When alarming forecasts are presented in the form of vivid scenarios, many people ignore the low likelihood that they will come about: they want action. This is especially so if they think the cost of action will be low (to themselves), and they can blame others.
Policy responses to environmental alarms are often promoted in terms of “caring for the planet” or “caring for our children.” This has the intended effect of deflecting questions about the substance of alarming claims, and of demonizing those who ask them.
In modern times, when we are safer than we have ever been, some activists have become rich and famous by exploiting our ready acceptance of alarming scenarios: “So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have.” This statement about global warming by climatologist Professor Stephen Schneider (now deceased) serves as a warning to us all that we should always be ready to ask hard questions of alarmists.
Although the costs of trying to “stop climate change” are diffused across many people and over time, the public is gradually waking up to the fact that they are already bearing a substantial burden as a consequence of climate policies. As these costs rise, people will increasingly demand hard evidence that their sacrifices are worthwhile and are not merely based on sentimentalism and opportunism.
When people learn more about an issue, the persuasion formula that initially worked so well for alarmists breaks down. People become less persuaded by appeals to trust the authorities, less susceptible to fear, less willing to accept emotional appeals from celebrities, less gullible. Trends in polls show that this is already happening with the global warming scare.
Alarming forecasts of humans harming themselves and the environment by their actions are a common social phenomenon. They become widely believed for a time, cause unnecessary anxiety, and result in costly government policies, then fade from public attention as it becomes more difficult to maintain the alarm in the face of counter-evidence and closer public scrutiny. We hope that this phenomenon of false environmental alarms will become widely recognized so that in the future we can avoid the very real costs that they impose on the most vulnerable people, and then on all of us.