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Is that scary ‘New York Magazine’ climate change story exactly what we need?

Fear that climate change may make Earth uninhabitable by 2100 could spur cities into action—or make people feel hopeless

record heat Chris Hondros/Getty Images

In 2015, a New Yorker story by Kathryn Schulz entitled “The Really Big One” spelled out, in paralyzing detail, what will happen when a very large earthquake strikes along the Cascadia subduction zone—the Pacific Northwest fault line that’s the only fault line in the continental U.S. capable of producing a 9.0 magnitude quake.

“Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast,” was one of the lines from the story that seemed engineered for wide distribution on social media, as were statistics like this:

FEMA projects that nearly thirteen thousand people will die in the Cascadia earthquake and tsunami. Another twenty-seven thousand will be injured, and the agency expects that it will need to provide shelter for a million displaced people, and food and water for another two and a half million.

Schulz’s article scared people—Curbed Seattle, in fact, asked its readers “Did The New Yorker's Earthquake Article Scare the Crap Out of You or What?”—but the response that followed the article moved quickly beyond fear and into action.

A wave of public conversations addressed the region’s preparedness and local news outlets spun the story into opportunities for education. In perhaps the most telling indicator of the story’s impact, earthquake kits flew off shelves, with a prominent online seller reporting the company sold a month’s worth of kits in a single day after the article was posted. Seismic retrofitting companies, which usually only see an uptick in business after a major earthquake elsewhere, were similarly swamped with requests.

The Seattle earthquake story was reverberating in my head as I read David Wallace-Wells’s “The Uninhabitable Earth,” published in this week’s New York Magazine.

The story outlines nine climate change scenarios, ranging from melting ice caps releasing ancient infectious diseases to “permanent economic collapse,” which could render the Earth uninhabitable by 2100. If you haven’t already read it, you’ve likely seen it on Facebook or Twitter, where it’s been widely shared and commented upon. (Update: The story is now the most-read in the magazine’s history, according to New York Magazine, which published an annotated version of the story on July 14.)

Many scientists have claimed the scenarios described are too bleak, with influential climatologists declaring it “doomist” and “climate disaster porn.” Journalists who write about climate change, on the other hand, were concerned the story didn’t focus enough on solutions, exaggerated the facts, provided fuel to climate deniers, or avoided the real story—that very real progress is already being made that will likely avert these futures.

“The problem is, if you’re trying to motivate people, scaring the shit out of them is a really bad strategy,” wrote meteorologist Eric Holthaus in a thoughtful critique on Grist. “If anything, strategies like this make the problem worse. They take people willing to read something like ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’ and essentially remove them from the pool of people working on real-world solutions.”

Not everyone agrees with that assessment. John Cook, a professor at George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, told The New Republic’s Emily Atkin that fear is important (and, as we’ve seen, very clickable). “If we communicate the solutions only, people lack the urgency that the situation requires.” As David Roberts wrote at Vox: “Did that New York magazine climate story freak you out? Good.”

Schulz’s earthquake article was criticized by geologists as well, who claimed she overdramatized the hypothetical quake’s aftermath and neglected to mention an early warning system in development. A geophysicist heavily quoted in the piece later felt the need to send a less dire message to local residents: “It’s not hopeless.”

But the one thing that was so powerful about Schulz’s story was that it exposed everyday Americans to some scientifically accepted but not commonly known facts about seismic risk. For example, most people would guess the biggest earthquake to hit the country would originate not in Seattle but somewhere along the San Andreas fault (maybe because of summer blockbusters named San Andreas).

In the same way, Wallace-Wells writes that he wanted to address the fact that most of the conversation about climate change centers around future sea-level rise: a vague, incremental, far-away sounding threat, which, of course, is automatically of less concern to people who don’t live near the ocean. As an NRDC study argued last month, extreme heat exacerbated by climate change will likely kill or sicken far more Americans by the end of the century. (And yes, that’s one of Wallace-Wells’s scenarios.)

For all the accusations of fact-distorting and fear-mongering—and my god, those illustrations—Wallace-Wells does end the story on an optimistic note:

Nevertheless, by and large, the scientists have an enormous confidence in the ingenuity of humans — a confidence perhaps bolstered by their appreciation for climate change, which is, after all, a human invention, too. They point to the Apollo project, the hole in the ozone we patched in the 1980s, the passing of the fear of mutually assured destruction. Now we’ve found a way to engineer our own doomsday, and surely we will find a way to engineer our way out of it, one way or another.

Although it’s optimistic, I am not sure it’s the right tone for a crisis as vast and complex as humanity is facing. That closing leaves me with a “scientists have got this” vibe, with the sense someone else (engineers, maybe?) are probably taking care of it with little help from the public—the same way they landed us on the Moon.

Combatting climate change is much more than “engineering”, as today’s headlines attest. California Governor Jerry Brown is sidestepping the U.S.’s isolationist stance on climate at the G20 summit to organize a Global Climate Action Summit next year. A new report that just 100 companies are responsible for 71 percent of global emissions makes the worst contributors to climate change fairly easy to target and regulate. In the meantime, activists are blocking the Keystone XL pipeline with solar arrays and combatting powerful fossil fuel utility lobbyists.

There’s also so much happening locally. Cities all over the world are taking huge strides to combat heat island effect by building cooling infrastructure and planting more trees. Because transportation is the fastest-growing contributor to greenhouse gases, changing American commuting behavior can have a huge impact. And remember those 68 U.S. mayors who pledged to uphold the Paris agreement by reducing emissions and moving to renewable energy? It’s now up to 350 mayors who represent more than 65 million people in 44 states.

Schulz’s story—which eventually won a Pulitzer—ended up serving an important function. It demonstrated, through the worst-case scenario, how millions of people were horrifically unprepared for an all-but-inevitable disaster. But it obviously left readers with the feeling there is something that can be done to change that outcome, because they took action. Washington even mounted a large-scale drill in 2016 that highlighted and fixed additional flaws in the state’s emergency relief program. Two years later, the Pacific Northwest is better prepared for its next earthquake. Lives have undoubtably been saved.

Will Wallace-Wells’s story have the same effect? A lot more people are talking online about climate change today than they were last week. You’d have to think at least some of those people will be looking for ways to take action. Unfortunately, it’s a lot harder than just ordering up some MREs on Amazon.

Yes, climate change is very bad, and yes, it’s already happening now, but collective action—meaning you and your elected officials—can change it. It’s okay to get scared. But it’s more important to get to work.