Going full Doomsday: Reporters must convey the perils of climate change without paralyzing their audience

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According to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, Americans fall into six groups when it comes to climate change: alarmed, concerned, cautious, disengaged, doubtful, and dismissive.

I would add a seventh category: panicked. That’s me. I’m a science journalist, so I understand and accept the problem. But I when I read articles about global warming, my anxiety soars. I have to disengage. I check Facebook for puppy videos.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that I couldn’t make it more than halfway through David Wallace-Wells’s “The Uninhabitable Earth,” published in New York magazine in July. In his 6,600-word cover story, Wallace-Wells offers a series of apocalyptic future scenarios. Here is the gist: The impacts of climate change will be worse than you imagine, and they will come much sooner than you expect. By the time I got to the section describing “a rolling death smog that suffocates millions,” I was having trouble breathing myself. I had to close my computer and take a walk.  

 

“The uncertainty can be just overwhelming and paralytic. Scenarios are a way of organizing that uncertainty.”

 

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Some environmentalists, climate scientists, and writers lambasted the author for painting such an ominous picture of the future. But Wallace-Wells defended his decision to go full doomsday. “When it comes to the challenge of climate change, public complacency is a far, far bigger problem than widespread fatalism,” he wrote in the intro to an annotated version of the article.

Generating worry can lead to behavioral change, according to the research on risk communication. “However, if you generate absolute terror, you can have the opposite effect,” says Sharon Dunwoody, a journalism professor emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies public understanding of science and the environment. The scarier the threat, says Dunwoody, the more likely people are to tune out. In “The Uninhabitable Earth,” Wallace-Wells is making a concerted effort to scare the bejesus out of us.”

Journalists can play a crucial role in helping the public understand how to think about climate change and what can be done to reduce the impacts. But the strategies required to reach six (or seven) different climate-change audiences are far from obvious. Doomsday scenarios might work for some people, but not for others. “No one knows how to talk about climate change right now,” wrote Robinson Meyer, an associate editor at The Atlantic, after Wallace-Wells’s story was published. “I don’t have an idea about where to begin, and I write about it professionally.”

 

Wisconsin, where I live, has a long tradition of conservation and environmental activism. The state’s universities house prominent climate change researchers and communicators. Yet local press coverage of the issue has been scanty.

Lee Bergquist, an environment reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the state’s largest paper, has provided some critical climate change coverage in Wisconsin—for instance, this story about the removal of language from the state’s Department of Natural Resources website that identified “human activities” as “the main cause” of global warming. Still, Bergquist says he doesn’t write much about the local impacts of climate change.

“I’m motivated to write stories where I see the greatest amount of conflict on environmental issues in the state,” he says. “The points of conflict are elsewhere in the state right now, and not on climate change.”

That’s not necessarily surprising. Climate change doesn’t fit into traditional news formats. In Wisconsin, we don’t have hurricanes or rising seas. The Republican-controlled legislature isn’t proposing new climate bills. We experience some impacts of global warming, but they aren’t necessarily the most obvious or catastrophic. For example, heavy rainstorms have become more common. And the ice on the Great Lakes doesn’t last as long. Over the past century, the state has warmed by about two degrees. But turning that information into news can be challenging. “There is nothing sexy about a degree of centigrade,” says Jane Elder, executive director of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters, a nonprofit that runs an initiative on climate change.

Still, there are ways to get through to people. In 2009, researchers at the University of Wisconsin launched a project called Yahara 2070. The effort aims to help residents of the Yahara watershed—which includes a chain of four lakes in southern Wisconsin—think about and discuss the future of the region. The team combined interviews and workshops with local residents with data from climate, water, and land use models to come up with four scientifically plausible scenarios for the year 2070 that depict wildly different futures. In the most extreme scenario, some residents turn to subsistence farming to survive after an environmental catastrophe. In another, the region rejects consumption and embraces sustainability, thereby avoiding catastrophic climate change. “It’s a great way to think about the problem,” says Stephen Carpenter, an ecology researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “The uncertainty can be just overwhelming and paralytic. Scenarios are a way of organizing that uncertainty.”

The Yahara 2070 scenarios aren’t meant to be predictions. Rather, the goal of the project is to get people talking about what kind of future they want and how to get there. Scenarios can be a powerful way to get around the problem of disengagement, Dunwoody says. “Once you get people to sit down and talk about them, you get huge impacts,” she says. “That interpersonal stuff forces people to wrestle with the issue.”

This kind of project isn’t always possible at local newspapers with limited resources, but even sustained coverage of a smaller scale can have an impact, Dunwoody says. “Big, critical issues like climate change deserve a steadier diet of coverage than we’re getting.”

In the meantime, some local reporters are doing what they can. In August, Chris Hubbuch, a reporter at the La Crosse Tribune who covers energy, transportation, and the environment, used the 10-year anniversary of a deadly flood to discuss the local link between climate change and severe storms and how nearby communities are trying—and sometimes failing—to plan for these events. Hubbuch says he doesn’t seek out climate change stories, but he does look for ways to connect climate change to local events. His latest effort manages to get readers thinking without scaring the pants off them.

“If we accept that [climate change] is happening and that there are real local impacts,” says Hubbuch, “then it’s a fair question to ask, What are we doing about those impacts?

Survival Stories is a series of local climate change dispatches.

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Cassandra Willyard is a freelance science journalist based in Madison, Wisconsin. She writes for Discover, Popular Science, Nature, and blogs at The Last Word on Nothing. Follow her on Twitter @cwillyard.