The Declining Utility of Scaremongering

Back in 2005 New York Times‘ moderately liberal columnist Nicholas Kristof offered his his criticism of today’s environmental movement in “I Have a Nightmare.”  Excerpt:

The fundamental problem, as I see it, is that environmental groups are too often alarmists. They have an awful track record, so they’ve lost credibility with the public. Some do great work, but others can be the left’s equivalents of the neocons: brimming with moral clarity and ideological zeal, but empty of nuance . . .

[E]nvironmental alarms have been screeching for so long that, like car alarms, they are now just an irritating background noise. . .  So it’s critical to have a credible, nuanced, highly respected environmental movement. And right now, I’m afraid we don’t have one.

You can imagine how the as-yet unfossilized dinosaurs of the environmental establishment reacted to this critique from a sympathetic figure.  “Not well” would be an understatement.

Kristof was inspired to write this column by the work of Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus.  Michael and Ted told me when they passed through Boulder a few weeks back that they had had no luck breaking into the Times‘ op-ed page (though they have been mentioned often by Times news writers).  That ended today, with their article “Global Warming Scare Tactics.”  Excerpts:

IF you were looking for ways to increase public skepticism about global warming, you could hardly do better than the forthcoming nine-part series on climate change and natural disasters, starting this Sunday on Showtime. A trailer for “Years of Living Dangerously” is terrifying, replete with images of melting glaciers, raging wildfires and rampaging floods. “I don’t think scary is the right word,” intones one voice. “Dangerous, definitely.” . . .

[T]here is every reason to believe that efforts to raise public concern about climate change by linking it to natural disasters will backfire. More than a decade’s worth of research suggests that fear-based appeals about climate change inspire denial, fatalism and polarization.

There’s more, including their call to revive nuclear power.  Recalling the Jane Fonda era of anti-nuclear hysteria, I never thought I’d live long enough to see any left-of-center people come out in favor of it.

I predict most environmentalists will greet this article with the same calm demeanor as Kristof’s 2005 article.  They just can’t help themselves, as alarmism just makes them too happy.

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