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Comments: Week of July 24, 2017


David Wallace-Wells’s cover story cataloguing the more dismal scenarios our planet faces rapidly became the most-read piece in the magazine’s history (“The Uninhabitable Earth,” July 10–23). The story — which Slate’s Susan Matthews declared “might be the Silent Spring of our time”—has been read by many millions of people, and it elicited an outpouring of letters from experts in the fields of climate science, social science, and communications as well as from everyday readers who were disturbed by what they learned.

Some prominent climate scientists and journalists challenged the wisdom of publishing it at all. In a widely shared Facebook post, Michael E. Mann, a leading climatologist who was interviewed for the story, wrote, “I have to say that I am not a fan of this sort of doomist framing. It is important to be up front about the risks of unmitigated climate change … But there is also a danger in overstating the science in a way that presents the problem as unsolvable, and feeds a sense of doom, inevitability and hopelessness.” In an op-ed for the Washington Post, Mann and a colleague elaborated on this idea: “Research shows … fear does not motivate, and appealing to it is often counter-productive.” And Eric Holthaus, a meteorologist and journalist, implored, “If you’re trying to motivate people, scaring the shit out of them is a really bad strategy. Presented with the idea that the planet that gives us life might be dying, parts of our brain shut down.”

An equally vocal contingent of writers and scientists pushed back against this critique, arguing that the scariness of the article was a strength. Jason Mark, the editor of the Sierra Club’s magazine, confronted Mann and Holthaus directly: “The study that Mann cites is more complicated than he makes it seem … Fear, in fact, is an essential evolutionary tactic for survival … For evidence of that, look no further than the public health field. Fear-based appeals have been used to discourage smoking and drunk driving and to raise awareness about sexually transmitted diseases.”


Vox’s David Roberts argued there’s an advantage to emphasizing worst-case scenarios: “By any sane accounting, the ranks [of] the under-alarmed outnumber the over-alarmed by many multiples. The vast majority of people do not have an accurate understanding of how bad climate change has already gotten or how bad it is likely to get, much less how bad it could get if we keep electing crazy people.” Roberts’s comments were endorsed by Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, a former vice-chair of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. And Roberts continued his defense on Twitter: “Along comes a scrupulously researched, factually rich, and utterly terrifying cover story on climate change in a major publication. Piece is widely successful, gets enormous traffic, reaches well outside the climate ‘bubble,’ gets people talking. Glorious opportunity! What do leading climate voices do? Immediately set in with onanistic tut-tutting about ‘doomism’ and off-base scientific niggling.” And in Slate, Matthews replied: “We don’t need to guard against alarmism, against depression, against anger, against despair when it comes to climate change … If it also scares people into actually taking this issue seriously at the ballot box, the trade-off will be well worth it.” Climate activist Genevieve Guenther extended Matthews’s Silent Spring analogy by pointing to some surprising parallels between the response to “The Uninhabitable Earth” and Rachel Carson’s landmark work: Life magazine’s reviewer argued that Carson had “overstated her case,” and the Saturday Evening Post classified it as “emotional” and “alarmist.”

At least one skeptic changed his mind on the story after seeing the outpouring of responses: Andrew Dessler, a climate scientists at Texas A&M who had publicly rebuked the piece, wrote, “My initial impression of the article was negative — I thought it presented a worst, worst, worst case scenario as being far more likely than the science indicates. As time went on, however, I was amazed to see the strong reaction to the article and the amount of discussion it fostered. I think it engaged people and made them think about the well-established risks that climate change poses to humanity. I do hope, however, that no one comes away from the article despairing that all hope is lost. We still have the ability to avoid the worst-case scenario depicted in the article — if we take the problem seriously. Hopefully articles like this one will motivate us to do that.”

Among those offering possible solutions was Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org: “The obvious question for people who’ve read this powerful essay, is: what the hell can I do to help keep these worst-case scenarios from coming true? One answer is to put solar panels on your roof and buy a Tesla — but that’s not the best answer. So individuals need to become slightly less individual, joining together in the movements that can actually change our politics and economy at a speed that matters.” The New York Times technology columnist Farhad Manjoo suggested that the global effort to prevent Y2K failures could be a precedent: “Throughout our history, Americans have been good at getting things done after the stakes have become clear. We moved mountains after the Great Depression and Pearl Harbor. But Y2K is one of the precious few examples where we mobilized to fight something looming on the horizon — the same kind of mobilization we now need for climate change.”

There were also many questions, on Twitter and in op-eds, about the veracity and context of the factual assertions throughout the piece — including a Climate Feedback review by 17 scientists who fretted that lack of context would leave readers “with an overall conclusion that is exaggerated compared to our best scientific understanding.” To address these concerns and to show the scientific research this story is grounded in, we have published an annotated version that explains the research that supports every fact in the article at nymag.com/climate-annotated. It is our hope that this will allow readers to see for themselves the science behind the story and point them to resources where they can learn more. Peter Neff, one of the scientists who had originally proclaimed the piece misleading, responded to these annotations: “Lack of referencing was one of my primary concerns. A really great response here. Similar to academic peer-review, but faster and more public!” On New York’s Daily Intelligencer, we have also published transcripts of Wallace-Wells’s interviews with many of the scientists he talked to, including Mann; Michael Oppenheimer, once the chief scientist of the Environmental Defense Fund’s Climate and Air program; and James Hansen, former head of climate research for NASA.


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