Climate change alarmism

Climate change alarmism

Climate change alarmism or global warming alarmism is a critical description of a rhetorical style that stresses the potentially catastrophic effects of global warming to the point where the scale of the problem appears to exclude the possibility of real action or agency by the reader or viewer.[1][2]

Public perception of the realities and risks associated with climate change have been described as forming a continuum in which people with "alarmist" views form one extreme along the continuum, and those commonly characterized as "denialists, "skeptics" or "naysayers" at the other extreme.[3]


Alarmism as a pejorative

The term alarmist is commonly used as a pejorative by critics of mainstream climate science to describe those that endorse it. MIT meteorologist Kerry Emanuel wrote that labeling someone as an "alarmist" is "a particularly infantile smear considering what is at stake." He continued that using this "inflammatory terminology has a distinctly Orwellian flavor."[4]

The term is also used to describe, usually in a pejorative way, an alleged consensus of scientists and media said to have propagated a global cooling scare in the 1970s.[citation needed] The purported episode of alarmism related to global cooling has been compared with the perceived alarmism tied to global warming.[5][6][7][8][9][improper synthesis?]

Alarmism as an extreme position

Alarmism is described as the use of a linguistic repertoire which communicates climate change using inflated language, an urgent tone and imagery of doom. In a report produced for the Institute for Public Policy Research Gill Ereaut and Nat Segnit reported that alarmist language is frequently employed by newspapers, popular magazine and in campaign literature put out by government and environment groups.[1] It is considered[by whom?] difficult for the public to see climate change as urgent unless it is posed to them as a catastrophe, but using alarmist language is an unreliable tool for communicating the issue to the public. Instead of motivating people to action, these techniques often evoke "denial, paralysis [or] apathy"[2] and do not motivate people to become engaged with the issue of climate change.[10] In the United Kingdom, alarmist messages are often subject to "subtle critique[s]" in the left-leaning press, while the right-leaning media often "embrace" the message, but undermine it using a "climate skeptic" frame[1] Koch Industries support a foundation which, Charles Koch has said, counters "climate change alarmism", among other things "that threaten to destroy America as we know it.".[11] In the context of climate refugees — the potential for climate change to displace people—it has been reported that "alarmist hyperbole" is frequently employed by private military contractors and think tanks.[12]

Looking at 2003 United States popular survey data in 2005, Anthony A. Leiserowitz identified an "interpretive community with high-risk perceptions of climate change" and called them alarmists. The data found that they made up about 11% of the US population, while those he called naysayers, an "interpretive community that perceived climate change as a very low or nonexistent danger", made up about 7% of the population. The remainder of the public lay between these two extremes, including some who confused climate change and stratospheric ozone depletion. Thus individuals differed significantly when questioned about perceived risk.[3]

Media coverage

Minority views—both alarmist and denialist—were reported to get disproportionate attention in the popular press. One of the consequences of this is a portrayal of risks well beyond the claims actually being made by scientists.[13] Others have noted the tendency for journalists to overemphasize the most extreme outcomes from a range of possibilities reported in scientific articles. A study that tracked press reports about a climate change article in the journal Nature found that "results and conclusions of the study were widely misrepresented, especially in the news media, to make the consequences seem more catastrophic and the timescale shorter."[14]

Views of scientists

The consensus view based on all available data and scientific modelling is "that today’s climate is far out of equilibrium with current climate forcings". This means that large-scale changes in the Earth's climate are already in motion, and will not reverse even if no more greenhouse gases are emitted into the atmosphere. Estimates are that it is necessary to maintain levels of atmospheric CO2 at or below 350ppm to avoid "deleterious" effects and "to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted". The atmospheric CO2 level was approximately 390 ppm as of 2010,[15] rising by 1.9 ppm/yr. This has already led to measurable effects over the last century including average temperature rises, the retreat of Alpine glaciers, reductions in polar ice cover and die-back of coral reefs due to ocean acidification and sea temperature rises. Global tipping points and the risk of irreversible changes to the Earth's climate are difficult to quantify but are cited as causes for grave concern by mainstream climate science.[16] Furthermore, even after years of UNFCCC negotiations aimed at slowing greenhouse gas emissions, humans emitted record levels in 2010,[17] thus exceeding even the IPCC's worst case emissions scenario.

Scientists who agree with this consensus view on global warming often have been critical of those who exaggerate or distort the risks posed by global warming. Stephen Schneider has criticized such exaggeration, stating that he "disapprove[s] of the 'ends justify the means' philosophy" that would exaggerate dangers in order to spur public action.[18] Mike Hulme, professor at the University of East Anglia and former director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, describes such exaggerations as "self-defeating," in that they engender feelings of hopelessness rather than motivating positive action.[19] Hans von Storch has objected to "alarmists [who] think that climate change is something extremely dangerous, extremely bad and that overselling a little bit, if it serves a good purpose, is not that bad."[20]

MIT atmospheric physicist Richard Lindzen, who believes that the effects of global warming will be milder than the current consensus estimate,[21] has written:

Unfortunately, a significant part of the scientific community appears committed to the maintenance of the notion that alarm may be warranted. Alarm is felt to be essential to the maintenance of funding. The argument is no longer over whether the models are correct (they are not), but rather whether their results are at all possible.[22]

Hurricane researcher William Gray stated that Al Gore is a "gross alarmist" regarding his documentary An Inconvenient Truth: "He's one of these guys that preaches the end of the world type of things. I think he's doing a great disservice and he doesn't know what he's talking about."[23]

In a 2009 interview with Fortune Magazine about signing the 2003 American Geophysical Union (AGU) statement, climatologist John Christy said: "As far as the AGU, I thought that was a fine statement because it did not put forth a magnitude of the warming. We just said that human effects have a warming influence, and that's certainly true. There was nothing about disaster or catastrophe. In fact, I was very upset about the latest AGU statement [in 2007]. It was about alarmist as you can get." [24]

See also


  1. ^ a b c Ereaut, Gill; Segrit, Nat (2006). Warm Words: How are we Telling the Climate Story and can we Tell it Better?. London: Institute for Public Policy Research. 
  2. ^ a b Lisa Dilling; Susanne C. Moser (2007). "Introduction". Creating a climate for change: communicating climate change and facilitating social change. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. pp. 1–27. ISBN 0-521-86923-4. 
  3. ^ a b Leiserowitz, Anthony A. (2005). "American Risk Perceptions: Is Climate Change Dangerous?". Risk Analysis 25 (6): 1433–1442. doi:10.1111/j.1540-6261.2005.00690.x. PMID 16506973. 
  4. ^ "Climategate": A Different Perspective, by Kerry Emanuel, National Association of Scholars, July 19, 2010
  5. ^ Kapitsa, Andrei, and Vladimir Bashkirtsev, "Challenging the basis of Kyoto Protocol", The Hindu, 10 July 2008, "Who remembers today, they query, that in the 1970s, when global temperatures began to dip, many warned that we faced a new ice age? An editorial in The Time magazine on June 24, 1974, quoted concerned scientists as voicing alarm over the atmosphere 'growing gradually cooler for the past three decades', 'the unexpected persistence and thickness of pack ice in the waters around Iceland,' and other harbingers of an ice age that could prove 'catastrophic.' Man was blamed for global cooling as he is blamed today for global warming".
  6. ^ Irish Independent, "Don't believe doomsayers that insist the world's end is nigh", 16 March 2007, p. 1. "The widespread alarm over global warming is only the latest scare about the environment to come our way since the 1960s. Let's go through some of them. Almost exactly 30 years ago the world was in another panic about climate change. However, it wasn't the thought of global warming that concerned us. It was the fear of its opposite, global cooling. The doom-sayers were wrong in the past and it's entirely possible they're wrong this time as well."
  7. ^ Schmidt, David, "It's curtains for global warming", Jerusalem Post, 28 June 2002, p. 16B. "If there is one thing more remarkable than the level of alarm inspired by global warming, it is the thin empirical foundations upon which the forecast rests. Throughout the 1970s, the scientific consensus held that the world was entering a period of global cooling, with results equally catastrophic to those now predicted for global warming."
  8. ^ Wilson, Francis, "The rise of the extreme killers", Sunday Times, 19 April 2009, p. 32. "Throughout history there have been false alarms: "shadow of the bomb", "nuclear winter", "ice age cometh" and so on. So it's no surprise that today many people are sceptical about climate change. The difference is that we have hard evidence that increasing temperatures will lead to a significant risk of dangerous repercussions."
  9. ^ National Post, "The sky was supposed to fall: The '70s saw the rise of environmental Chicken Littles of every shape as a technique for motivating public action", 5 April 2000, p. B1. "One of the strange tendencies of modern life, however, has been the institutionalization of scaremongering, the willingness of the mass media and government to lend plausibility to wild surmises about the future. The crucial decade for this odd development was the 1970s. Schneider's book excited a frenzy of glacier hysteria. The most-quoted ice-age alarmist of the 1970s became, in a neat public-relations pivot, one of the most quoted global-warming alarmists of the 1990s."
  10. ^ O'Neill, S.; Nicholson-Cole, S. (2009). ""Fear Won't Do It": Promoting Positive Engagement with Climate Change Through Visual and Iconic Representations". Science Communication 30 (3): 355. doi:10.1177/1075547008329201.  edit
  11. ^ Zernike, Kate (October 19, 2010). "Secretive Republican Donors Are Planning Ahead". New York Times. 
  12. ^ Hartmann, Betsy (2010). "Rethinking climate refugees and climate conflict: Rhetoric, reality and the politics of policy discourse". Journal of International Development 22 (2): 233–246. doi:10.1002/jid.1676. ISSN 09541748. 
  13. ^ Boykoff, Maxwell T. (2009). "We Speak for the Trees: Media Reporting on the Environment". Annual Review of Environment and Resources 34 (1): 431–457. doi:10.1146/annurev.environ.051308.084254. 
  14. ^ Ladle, R. J.; Jepson, P.; Whittaker, R. J. (2005). "Scientists and the media: the struggle for legitimacy in climate change and conservation science". Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 30 (3): 231. doi:10.1179/030801805X42036.  edit
  15. ^ Hansen JE, Sato M, Kharecha PA, Beerling D, Berner R, Masson-Delmotte V, Pagani M, Raymo M, Royer DL, Zachos JC (2008). "Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?". Open Atmos. Sci. J. 2: 217–31. arXiv:0804.1126. Bibcode 2008OASJ....2..217H. doi:10.2174/1874282300802010217. 
  16. ^ "Greenhouse gases rise by record amount". The Guardian. 2011-11-04. Archived from the original on 2011-11-04. 
  17. ^ "Don’t Bet All Environmental Changes Will Be Beneficial," by Stephen H. Schneider, in APS News, Aug/Sept 1996. Also see Stephen Schneider#Media_contributions for a fuller discussion of his views on this topic.
  18. ^ Ghosh, Pallab (15 May 2007). "Climate messages are 'off target'". BBC Online. Retrieved 21 June 2010. 
  19. ^ Cox, Simon; Richard Vadon (20 April 2006). "A load of hot air?". BBC Online. Retrieved 21 June 2010. 
  20. ^ Stevens, William K. (June 18, 1996). "SCIENTIST AT WORK: Richard S. Lindzen;A Skeptic Asks, Is It Getting Hotter, Or Is It Just the Computer Model?". The New York Times. Retrieved May 22, 2010. 
  21. ^ Richard S. Lindzen, 2005, "Is there a basis for global warming alarm?" in Global Warming: Looking Beyond Kyoto, Ernesto Zedillo, editor, 2007, Brookings Institution Press. ISBN 9780815797142
  22. ^ "Top hurricane forecaster calls Al Gore a "gross alarmist"". USA Today. 9 April 2007. 
  23. ^ Birger, Jon (May 14, 2009). "What if global-warming fears are overblown?". Fortune Magazine. 

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