Striking a Proper Tone

Shortly before last fall’s 400,000 person climate march in New York, a woman I have known for sixty years said that she did not like the hysteria that too often accompanies discussions of climate change. I agreed that hysteria was not helpful when discussing any topic. However, I was puzzled why she would raise a concern about hysteria at that particular moment; I expected the climate march to be dramatic but not hysterical and that is how it turned out.

Still, the question of what tone to adopt – analytical, scientific, conversational, alarmed, hysterical, or other – is important with respect to climate change. Most climate scientists believe that global warming poses existential threats to the future viability of human life on earth and yet is under mankind’s control. What is the proper tone for discussing this threat with intelligent people who are willing to listen?

As I noted in an earlier post, most scientists and organizations try to be measured in the tone they use. Here are a few examples drawn from a variety of documents:

  •    “Observed impacts of climate change have already affected agriculture, human health, ecosystems on land and in the oceans, water supplies, and some people’s livelihoods. The striking feature of observed impacts is that they are occurring from the tropics to the poles, from small islands to large continents, and from the wealthiest countries to the poorest. … Future risks from a changing climate depend strongly on the amount of future climate change. Increasing magnitudes of warming increase the likelihood of severe and pervasive impacts that may be surprising or irreversible.” (IPCC press release, March 2014)
  •    “Without further commitments and action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the world is likely to warm by more than 3°C above the preindustrial climate. Even with the current mitigation commitments and pledges fully implemented, there is roughly a 20 percent likelihood of exceeding 4°C by 2100. If they are not met, a warming of 4°C could occur as early as the 2060s. Such a warming level and associated sea-level rise of 0.5 to 1 meter, or more, by 2100 would not be the end point: a further warming to levels over 6°C, with several meters of sea-level rise, would likely occur over the following centuries. … A world in which warming reaches 4°C above preindustrial levels (hereinafter referred to as a 4°C world), would be one of unprecedented heat waves, severe drought, and major floods in many regions, with serious impacts on human systems, ecosystems, and associated services.” (World Bank, November 2012)
  •    “Humanity was, and is, using 1.4 planets to supply its current use of grain, meat, timber, fish, urban space, and energy. … the main challenge in our global future is not to solve the problems we are facing, but to reach agreement to do so. … The problem is that climate-friendly solutions normally are more costly than the cheapest solution, which is to do nothing and continue business as usual.” (2052, Randers, 2012).
  •    “A CO2 amount of 450 ppm [parts per million] or larger, if long maintained, would push Earth toward the ice-free state. Although ocean and ice-sheet inertia limit the rate of climate change, such a CO2 level likely would cause the passing of climate tipping points and initiate dynamic responses that could be out of humanity’s control.” (Hansen et al., 2008)
  •    “We now have sources of energy that don’t pollute, that don’t cost more and that don’t run out. But if we don’t accelerate the transition to clean energy, it will be difficult to win the fight against climate change.” (Environmental Defense Fund Special Report, Winter 2015)

What do you think? Are these hysterical statements? Conversely, should they be more alarming? Looked at as a group, do they seem to you to strike the right tone? Communicating effectively about climate change is challenging and I’ll explore that topic again in future posts.


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