Commentary Magazine


Scare Tactics Backfire for Environmentalists

President Obama and other leading liberal lights keep telling us that the debate about global warming is over. Though the notion that scientific debates are decided by a vote of scientists or rather than research is decidedly unscientific, this conclusion is echoed throughout the mainstream media and popular culture. Those who are skeptical about the claims that human activity is changing the climate are treated like Holocaust deniers or lunatics. But the problem that those trying to mobilize public support for extreme measures intended to avert the extreme consequences of global warming are having is that most Americans aren’t buying it. Even worse for them, the scare tactics they’ve been employing are actually backfiring.

That’s the conclusion from Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental research organization who co-authored an op-ed in today’s New York Times titled “Global Warming Scare Tactics.” In it, they point out that rather than helping build support for carbon caps or other restrictions on industry or individuals the attempt to give the impression that an environmental apocalypse is around the corner is backfiring. Most specifically, the widespread practice of linking natural disasters such as hurricanes or wildfires is having the opposite effect on the public.

More than a decade’s worth of research suggests that fear-based appeals about climate change inspire denial, fatalism and polarization.

For instance, Al Gore’s 2006 documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” popularized the idea that today’s natural disasters are increasing in severity and frequency because of human-caused global warming. It also contributed to public backlash and division. Since 2006, the number of Americans telling Gallup that the media was exaggerating global warming grew to 42 percent today from about 34 percent. Meanwhile, the gap between Democrats and Republicans on whether global warming is caused by humans rose to 42 percent last year from 26 percent in 2006, according to the Pew Research Center.

While Nordhaus and Shellenberger are not global warming skeptics they are dismayed at the way the alarmists have undermined the case for climate change.

Claims linking the latest blizzard, drought or hurricane to global warming simply can’t be supported by the science. Our warming world is, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, increasing heat waves and intense precipitation in some places, and is likely to bring more extreme weather in the future. But the panel also said there is little evidence that this warming is increasing the loss of life or the economic costs of natural disasters.

That makes a lot of sense but don’t expect this to change the tactics being employed by either the White House or most environmental activists. Without the gloom and doom scenarios they’ve been trying to float this past decade, they have little to offer either the public or Congress.

 There are a few problems with the scare tactics Gore helped popularized. One is that they aren’t credible. There’s plenty of evidence popping up that shows the increase in temperatures isn’t as advertised as well as that its effects are not as devastating as the global warming alarmists claim. If even the UN is prepared to debunk the notion that every hurricane or fire is the fault of global warming, not to mention the idea that the East and West coasts will be under water within a decade or two, why would anyone imagine that Americans who have good economic reasons to be skeptical about these claims would buy into Obama’s recommendations.

Another is the refusal of the environmental crowd to embrace the most obvious responses to concerns about carbon-based energy: the nuclear option. Nordhaus and Shellenberger say that more Americans respond positively to environmental claims when they are put in a context with viable alternatives rather than calls for draconian cuts in economic activity or personal autonomy that is integral to the use of automobiles and other sources of carbon emissions. But since the same people who are trying to sell us on the notion that the sky is falling about warming are the ones who have already delegitimized nuclear power because of fears that are equally exaggerated or unfounded.

Lastly, the authors have discovered that the extreme scenarios put forward by people like Gore as well as the attempt to convince people that natural disasters are part of the warming scenario don’t increase public support for their ideas. If anything, research shows that hysteria increases skepticism rather than diminishing it. If, as they ask, “climate change is a planetary emergency, why take nuclear and natural gas off the table?”

Nordhaus and Shellenberger have some good advice for environmentalists, especially their effort to convince them to pose their arguments in a context that is more about finding popular solution based in technology rather than pie in the sky scenarios about transforming the planet. But they shouldn’t expect, their warnings to be heeded. The most extreme scare tactics used by global warming alarmists aren’t just a tactic; they are integral to the worldview of these activists. Its not just that they fear that extreme weather will cause damage, if you listen closely to many of them, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that some think humanity has it coming as a natural consequence of capitalism.

Most of all, it’s that sense that we are being sold a bill of goods by the Al Gores that has fueled the backlash against warming advocates. Having tied themselves to claims that are easily debunked, even by those who agree with them on many questions, the environmental movement has painted itself into a corner from which no amount of common sense can extricate them.

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