A few weeks ago as the world awaited the release of the most recent report from the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, some well-known scientists were quoted as saying that the media’s sensationalistic coverage of the issue was interfering with a reasoned discussion on the topic.
Their thinking was that the more the press and Hollywoodans suggest that the problem is so dire that the world is coming to an end, the more likely the public will develop a sense of futility about the issue, and just begin to ignore it.
A fine example of exactly what these scientists were talking about was published in the most recent issue of New York magazine (h/t radio host Mike Church). In fact, Kurt Andersen’s article sounded such hyperbolic alarm that he had the gall to suggest that “fat, spoiled, 21st-century Americans” only have a 50-50 chance of possessing the “requisite gumption and discipline” to solve the problem (emphasis added throughout, apologies in advance for Andersen’s vulgarity):
The science has gotten more unambiguous and empirical. And in this Infotainment Age, Al Gore successfully distilled (and, um … dramatized) the relevant science in last year’s An Inconvenient Truth. The anecdotal folk science—New Orleans flooded, January days in the seventies—has been freakishly on-message. (Katrina was the liberal equivalent of neoconservatives’ blaming Saddam for 9/11, a connect-the-dots opportunity too good to resist, even if it wasn’t true.) Giant, super-American, ultra-Republican corporations—Wal-Mart!—have started greening themselves. There’s an acutely appealing feel-good aspect right now, as we contemplate our present geopolitical debacle—having fucked up Iraq, maybe we can manage to do better on global warming. And Americans have also come to take climate change seriously, I think, partly as a result of George Bush’s strenuous discounting of the problem. Since his administration’s main claims about Iraq have proved spectacularly false—the 9/11 connection, WMDs, Mission Accomplished, the insurgency’s “last throes”—an intuitive syllogism has naturally taken hold among Americans: If Bush asserts something, no matter how sincerely, then probably the opposite is true.
Anderson conveniently ignored that the Administration has changed its position on this issue and, therefore, as Bush is now asserting that climate change is real, maybe the opposite is true.
Regardless of the delicious irony that eluded the author, he continued with this line of “consensus” thinking, whilst crescendoing to the following insulting conclusion:
Americans have an intensely ambivalent relationship with sin and redemption. Heedlessly ruining the global climate is plainly sinful, and we are a people desperate to feel good about our shining city on a hill. But we also hated Jimmy Carter’s guilt-inducing sermons. (As I do some of the current green epiphenomena: The other day a Whole Foods clerk refused to give me Splenda with my cup of coffee—artificial sweeteners, their Website explains, lack “ideological compatibility.”) Americans have shown themselves willing to undertake epic battles against evil only when there’s somebody else to hold accountable—Nazis, communists, radical Islamists. But blaming and changing our own Homer Simpson–ish ways of life? We couldn’t even make Prohibition work.
This upsurge of alarm and pledges of commitment will grow, but it won’t last forever. As a political matter, we probably have a decade to lock into place new regimes of regulation and market incentives. Which happens to be the same do-or-die time frame that a lot of scientists believe we have to start getting gassy modern life back in balance with the Earth’s natural systems. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this looks to be the ultimate test of our national character: Do we fat, spoiled 21st-century Americans have the requisite gumption and discipline to be born again, and then do what’s necessary to try to keep the planet from going off the rails? I’d say the odds are 50-50.
And you wonder why so many scientists around the world are worried about how the media are covering this issue?