Global Warming and the Power of Fear to Drive Innovation

Global Warming and the Power of Fear to Drive Innovation

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anecdote or some kind of desperate search for a narrative through-line for the chaos of today’s world—or on what’s been called “the perverse joy of apocalypse.”

Why would anyone find joy in disaster? Many a religious cult has taken comfort and meaning from the idea that end times are approaching. And as the conservative writer Rod Dreher has pointed out, “apocalypticism…is by no means only a religious phenomenon.” In fact, he thinks climate change believers fall into this pattern. “Today you will find few more apocalyptic secularists than those whose minds are seized by the prospect of a global warming apocalypse,” Dreher writes. There may be a little bit of truth in this thesis. If the prospect of catastrophe didn’t produce a small frisson of excitement, dystopian science fiction like the Terminator and Matrix movies wouldn’t be so popular.

But nobody enjoys a constant state of terror. I would be perfectly happy to live in a world where nuclear weapons had never been invented, extremists couldn’t shoot down passenger planes or fly them into skyscrapers, carbon dioxide wasn’t a greenhouse gas, and we’d learned how to live in balance with the planet’s natural systems. Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in, and it isn’t confirmation bias to note these dangers are real.

I think fear is a useful emotion for innovation, as long as it’s based on truth. In fact, the threat and the experience of disaster can foster the unity of public opinion needed to bring about major shifts in policy. That’s what my MIT PhD dissertation was all about, back in the mid-1990s. I drew my evidence from major technological disasters of the ‘70s and ‘80s like Three Mile Island, Bhopal, and Chernobyl.

But you don’t have to look to history for signs of technology’s unintended consequences. Just glance at a map forecasting the impact of sea level rise and you can see that an increase of just 5 feet would permanently submerge large areas of our coastal cities, including the parts of southern and eastern Cambridge, MA, where I live and work.

Scientists tell us that this kind of increase is quite plausible by the year 2100, especially if the accelerated ice melting being reported in Greenland and Antarctica continues. In that 5-foot scenario, we’d also lose 7 percent of Manhattan, 20 percent of Miami, and 88 percent of New Orleans. If fear of this kind of loss and destruction isn’t enough to motivate the technology and business community to find ways to slow greenhouse-gas emissions, pull carbon out of the atmosphere, and start adapting to the irreversible changes already underway, then I don’t know what else will work.

Perhaps the reason that so many great entrepreneurs and innovators are still working on comparatively inconsequential problems like social/mobile apps and better ad-targeting technologies is that the reality hasn’t sunk in yet. Maybe we’ll have to lose an entire city or region to a future superstorm—the big sister to Katrina and Sandy, aimed at a low-lying place like Charleston, SC—before we really wake up. If that were to happen, I think we’d see what a large role entrepreneurs and innovators can and should play in driving political change and moving us toward sustainability. If innovators can create new transportation systems like the Hubway bike-sharing system here in Boston, and spend time lobbying for new conveniences like Uber and Airbnb, surely they can mobilize to support bigger causes like cutting carbon emissions, enacting a carbon tax, and making renewable energy cheaper.

I do know that the power of fear is real. It gave me the chutzpah, as an 18-year-old, to lecture a town full of conservative Midwesterners about nuclear weapons. The line between healthy fear and paranoia can be blurry—but even the paranoid are right sometimes. As Dreher writes of his apocalyptic secularists, “Just because they’re terrified of [global warming] in ways many of us don’t understand doesn’t mean it’s not real; perhaps they see something the rest of us don’t.”

Indeed. In the old Greek myths, Cassandra couldn’t shut up about the coming calamity of the Trojan War, and her people locked her up rather than listen to her annoying prophecies. Today’s Cassandras, myself included, have the whole Internet at our disposal, and we will be harder to silence.

[Correction, 8/2/14: An earlier version of this essay indicated that there were seven valedictorians in the Charlotte High School Class of 1985, which is unbelievable enough. In fact, there were eight, plus one salutatorian, as several of my classmates have reminded me. I regret the memory lapse.]

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The Author

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy.

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  • https://plus.google.com/111658787134687480269 Dan Pangburn

    The average global temperature trend has been flat since before 2001 (annual average of the five reporting agencies). How many more years of no significant increase in the average global temperature trend will it take for some people to begin to perceive that perhaps they missed something (like thermalization)?

    • Leslie Graham

      [Groan] Not this wearisome and thousand-times-falsified denierblog junk AGAIN!

      Get a life.

      Just for starters the last 3 months have just broken the 2005 and 2010 global temperature records AGAIN.

      And thats with every major natural forcing currently in the negative.

      The PDO looks to have switched back to the positive in the last year so it’s going to be a moot point anyway as this year and next will set yet another global temperature record.

      In the meantime the earth is losing a trillion tons of ice per year:

      - 159 Gt Antarctic LAND ice volume………McMillan el al, GRL (2014)
      + 26 Gt Antarctic SEA ice volume…………Holland et al, J Climate (2014)
      - 261 Gt Arctic sea ice…………………………..PIOMAS
      - 378 Gt Greenland, Enderlin et al………….GRL (2014)
      - 259 Gt other land based glaciers…………Gardner et al. Science (2013)

      TOTAL ICE LOSS PER YEAR = 1,031 Gt.

      In fact, even the modest increase in seasonal Antarctic sea ice was predicted by Manabe et al 1991, nearly 25 years ago.

      “This is why sea surface temperature hardly changes and sea ice slightly increases near the Antarctic Continent in response to the increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide.”

      http://www.gfdl.noaa.gov/bibliography/related_files/sm9101.pdf
      So what could possibly be causing all that ice to melt do you think?
      Take your time now.

      • https://plus.google.com/111658787134687480269 Dan Pangburn

        Ice melts because it is warmer than it was when the water froze. But that does not mean that the planet is still getting warmer. The planet warmed from the depths of the Little Ice Age (approximately 1700) until before 2001. Other credible assessments find no significant change in global ice.

        Search AGW unveiled to see an analysis that calculates the up and down trajectory of average global temperature since before 1900 with 90% accuracy (0.95 correlation coefficient) using only two independent variables. The current trend is down. Current measurements are within the range of uncertainty.

        • BoulderEntrepreneur

          If you look at the profile of the poster you replied to, Leslie Graham, you see huge numbers messages from lots of different publications all spouting climate change fear, it isn’t clear if its a hobby or career.

          Science requires theories, in this case embodied in models, match reality. If someone claimed to be able to predict the dow jones stock average to within a point for a year from today people would be skeptical and demand appropriate proof, yet somehow they aren’t skeptical enough in this case.

          In this case people seem to somehow obfuscate the need for scientific validation and due to fear people seem to let them get away with it “just in case”. They ignore that acting to change things will be a drag on the economy. Contrary to those who think that is a materialistic way of looking at things, drags on economic growth translate into more poverty and less medical care and actual impacts on humans. If acting were magically free then sure we could do things “just in case”,but it isn’t. It also ignores the fact that we know so little about things that we don’t even know if our actions are preventing a new ice age and if there might be even more harm from stopping emissions and allowing it to happen.

  • Gab

    People like to solve problems. It’s not a joy of living in fear. It’s the joy of solving large issues – that, and the concept that they threaten us. I believe, however, that we are wired to solve things. We solve one thing and then look for the next. In addition to love, this is what life is all about.