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'Brutal logic' and Climate Communications: Time to Get Serious About Stopping Climate Catastrophe

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In a couple of posts last week -- here and here -- I laid out the brutal logic implied by the latest climate science (with credit to scientist Kevin Anderson for stripping away the rosy assumptions hiding in many of today's common climate scenarios). To sum up: a rise in temperature of 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) will be extremely dangerous; a rise of 4 degrees C (7.2 degrees F) or higher could threaten civilization; the only way to avoid 2 degrees C -- or even 4 degrees C -- is a massive crash program that will likely involve, for the rich, industrialized countries of the world, peaking emissions in 2015 and declining them 10 percent year-on-year after that. Alarming!

In this post I want to take a step back (sideways?) and have a bit of a meta-discussion about messages of alarm/urgency and where they fit into the climate communications landscape.

Reaction to the posts has been interesting. I've gotten a ton of (mostly positive) emails and calls about them, had tons of Twitter and meatspace conversations, but as far as I know, nobody's written about or reacted to them publicly. And I guess that's not surprising. This kind of thing tends to end conversation like flatulence at a cocktail party. That's part of why there's a whole cottage industry devoted to urging climate hawks not to talk like this. What good can it do? Terrifying people just elicits all sorts of defense mechanisms -- denial, disengagement, apathy, system justification, what have you. The forces at work are so colossal, so utterly out of scale with what any individual or group can hope to tackle, that the logical conclusion seems to be, "we're f*cked." Our overwhelming instinct is to ... change the subject.

There's plenty of social psychology work on these kinds of reactions; I've written about it myself. Nonetheless, it seems to me that work has been interpreted in a fairly crude way.

When people are confronted with a message of fear and crisis that sounds apocalyptic and outside the bounds of the status quo, they don't like it! And that's what they tell pollsters and survey takers. Lots of folks have concluded from this that they should avoid the language of fear and crisis. 

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