the very long run, science has indeed some terrifying prospects to offer for the planet Earth, and on a scale of decades, science has identified serious threats, such as anthropogenic climate change. The current discourses over fear of climate change reflect the challenges of facing up to the issue: They include either calls to action or appeals to denial and inaction, while casting the issue as a political, cultural phenomenon transcending the realm of science and reason.

Given the “terrifying prospect” that Dörries acknowledges, and that science has clearly identified, the answer to the question posed by Watts in his headline is a resounding, “No.”

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This thing has 8 Comments

  1. John Zulauf
    Posted November 7, 2010 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    Fearing possibilities without reliable probabilities is no basis for policies. We end up ignoring the real and present problems.

    People will die *today* from lack of clean water, will be sold into slavery, will be infected by AIDS, will have inadequate access to food, engery and education. Forests will be clean cut unsustainably, unfiltered run-off will foul streams, and unregulated landfills will leach into the ground water.

    Against those real issues, unproven (and often distant and/or contradictory) scenarios of future disaster are better funded in terms of research, mitigation, public awareness funding, and policy study.

    I’d say fear is at least part of the problem.

  2. Fishmarket
    Posted November 7, 2010 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    We really can’t have all sorts of oddballs telling us this nonsense of weather change. We all know that the weather changes – but we don’t want people telling us the bleeding obvious……….

    Now we really must get on with planning what we want for breakfast……

  3. Posted November 7, 2010 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    The meme of “we can’t do anything about climate risks because it takes away from fighting poverty, etc” is quite old. Read what the paper has to say about John Maddox, a science writer with a background in physics who back in the early 1970s made the same point.

    From the paper:

    “Maddox’s first line of attack was to stigmatize thinking in worst-case scenarios, which he dismissed as mere prophecies of calamity, which seriously underestimated human ingenuity to solve the most daunting problems. Scientists ‘have expressed moderate or unsure conclusions in language designed to scare … with the result that other people have been alarmed and mystified, not enlightened’. . . Maddox’s second line of attack was that doomsday science was politically irresponsible, economically damaging, and potentially authoritarian (though apparently liberal in disguise). ‘Emotional energy’ should be spent on ‘poverty, injustice and avoidable death’ instead of ‘preoccupation with distant calamity’, which ‘usually suggests policies of inaction’.

    The reality of the situation is that we face long term risks with climate change and short-term problems with poverty, disease, hunger, etc. — and there is no reason that we can’t do something about both. The idea that action on climate change precludes action on poverty is absurd on its face. We WON’T do both because we simply choose not to.

    I find it curious that you frequently advocate all sorts of long-term economic action often based on lower probabilities and far greater degrees of uncertainty than exist with climate science. In fact, your economic philosophy is based much more on preference than on hard evidence. You choose to believe the assertions of a certain school of economics simply because they accord with your own worldview.

    And lest you think I’m being hyper-partisan here, let me say that the left often is guilty of exactly the same thing.

    Likewise, your political and economic philosophies predispose you to rejecting climate science whole cloth. I would take your critiques much more seriously if even just on occasion you’d accept the findings of climate science. But as far as I can recall, you never have. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

    This suggests that no amount of science will ever convince you that the risks of climate change are real and serious. If you and I live to a very ripe old age, I predict that we’ll be having the same exact debate — even as island nations are being wiped off the face of the Earth, huge amounts of methane are pouring into the atmosphere from melting permafrost, temperatures are soaring, and marine ecosystems are being significantly degraded by ocean acidification.

    On a lighter note, I sincerely hope we both do live to that ripe old age so we can still tangle about these issues!

  4. spyder
    Posted November 7, 2010 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    This post fits nicely with today’s announcement of the American Geophysical Union to bring 700 climate scientists together to focus the political world on the serious consequences of global climate change. I look forward to reading the article in its entirety.

    My own suspicion is that there are more than a few of the very wealthy who will do nothing except amass more wealth. Their goal would be to significantly reduce their own chances of risk on a climate changed planet, hoping that the changes do indeed increase the die-off of human beings. Lovelock intimated this to some degree.

  5. John Zulauf
    Posted November 7, 2010 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    Tom — first, I’m looking forward to arguing civilly with you into my dotage. I consider it an honor and a priviledge.

    Re funding: theory aside, what is the relative funding for my enumeration vs. AGW prevention and mitigation? What would those number be if the $T proposed in Copenhagen had been spent? The fact is, for a fraction of what is currently spent, potable water and slavery issues could be nearly eradicated. Theory aside, AGW *is* detracting from all the rest. Perhaps is a fault of human attention span, but it is happening.

    As for my economics, compare aggregate GDP growth in European social democracies and the US over the post war period until now. Compare growth post Kennedy and Reagan tax cuts vs. the non-growth of the classic Keynsian “stimulus” of ’09.

    As for the future of climate change… if it turns out you’re right, you’re right. It’ll be obvious and soon. There won’t be any arguement about UHI, GHCN adjustments, and weather station placement and metadata, SLR sensor placement etc. There should be no summer artic ice, a meaningful antarctic negative anomaly, arrable conditions in Greenland (and Mesa Verde), sunken nations, the lot. I’d be willing to wager an excellent dinner against the probablities. Had we put money on Hansen’s predictions of 21 years ago (4m SLR for example), you’d be paying today.

    You claim it’s my politics but ignore Dyson, Freidman, Lewis, and Rutan (and so many others) of varying politics. I’m not convinced on the facts, and the success of the predictions to date. Where is the tropospheric warm spot? Where is the “missing heat”? Why were measured feedbacks negative, when the models all assume positive? If CO2 always drives temperature, why were the 2000-2100 years (while warmest in several centuries, yes) flat, with no (per Dr. P Jones) statistically significant warming? Which models predicted this flat spot (a priori, not retrospectively modified to match)?

    The next 10-30years should be interesting as we change sign of the AO and PDO (something we haven’t observed in the post-sattelite era). Lots of science will be possible if people stick to the data and theory validation and leave speculation to the bookies. :)

  6. Posted November 7, 2010 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

    Re Doerries idea that “Instead of saying ‘I am hungry’, a new generation now said, ‘I am afraid,’” I’d argue that the generations of humanity living in the constant shadows of mortal threats of violence, hunger and disease were also afraid — afraid of their kids being slaugtered, starved and infected. I want to know why this isn’t academic mumbo-jumbo.

    Kudos to Tom for taking John Zulauf to task. I mean, bro/dude/man/my good sir (not sure how old you are), societies by definition multitask. There are like 7 billion people, 192 countries in the UN. We can, collectively, pat our heads and rub our tummies at the same time. Eradicate TB? Yes. Get antiretrovirals to Zimbabwe? Yes! Shore up education funding? Yes. Get smart about how we produce electricity/BTUs? Yes. We’re going to need open minds and intellectual nimbleness if we’re going to deal with the issues at hand.

  7. Posted November 8, 2010 at 1:41 pm | Permalink


    From what I can tell the paper is available in full without subscription.

    I don’t subscribe and can still get full access to the html or the pdf.



  8. Steve Bloom
    Posted November 8, 2010 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

    That’s quite the Gish Gallop, JZ. A number of your points are entirely fictitious, but I don’t suppose you care.

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