July 13, 2018, by Brigitte Nerlich

Are we all alarmists now?

Over the years I have written many posts about extreme weather events on the one hand and quite a few on so-called alarmism on the other. This was in the context of working on issues related to climate change communication.

Some years ago, when writing an article on communicating climate change, I included a sentence or two saying that soon, our ill-fated efforts at communicating the obvious will be superseded by the blindingly obvious being visible to everybody from their window – or something like that, but I was told to delete that sentence.

I had, of course, thought that once the obvious stares people in the face, people would change what they do; that perception would lead to action; and communicating climate change would, in fact, become redundant. How wrong I was. But perhaps not THAT wrong.

Alarmists, real and rhetorical

Now, after 30 years of ‘alarmism‘ and extreme weather events, from the hot summer that sparked James Hansen’s warnings in 1988 to the hot summers across the world just now, the patently obvious seems to have become obvious to even the most vocal anti-climate change communicators, such as, surprisingly the Daily Mail (or rather the Mailonline, but still!).

On 6 July Chris Shaw tweeted “Daily Mail going hard-core on its climate change coverage these days.” I quipped (after some other exchanges): “We are all alarmists now!”, whereupon Isaac T. Quill‏ chipped in with an apt quote from Arthur C. Clarke’s The Songs of Distant Earth: “Lords Of The Last Days”. Indeed!

On 9 July Dana Nuccitelli wrote an article for the Guardian entitled “There are genuine climate alarmists, but they’re not in the same league as deniers”, pointing out that “deniers have conservative media outlets and control the Republican Party; climate alarmists are largely ignored”.

This time I replied: “there is a difference though between calling out ‘real’ alarmists and calling anybody (in a really effective rhetorical move) who is not a contrarian an ‘alarmist’ or ‘warmist’, I think.”

This led to some discussion about labelling and ‘name-calling’ and a cross-over with another discussion about people who mis/inform others about climate change, which has been summarised to some extent by Ken Rice here. I was trying to make the point that using ‘alarmist’ as a blanket label for anybody who warns about the presence and impacts of climate change is a rather dangerous rhetorical move, as it will lead to doubt and inaction. (Ok, it’s actually a rather successful move, if you want to create doubt and inaction)

Becoming an alarmist

At the same time that I was engaging in some twitter conversations about climate change, I was also retweeting a lot of tweets about one extreme weather event after the other – floods, heatwaves, wildfires, not only ‘over there’ but also ‘over here’, and I asked myself, how will people see me now, as an ‘alarmist’, even a ‘warmist’ and a doom-monger? Are other people asking themselves the same question? If not why?

I am not totally sure where I am going with this, but I have some more questions: Has climate change communication still a point? And if so what is it? And: Can there really, really be people out there who are not alarmed by climate change? How can one communicate with them if climate’s own communication efforts fail, so to speak?

Waking up to climate change?

And just when nihilism seems to overtake me, there are signs of hope, at least in Europe. This article in the Guardian entitled (alarmingly) “Fahrenheit 100: could this be the summer Britain wakes up to climate change?” and another one in the Danish newspaper Politiken about which Martin Stendel, a climate scientist, tweeted on 12 July: “The last weeks’ extremely unusual weather pattern raises awareness about a possible connection to #climatechange, not least in the press. This article in the large Danish newspaper @politiken is based on already the third interview I have been giving within the last week.”

Perhaps we are all alarmists now, at least in Europe. What does that mean for climate change communication? And what does it mean for climate change policy which has to be global, that is, cover countries where alarm is, perhaps, becoming the norm and countries where alarm is, decidedly, still frowned upon?

Image: there are some advantages to the UK heatwave

Posted in Climate ChangeClimate Politics