Erika Engelhaupt writes: A couple of weeks ago, an article in New York magazine laid out a horrific scenario of global warming. The photo at the top summed up the tone: A fossilized human skull, jaw gaping beneath aviator sunglasses, hovered over a caption warning that people could be “cooked to death from both inside and out” in a hotter climate.
If that’s not doom and gloom, I don’t know what is. Yet despite being a complete downer, the article quickly became New York magazine’s most-read story ever.
The article also reignites a debate over how best to communicate the science of climate change. Scientists and others who hope to inform the public or spur action have long struggled with how to convey the high stakes of global warming without making people feel helpless or fueling deniers by coming across as alarmist.
“Certainly a lot of people paid attention to it, and it sparked a very good conversation about what we’re up against,” says Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. But its message of impending doom can have very different effects on people, he notes. “There are different audiences in this country, and they’re affected by extreme scenarios differently.”
That became clear as soon as the article was published, when just about everyone with an opinion on climate change jumped on it. Scientists questioned its accuracy — we don’t know that it will be that bad, many said. Breitbart News, aiming from the right, proclaimed that New York had “broken the world record for the scariest, most catastrophic, hysterical exercise in extravagant climate doom-mongering in the history of the universe.”