The Catastrophe Narrative

  1. Propagation by scientists

Jacobs et al (in 2016 book) finds no merit in the claim ‘that catastrophic anthropogenic global warming is the mainstream scientific position’, i.e. mainstream science as represented by the IPCC AR5 working group chapters13, does not support the concept of a high certainty (absent action) of imminent global catastrophe. This point has often been noted here and at other blogs, typically in the form of vociferous yet justified objection when skeptics inappropriately apply the ‘CAGW’ acronym to mainstream science (much more on this coming in the companion post). However, this doesn’t imply an absence of scientific support for the principle. A minority of scientists, some very vocal, believe that catastrophic scenarios are more realistic. Footnotes 6 and 7 provide examples of about 50 climate scientists plus environmental and other scientists propagating catastrophe narrative in support of these views. This minority occupy the opposite fringe to skeptical science, typically ignoring the more balanced interpretations from their mainstream colleagues, or otherwise criticizing the mainstream / IPCC as way too conservative, even politically diluted.

  1. Main narrative forms

Emergent narratives typically spawn many variants that over many generations evolve to exploit our emotions, as configured by our current worldview (which also they may modify), for best propagation. Some are very blunt, a kind of head-on charge at emotive engagement, typically more successful if they come from higher authority that might get away with this. Others are subtler to varying degrees, and seem more often so from lesser authority sources. A majority of the examples in footnotes 1 and 2 are in the blunt category, for instance a few shorter ones here:

F1 [BAN KI-MOON] U.N. Secretary-General. At COP21 in Paris (2015): Warning that “the clock is ticking towards climate catastrophe”.

F1 [EMMANUEL MACRON] As President of France. Speaking before a joint session of US Congress, via the New York Post (April 2018): ‘Macron said that without a reduction of carbon dioxide emissions and pollution, there will be no more Earth. “We are killing our planet. Let’s face it, there is no ‘planet B,’” Macron said.’

F1 [JAN PETER BALKENENDE / TONY BLAIR] Dutch / UK prime ministers, in a joint letter regarding climate change to EU leaders at a summit in Finland, via the BBC (2006): “We have a window of only 10 to 15 years to take the steps we need to avoid crossing catastrophic tipping points.”

F2 [STEPHEN HAWKING] High profile physicist to BBC news (2018): “We are close to the tipping point where global warming becomes irreversible. Trump’s action could push the Earth over the brink, to become like Venus, with a temperature of two hundred and fifty degrees, and raining sulphuric acid.”

Note: the footnotes include links to all sources in order to see context, but an endemic feature of emotive narratives is that they frequently propagate shorn of full context, in which form they better compete for the highest selection (Ban Ki Moon’s clock ticking metaphor is a good example of this). In this form they also turn up, modified or not, within the catastrophe narratives of others. See the terminal metaphors intro section of footnote 7 plus footnote 14, for more on this aspect. Not all catastrophe narrative contains the word ‘catastrophe’ or ‘catastrophic’. For instance, a little over half of the footnote 1 examples do so; the others invoke similar meaning or even worse consequences (see footnote 1 intro for details).

More subtle variants can be categorized via their content and action, including emotively overwhelmed conditionals, fear plus hope, engaging anxiety for children, moral association, agenda incorporation, terminal metaphors, attribution reinforcement, merchants of doubt, the voice of innocence, emotive bitters and survivalist.

Emotively overwhelmed conditionals present caveats regarding catastrophe that an opposing powerful and emotive pitch, often backed by spurious and contradicting high confidence elsewhere within the message, overwhelms within recipients’ minds. The 13 authority sourced quotes in footnote 3 provide a range of examples. While presenting a surface impression of balance, because of the conflicted and emotively asymmetric context this framing will not actually work to correct the false representation of mainstream science. See the intro to footnote 3, and the equivalent section in footnote 7, for much more detail. (Note: Hawking’s ‘could’ above doesn’t even count as an emotively overwhelmed conditional, because no action by Trump will possibly result in this; it’s just false). Here’s an example, with the conditional italicized:

F3 [Jerry Brown] Governor of California. Via Bloomberg.com (Sept 2018): ‘U.S. President Donald Trump is the “enemy of the people” for hampering efforts to reverse potentially catastrophic increases in carbon emissions, Jerry Brown said Monday, blasting White House environmental policy after signing a bill that will move the state toward 100 percent clean energy use by 2045. “Trump is not just AWOL on climate change, he has designated himself saboteur-in-charge,” Brown said in a telephone interview, citing the administration’s actions against California’s emissions standards, electric-car mandates and clean-power rules. “He has designated himself basically enemy of the people. I’m calling him out because climate change is a real threat of death, destruction and ultimate extinction.”’

As climate communicators already noted some years back16, unmitigated fear memes may often produce backlash. Nevertheless, these still proliferate beyond the control of those who would limit them. Yet more sophisticated narrative variants invoking multiple emotions simultaneously, ‘emotive cocktails’, can reduce negative reactions yet retain or increase persuasiveness. One such effective cocktail is fear plus hope, familiar from its usage within various religions. The 13 authority / influencer sourced quotes in footnote 4 provide fear plus hope narrative samples. Whether the hope angle is reasonable or not in itself, invoking this positive emotion to aid digestion of an existential catastrophe crisis narrative (and the consequent end policy pay-load) not backed by mainstream (or skeptical) science, is still inappropriate.

F4 [PAUL KRUGMAN] N.Y. Times columnist. From Wind, sun and fire, New York Times (Feb 2016): “So what’s really at stake in this year’s election? Well, among other things, the fate of the planet. Last year was the hottest on record, by a wide margin, which should — but won’t — put an end to climate deniers’ claims that global warming has stopped. The truth is that climate change just keeps getting scarier; it is, by far, the most important policy issue facing America and the world. Still, this election wouldn’t have much bearing on the issue if there were no prospect of effective action against the looming catastrophe… Salvation from climate catastrophe is, in short, something we can realistically hope to see happen, with no political miracle necessary. But failure is also a very real possibility. Everything is hanging in the balance.”

Next page (3) for more…

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4 Responses to The Catastrophe Narrative

  1. Robert Clark says:

    Ms. Curry,
    I say I have proven to you that the new Ice Age began arround 18,000 years ago and the ice beaking off at the poles and the CO2 kept rising at the end of the last Ice Age for a few thousand years is proof positive. Mother nature follows strict rules.

  2. Lichanos says:

    Perhaps I have missed it, but I don’t see much here on what is ultimately driving this flowering of evil, i.e. the catastrophe narrative. I understand that there are many motivations for accepting it, and that it figures in peoples’ psychologies differently depending on who they are, but I find myself puzzled by the persistence of the narrative.

    Things are bad, getting worse, the End is nigh, fifteen years or so, whatever we do is not enough…It’s hard to see why people wouldn’t just get exhausted or disgusted with this view and slough it off. Perhaps that’s what most people do, i.e. those outside of the chattering classes.

    Among people I meet, those who are not engaged with the climate change debate do tend to slough it off as above, while those who are intellectually or emotionally engaged, tend to be bitter and cynical/conspiratorial about it. Not a “sustainable” mental state. Will it just fade away in ten or twenty years when the End Times don’t arrive, and everyone will pretend that they weren’t believing that they would ever come?

    Certainly the willingness of public figures to embrace apocalyptic thinking and to act as though it is scientific analysis bespeaks a degraded view of scientific discourse among the educated elite. But that isn’t anything new, is it? What’s new is the salience of scientific issues in public debate, e.g., pollution, habitat destruction, public health issues related to the environment.

    I find it all rather bizarre.

  3. andywest2012 says:

    Hi Lichanos,

    I think ‘evil’ is an inappropriate word to use. It is a social phenomenon, specifically a culture, and cultures can have upsides and downsides but it is best to view them objectively if we can, whether or not future history might regard some as evil, unless of course some Hitleresque regime or something but we are not in that territory. Regarding persistence, the major religions operate via the same social mechanisms, and they have persisted for millennia. Regarding arisal, it is I presume impossible to tell which culture will arise next from the soup of many competing memes, but for sure we have always been heavily dominated by cultures and they are not likely to go away any time soon, so as the main religions decline other cultures (secular or fringe religions) are likely to arise to take up the slack. Regarding rejection because the whole thing is simply too OTT, then indeed this will be happening with some folks. All cultures are polarizing, so they create resistance as well as adherence, but for those who are adherents they are convinced emotively not via reason, and for deep beliefs reason can become the slave of emotion. You’re absolutely right this is nothing new really, but indeed the entanglement of science and culture, though it has happened many times before (e.g. eugenics and national socialism), is becoming more high profile; perhaps in the long term this will lead to better understanding of our weakness (and the fragility of science) to cultural hi-jacking. Maybe the post two further down, ‘climate culture’ will give some further insight for you.

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