“Apocalypse Now” has become the cliché climate-change headline.
Britain’s Independent newspaper grabbed the phrase a few years back soon after we entered the new millennium. Just last week, Toronto’s Globe and Mail picked the two words to top a thoughtful piece on proper responses to the climate crisis.
The popular Climate Progress blog used “Apocalypse Now” in February for a post warning that global warming has arrived. Conservative columnist George Will trotted it out that same month -- albeit with a question mark -- while arguing that the worries are much ado about nothing.
“Apocalypse Now” isn’t just reserved for news and opinion pages. The New York Times ran a review last fall of a museum exhibit that delves into the effects on nature of the “End of Days.” You already know that headline.
As far as I can tell, the Mother Nature Network hadn’t used “Apocalypse Now” — until now. But the conservative journal Commentary has (with question mark). So has Huffington Post, American Jewish Life and the blog of the Palm Oil Truth Foundation.
OK. This much we know: Headline writers need to stop cribbing from Francis Ford Coppola.
Putting aside one rampant cliché, does all the talk about end-times, Armageddon and apocalypse do us any good in the actual debate over climate change?
At first, I thought hyperbole could only serve those who are trying to prevent action on climate change. Presenting climate change claims as overblown is a handy way to lump the scientists and journalists who report that it’s happening together as false prophets.
The rhetoric is pretty predictable. In his “Apocalypse Now” column, George Will ridiculed Energy Secretary Stephen Chu for “predicting catastrophe” and grouped Chu with faith-based “eco-pessimists”. (Chu is a Nobel Prize winning atomic physicist; Will is quite an expert on baseball.) Last week, Will dismissed “today's chorus summoning us to save the planet,” as well as “the incessant hectoring by the media-political complex's ‘consciousness-raising’ campaign.”
Then, take a guy named Marc Morano. No, seriously take him. Morano cut his teeth during the 2004 presidential campaign, writing articles disparaging John Kerry’s swift-boat military record. Now, he runs a tabloid-ish blog called Climate Depot that mocks studies on the latest climate calamities simply by writing sarcastic headlines that link to news articles about them.
Yes, Morano used “Apocalypse Now” for one of those. Another recent treasure: “Comical Claim: ‘Tens of millions of people will be displaced by [man-made] climate change in coming years.’”
For the true non-believers in climate-change science, that sort of thing can be funny and effective. Like so much of partisan politics these days, a lot of energy is spent (and money raised) by affirming the beliefs of those who believe just as you do. Morano’s humor may come across as sophomoric and even cruel to those who see him dismissing real problems, but it’s poignant satire to those who view climate change as a hoax.
Academics weigh in
As I wrote above, however, at first I thought the end-of-times rhetoric could only serve skeptics. Then, I exchanged e-mails with David Pearson and Phillipa Spoel. They and two colleagues at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, published a study earlier this year on the use of “apocalyptic narrative” in communication about climate change.
Like most journalists, I wanted unequivocal answers to some big questions: Is apocalyptical rhetoric beneficial to the debate, or does it confuse things? On balance, will it motivate people, or will it deflate them? Will it underscore the need for action, or will it serve the purpose of skeptics and interested industries that would prefer to confuse the issue?
Like most academics, Pearson and Spoel were careful to note the limits of their work. They were looking specifically at whether “apocalyptic narrative” was an effective way of communicating in Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth and another documentary. They concluded that it was, Spoel wrote me, although “merits of using this strategy can only be determined in light of the particular situations and audiences they are intended for.”
Pearson, an Earth scientist, still draws some general conclusions. He said it’s important not to communicate the risk of climate change in a way that leaves people feeling that nothing can be done to prevent the worst from happening. But he sees no point in sugarcoating things. “We have to be realistic,” he wrote. “Saying we didn't pull the fire alarm because we thought the fire might not spread is no comfort to those who perished in the subsequent blaze.”
Ultimately, Pearson added, “convincing people that change is occurring is not hard -- it's all around. Convincing them it will affect them is another step that is getting easier. Convincing them that the risk is great enough to do as much to reduce environmental risks as it was to reduce risks of economic collapse is also getting easier.”
Unfortunately, it certainly seemed to get easier last week. Just days after it was reported that the first entire community of climate change refugees had completed their evacuation of an island in Papua New Guinea, researchers from Columbia University, CARE International and the United Nations released a report that tens of millions of people are expected to lose their homes due to climate change over the next few decades.
The Climate Depot blog called that a “Comical Claim.” Sounds to me like an apocalypse … now.