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Are people who write about climate change and environmental issues destined to become doomsayers?

This question returned to my mind while I was reading the World Meteorological Organization’s review of 2010 significant weather and climate events. I was looking for a broader context to comment on the major weather-related tragedy on record that happened in Brazil. Three weeks ago more than 1,000 people died from flash floods and mudslides in three cities located on the hills near Rio de Janeiro, where I live.

I was startled by the number of extreme weather events listed. Individually, they were no news to me, but together they provided a larger, more dramatic picture of the encounters between human populations and the wild forces of nature.

The list has record-breaking droughts, snowstorms, rainstorms, mudslides, floods. The lowest and the highest temperatures ever registered were recorded in many places. Thousands of people were killed, hundreds of million dislodged. Counting people killed and dislocated by earthquakes in Haiti, China and Chile, almost 300,000 were killed in 373 disasters, which affected another 208 million, the Center for Research on Epidemiology of Disasters estimated. “A killer year” capping a “deadly decade”, that “could be seen as benign in years to come”, says UN Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction, Margareta Wahlström. Weather-related disasters will rise due to the combination of unplanned urbanization, environmental degradation and climate change.

We have a real communication problem, especially if the hypothesis linking scary news to stress and denial is right. Our basket of facts contains an array of tragedies, few scientific certainties, and widespread disagreement about what would be the best solutions. Global warming has turned scientific research into a factory of “bad news”. Weather events are becoming more frequent and more severe. Biodiversity and permafrost loss is rampant. One cannot help but reporting the evidence of an ongoing catastrophe. The complexities of climate and environmental science will hardly be overcome. They make climate communication a puzzling experience. Climate scientists have created a rapid response team to connect them with lawmakers and the media.

There is a scientific consensus about the probable causes and consequences of aggravating weather patterns. Probabilities however are a piece of the communication puzzle. People want scientists to give them certainty, not probabilities. Scientists, when asked whether the altered weather is attributable to climate change, are unable to answer with a simple yes or no. New hypotheses to explain extreme weather pop-up every now and then.

Karl Popper has distinguished between “clocks” and “clouds”, as metaphors for deterministic and probabilistic events. Clocks are regular phenomena that can be explained by examining its parts: the whole is the sum of the parts. Clouds are irregular, partially unpredictable. Climate change is a “cloud-like” phenomenon: complex, non-linear, full of anomalies, never fully predictable. Answers are necessarily probabilistic. Ironically, real clouds are one of the fuzziest subjects in climate science.

The climatic consequences of a warming world have no simple solution. There is no consensus on how to face the challenge ahead. Ideology, powerful interests, and mental frames conspire to produce different paths for action, widely diverging cost estimates, and disparate views about what kind of progress will be possible over the next decades. Approaches to a low-carbon economy are loaded with conflicting worldviews, like market vs regulatory mechanisms; limits to growth vs new patterns of growth. The number and diversity of stakeholders is enormous. There is no known set of actions that would eliminate almost intractable clashes of interests.

To make things worse there is the hypothesis that humans have a propensity to unsustainable behavior. William Rees argues that in the absence of “revolutionary policy responses evoked by our best science” the world would remain “mired in a swamp of cognitive dissonance and collective denial.”

Revolutions, however, cannot be engineered. No real revolution was born because of revolutionary preaching alone. When they happen, they hardly resemble what the preachers dreamt of. We are on the beginnings of a scientific and technological revolution that will change almost everything we do. New risks are emerging, as well as new solutions. But we cannot just wait for them to come, while we keep fueling global warming.

There is no way to determine whether collective action could be motivated either by scary tactics or by peddling dreams. The nuclear cataclysm yielded convincingly scary scenarios. It was easier to show an array of ICBMs hitting a country and destroying all life in seconds. The cause was understandable and instantaneous. The danger was clear and present. An end of the world hypothesis was even unnecessary because individuals could easily understand that if it were to happen to their country, they’d be condemned. And we didn’t get rid of nuclear weapons. We have only reduced the risk.

There is no simple solution to the climate communication problem. It is part of the larger climate policy conundrum. There is a complex system of forces inhibiting collective mobilization, and blocking majority support to political solutions and policy responses. The postman is not to blame; the problem lies in the substance of the message.