I’d like to wish you a happy New Year, but I’m afraid I have a different sort of prediction.
You’re in for very bad weather. In 2008, your television will bring you image after frightening image of natural havoc linked to global warming. You will be told that such bizarre weather must be a sign of dangerous climate change — and that these images are a mere preview of what’s in store unless we act quickly to cool the planet.
Unfortunately, I can’t be more specific. I don’t know if disaster will come by flood or drought, hurricane or blizzard, fire or ice. Nor do I have any idea how much the planet will warm this year or what that means for your local forecast. Long-term climate models cannot explain short-term weather.
But there’s bound to be some weird weather somewhere, and we will react like the sailors in the Book of Jonah. When a storm hit their ship, they didn’t ascribe it to a seasonal weather pattern. They quickly identified the cause (Jonah’s sinfulness) and agreed to an appropriate policy response (throw Jonah overboard).
Slow warming doesn’t make for memorable images on television or in people’s minds, so activists, journalists and scientists have looked to hurricanes, wild fires and starving polar bears instead. They have used these images to start an “availability cascade,” a term coined by Timur Kuran, a professor of economics and law at the University of Southern California, and Cass R. Sunstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago.
The availability cascade is a self-perpetuating process: the more attention a danger gets, the more worried people become, leading to more news coverage and more fear. Once the images of Sept. 11 made terrorism seem a major threat, the press and the police lavished attention on potential new attacks and supposed plots. After Three Mile Island and “The China Syndrome,” minor malfunctions at nuclear power plants suddenly became newsworthy.
Once a cascade is under way, it becomes tough to sort out risks because experts become reluctant to dispute the popular wisdom, and are ignored if they do. Now that the melting Arctic has become the symbol of global warming, there’s not much interest in hearing other explanations of why the ice is melting — or why the globe’s other pole isn’t melting, too.
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