Guest essay by Eric Worrall
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, telling the truth about climate doesn’t work. Hyping extreme climate scenarios is sometimes the only way to motivate climate action.
How Y2K offers a lesson for fighting climate change
Earlier this month, New York magazine published a riveting and frightening look at the future of the planet we call home.
Now that global warming is well underway, we are in for an apocalyptic awakening, and “parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century,” the writer, David Wallace-Wells, argues.
The article captured the public’s attention, quickly becoming the most-read piece in the magazine’s history. But many critics, including several climate scientists, argued that it was flawed because Wallace-Wells focused on the worst-case scenario, a pessimist’s take.
Why feed the public a too-bleak picture of the future? Why frighten people into action, rather than inspire them?
Because sometimes, the worst case is the only thing that prompts us to get anything done.
One popular misconception about Y2K is that it was a wasted effort. After all, when the clocks turned over on January 1, 2000, there were scattered problems, but the world didn’t end. And there is some evidence that money was misspent.
But several of the government and outside analysts who have studied the response – including the Senate task force – concluded that on the whole, the effort was justified, given what we knew about the bug beforehand, and especially considering the United States’ particular vulnerability to tech problems.
People are not fools. It is one thing to argue a position, an entirely different thing to deliberately distort the truth.
The Y2K bug – as a software expert I was involved in fixing the problems. I was a Y2K alarmist – there just seemed to be far too many decrepit, decades old COBOL systems running core business processes, all hopelessly riddled with Y2K defects, written by people who had long since retired or died of old age. To my surprise the world didn’t end January 2000.
But it never occurred to me to deliberately exaggerate the problems I thought I saw, to try to panic people into acting.