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Finding the right metaphor to treat climate despair

By Moises Velasquez-Manoff / August 12, 2009

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that if nothing is done to curb human-emitted carbon dioxide, average temperatures on Earth could increase by up to 6.4 degrees C. (11.5 F.) by century's end.

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Until relatively recently, the goal was to stabilize atmospheric co2 concentrations at 450 parts per million. (We're currently at 385 ppm.)

But then NASA's Jim Hansen, who, as The New Yorker's Elizabeth Kolbert pointed out in her recent profile of him, has rather unnervingly made many predictions on climate that came true, began arguing that we had to backtrack to 350 ppm.

You might categorize his reasoning as the precautionary principle writ large: There's a lot we don't know about how Earth's climate responds to higher co2 levels. But what we do know strongly suggests that we shouldn't stray too far into the unknown. The stakes are simply too high.

There's finally, and thankfully to many, some movement on the climate front, at least in the United States. The Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill was approved in the House by the slimmest of margins.

But there's little meaningful momentum in the all-important international arena. China surpassed the US as co2 emitter No. 1 last year, ahead of predictions. And a growing number of scientists think that the IPCC forecast is proving overly conservative. Glaciers are melting faster than anyone predicted.

Now stop and take a deep breath. By now, this litany of climate stats probably has a distressingly familiar ring.

Judging from reader responses posted here and from the glazed, slightly panicked look of my audience when I talk about this stuff in civilian life, right about now is when "climate despair" begins setting in. And it's easy to understand why. The problem seems so huge, so intractable, so overwhelming that throwing up one's hands seems like a not-entirely-unreasonable response.

The media certainly bear some responsibility for cultivating climate despair. In 2006, the same year Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" began showing, a British think tank released a report called "Warm Words."

It used the term "climate porn" to describe what it categorized as alarmist language on climate issues meant to "thrill" and "terrify" – but which failed to encourage meaningful action.

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