July 23, 2024

Climate Change and the Fear Factor

John Tierney has an excellent article in the NY Times science section about global warming and the science and reporting behind the climate change scare.  A must read, IMO.

A year ago, British meteorologists made headlines predicting that the buildup of greenhouse gases would help make 2007 the hottest year on record. At year’s end, even though the British scientists reported the global temperature average was not a new record — it was actually lower than any year since 2001 — the BBC confidently proclaimed, “2007 Data Confirms Warming Trend.”

When the Arctic sea ice last year hit the lowest level ever recorded by satellites, it was big news and heralded as a sign that the whole planet was warming. When the Antarctic sea ice last year reached the highest level ever recorded by satellites, it was pretty much ignored. A large part of Antarctica has been cooling recently, but most coverage of that continent has focused on one small part that has warmed.

Why aren’t these very relevant facts trumpeted in the news and in the blogopsphere as they should be?

When judging risks, we often go wrong by using what’s called the availability heuristic: we gauge a danger according to how many examples of it are readily available in our minds. Thus we overestimate the odds of dying in a terrorist attack or a plane crash because we’ve seen such dramatic deaths so often on television

They have used these images to start an “availability cascade,” a term coined by Timur Kuran, a professor of economics and law at the University of Southern California

The availability cascade is a self-perpetuating process: the more attention a danger gets, the more worried people become, leading to more news coverage and more fear. Once the images of Sept. 11 made terrorism seem a major threat, the press and the police lavished attention on potential new attacks and supposed plots. After Three Mile Island and “The China Syndrome,” minor malfunctions at nuclear power plants suddenly became newsworthy.

The result of that over dramatization was a draconian halting in the construction of new nuclear power plants.  Fear triumphed over science, in other words, despite the nuclear power industry’s excellent safety record.  Chernobyl was a disaster, of course, a warning that vigilance is needed, but not an indicator of the inevitable.

It’s easy to see the same chain reaction happening now in regard to climate change – one article leads to another and another, each more strident and certain than the one that preceded it.  But is there actually anything to fear?

Global warming has an impact on both polar regions, but they’re also strongly influenced by regional weather patterns and ocean currents. Two studies by NASA and university scientists last year concluded that much of the recent melting of Arctic sea ice was related to a cyclical change in ocean currents and winds, but those studies got relatively little attention — and were certainly no match for the images of struggling polar bears so popular with availability entrepreneurs.

Roger A. Pielke Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, recently noted the very different reception received last year by two conflicting papers on the link between hurricanes and global warming. He counted 79 news articles about a paper in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, and only 3 news articles about one in a far more prestigious journal, Nature.

Guess which paper jibed with the theory — and image of Katrina — presented by Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth”?

Indeed, the rock star pseudo-scientist’s view has been spread around the globe by sympathetic journalists with an eye for selling the news, whether true or not.  Why?  The cascade effect, bad news, spreading, becomes worse.

“Many people concerned about climate change,” Dr. Sunstein [Cass R., a law professor at the University of Chicago] says, “want to create an availability cascade by fixing an incident in people’s minds. Hurricane Katrina is just an early example; there will be others. I don’t doubt that climate change is real and that it presents a serious threat, but there’s a danger that any ‘consensus’ on particular events or specific findings is, in part, a cascade.”

Sunstein doesn’t doubt the reality of global warming.  Of course, a law degree does not give such an opinion weight.  His evaluation of the spreading of the global warming firestorm, however, is close to definitive.


“In the last few months,” Mr. Gore said, “it has been harder and harder to misinterpret the signs that our world is spinning out of kilter.” But he was being too modest. Thanks to availability entrepreneurs like him, misinterpreting the weather is getting easier and easier.


Not discussed in the article is the all-important question of what, if anything, industrialized nation ought to do to combat climate change.

To me the answers are obvious:  Limit the production of air pollutants to an economically practical level, invest more rather than less into the development of nuclear and hydrogen power sources, and accelerate the use of science and technology in our homes and businesses.

The way to a cleaner, greener society is forward – not backward – and only fear can stop us from getting there, the kind of fear Al Gore and his minions specialize in generating.


Marc is a software developer, writer, and part-time political know-it-all who currently resides in Texas in the good ol' U.S.A.

View all posts by marc →

One thought on “Climate Change and the Fear Factor

Comments are closed.