Over the past week, headlines all over the internet screamed: THE WORLD IS OVER! since the 400ppm carbon threshold has passed, permanently for the first time in 15 million years. I decided to do a media analysis on the topic in order to determine the implications and response to the issue, and what it means for the future.
400 parts per million carbon in the atmosphere across the globe is a really important tipping point in climate science. Carbon dioxide is the most prevalent greenhouse gas, and the earth can only maintain a stable climate, like the one we experience currently, only when the amount of carbon is below this threshold (Mann and Kump, 2009.) We live now in what is considered an “icebox” climate since the majority of the planet’s history has been existing in an uninhabitable warm climate with a much greater variation than what we are used to. During the Cretaceous period, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, carbon in the atmosphere was around 2,000ppm. The oceans were at least 170 feet higher, and ice of any form was non-existent on the planet.
What we will be seeing in the next couple hundred years, is a possibly slow return to a much more unstable climate than what we are used to now. Oceans will be higher. Coral reefs will no longer exist. We will see glaciers melt at an exponential rate. Permafrost will start to melt, and release even more greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere than before. New, unknown ancient diseases will start to reappear, and we are basically uncertain about the effects about all of this on society. The 400ppm carbon threshold is just the beginning of a possible chain of events that could spell the end of the world as we know it unless if we start making major changes.
At least, that’s what these articles were attempting to say.
I have seen at least twenty articles about this topic over the past couple days, but I only focused on the three most frequent types of articles for analysis. These articles fell into the categories of: “What are we expected to lose?” articles, “How uncertain will the future be?” articles, and “What can we do, because we clearly don’t know what we’re talking about?” articles. Even with extensive searching through mainstream sources, I could not find a single article that explained the science in a cohesive, usable, and understandable form for a mainstream audience, like I described above. The following are suggestions on what can be done for each article in order to improve the content for a wider audience with sound science.
The first article I looked at was on Business Insider: “Earth’s Atmosphere Now has Carbon Dioxide Level Unseen for 15 Million Years and We Might Be Past the Point of No Return (Letzter, 2016.)” To start off, titles on the internet should be shorter in order to get your point across in as few words as possible for both user viewing, and search engine optimization. The article started off with a reiteration of the title, meaning the title could have been more compact. The article focused mainly on “what are we expected to lose?” in the coming years because of this, and did not offer any solutions. There was more of a hopelessness approach to this article, which is the opposite of what is necessary for this issue at the moment.
There was a really nice graph in this article, which is good for getting information across in a concise and understandable manner. However, all the information in the article focused on the graph, and did not focus on any other aspects of the situation. There also seemed to be an underlying focus on impoverished people that would be most likely affected by the effects of climate change. The focus seemed to come from a place of pity rather than empowerment and possible solutions. The article was the opposite of inspiring change, and the tone suggested that all hope was lost, and we might as well give up.
The one thing I did like about this article was that there was a video attached to it that explained: what the world will look like in the next 500 years as a result of climate change. However, the video also took a stance of pity through lenses of privilege from the first world. Statements like “the only coral reefs will exist in aquariums,” and “the middle east will be uninhabitable in the summer,” suggest that people will have the affluence to visit aquariums or even travel on a seasonal occasion. The “everything would be fine in the first world” perspective, is damaging to people’s motivations to want to change their habits, and therefore damaging to environmentalism for the world as a whole.
The best way to improve this video, as well as the article, is to go more in depth about the repercussions for the first world, like a disruption in food chains, mass migration, lack of resources, and a larger wage gap between the haves and the have-nots. The article itself would benefit from actually explaining what 400 ppm carbon actually means, at least in a similar manner to the way I described earlier.
Next, I read an article from USA Today with a much more effective title: “Carbon dioxide levels cross the 400ppm threshold, likely highest in millions of years (Rice, 2016.)” It was a lot shorter, more scientific, and less misleading that other articles I’ve read. However, the article went on to explaining how carbon will stay above 400ppm indefinitely. This is clearly misleading, and can allow nay-sayers to side with overall uncertainty after an “all or nothing” argument falls through. Later, however, the article explained that the “indefinitely,” really just meant “in our lifetimes,” which is what they should have started with in the first place.
Differentiating between “permanently” and “in our lifetimes” is key, because saying something is permeant, means that there is nothing that can be done to reverse it. Whereas, “in our lifetimes,” elicits hope that something can be done for future generations and the future of society. Word choice is very important, and it seems that every article I saw wanted the shock factor of saying “permeant” more than embracing the power behind their word choice.
What these articles needed was an inspirational video that explained what can be done to impact how we go about fixing climate change. There was a really good video released a couple days before the 400ppm threshold was reached by Bill Nye, and it would have been a perfect addition to any of the articles. However, I have yet to see the two exist on the same webpage.
Finally, I looked at an article from Climate Central: “The world passes the 400PPM Threshold. Permanently (Kahn, 2016.)” Again, with the implications of stating that something is permanent. This article also took a more “Someday, in the future, this will be considered a historical moment when the world started to fall apart” approach. Whenever I hear something say that “this is a historic day,” I consider it grandstanding because we have absolutely no idea how historical something will be as it is happening. It also has the reverse psychology effect of wanting to prove them wrong, by thinking about how insignificant it is, which therefore diminishes the motivation for change.
There was an emphasis on stability and uncertainty than on more concrete consequences. The problem with uncertainty on the internet is that it fuels naysayers to dismiss the entire argument. Uncertainty is common in science, and for good reason. Science is based on testing and retesting and questioning everything we take for granted, and therefore the root of scientific inquiries. The problem with mainstream media, and the average consumer is that no one likes uncertainty and we want to reduce it as much as possible. We tell ourselves that we know things when we really don’t. It’s hard to live with the idea that what we know and assume may be wrong because it is just too painful. Therefore, when confronted with science from an uneducated standpoint we will do whatever it takes to minimize uncertainty, even discrediting the entire argument.
It is, therefore, important to minimize the amount of uncertainty in an argument as much as possible, and this last article was riddled with uncertainty after every statement. The uncertainty makes it easy for naysayers discredit the need for change or even validation of the facts stated in the article. It would be better to just state the facts and leave out the uncertainty. Anyone with a scientific background would take the article with a grain of salt anyway, and anyone who wouldn’t care about the scientific process and just care about the implications of the news to their own life wouldn’t care. However, leaving it in discredits the argument completely for both sides. Therefore, it would be much more effective to leave it out.
Overall, articles with topics like this should be more rooted in science, but not exude uncertainty. At the same time, there should be real world application and hope applied to the writing style for the sake of environmental activism.
- Carbon dioxide levels cross 400 ppm threshold, likely highest in millions of years. (2016). Retrieved October 2, 2016, from http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/sciencefair/2016/09/29/carbon-dioxide-levels-400-ppm-scripps-mauna-loa-global-warming/91279952/
- Letzter, R., Oct. 1, 2016, 6, 799, & 34. (2016). Earth’s atmosphere now has carbon dioxide levels unseen for 15 million years, and we might be past the point of no return. Retrieved October 2, 2016, from http://www.businessinsider.com/earths-atmosphere-400-ppm-co2-2016-9
- Mann, M., & Kump, L. (2009). Dire Predictions – Understanding Global Warming.
- The World Passes 400 PPM Threshold. Permanently. (2016) Retrieved October 2, 2016, from http://www.climatecentral.org/news/world-passes-400-ppm-threshold-permanently-20738