The Psychology of Global Warming: Alarm-ist Versus Alarm-ing

Dec. 8, 2005 — -- Journalism has no precedent for a story of the scale or seriousness of global warming.

The vast majority of credible climate scientists -- well over 95 percent, according to specialists in assessing scientists' opinions -- agree that the average temperatures of the oceans, the land surface of the planet and the lower atmosphere (anything lower than the tip of Mount Everest) have been climbing at an accelerating rate.

The same specialists say that nearly as many scientists agree that manmade greenhouse gas emissions are a significant factor -- and a good many say the only significant factor -- in the dangerous global warming now under way.

If 95 of the world's best, most experienced experts in child well-being were to tell you that your child was under lethal attack -- and with dramatic signs already visible if you only look -- would you say, "I think I'll wait until the other five experts are convinced before I do anything about it?"

It would be the other way around, and yet that is how a lot of people -- and some parts of what's called "the mainstream media" -- often seem to be reacting to what the vast majority of scientists are telling us.

The latest news includes a study by one of the Galileos of global warming, NASA's Dr. James Hansen, who told the 11,000 Earth systems scientists at their annual meeting that mankind has at most 10 more years within which significant emissions cuts must get well under way or else the planet's temperatures will, within the next 30 to 40 years (by the time today's toddlers are entering middle age), climb to levels higher than at any time in the last 500,000 years. Civilization is less than 10,000 years old.

At the worldwide global warming talks in Montreal, scientists elaborated on surprising new reports that the Atlantic currents' "conveyor belt" system has already slowed down -- one of the predicted effects of global warming, possibly spurred by fresh water pouring in from the melting Greenland ice cap.

These slowing currents include the Gulf Stream, which carries tropical heat up past New England and over to Britain and northwest Europe. If these currents stop completely, which a new University of Illinois study gives a 45 percent chance of happening before the end of the century, these regions would be far colder.

Alarming news from scientists has accelerated in the past few months:

  • Arctic summer ice has melted back 30 percent in 30 years, and may disappear in the next several decades.
  • Non-polar glaciers around the world are disappearing much faster than scientists thought possible.
  • This year now holds several extreme heat records.
  • Half of all plant and animal species are showing impacts of the warming -- in some cases by going extinct.
  • The World Health Organization estimates that, every year, manmade global warming, aggravating disease and direct heat impact, kills at least 150,000 people and makes 5 million sick.
  • Alarmist or Alarming?

    Psychologists tell us that denial is an inevitable and natural first reaction to such news. We don't want to think we can actually have had such effect on the entire planet any more than a young child wants to believe it can hurt its protective and nurturing parent. Nor do we like to think about drastic change. Nor feel moved to fix the leaks in the roof when it isn't raining, especially when we have never experienced a rain storm.

    And for journalists, there is a natural and initially worthy desire not to risk seeming grandiose or alarmist.

    "Alarmist" is defined in my American Heritage Dictionary as "One who needlessly alarms others."

    Two decades ago, many people without questionable motives -- and some with -- called NASA's James Hansen an "alarmist" when he stood before Congress and said his calculations showed that global warming had begun and was "changing the climate now."

    Then his alarm-ing descriptions -- and predictions -- panned out.

    Now, with a new set of calculations, Hansen -- no longer so alone, joined now by thousands of concerned scientists -- is again challenging our psychological capacities to deal with hard news.