The age of “civilization in peril”

Anthony Watts Meteorologist and Climate Blogger
Font Size:

Warren Meyer runs the website climate-skeptic.com and has been one of our early surface stations project volunteers, getting that famous photo of the climate monitoring weather station in the hot parking lot at the University of Arizona’s Atmospheric Sciences Department. He’s also produced a marvelous movie that defines the skeptic position. You can watch it on YouTube here.

The Washington Independent recently asked him about the role of young people in climate skepticism. His response reminds me of the phrase often attributed to Winston Churchill:

“If you’re not liberal when you’re young, you have no heart. If you’re not conservative when you’re older, you have no brain.”

Climate skepticism indeed tends to be rejected by the younger generation, but not by all. Remember the stir young Kristen Brynes caused for publicly rejecting what she had been taught in school? On the other hand, in most colleges, there are so many activist groups recruiting to “save the planet” that skepticism generally gets drowned in the cacaphony.

Meyer sums up the issue pretty well in his response:

Young people approach issues in different ways and have different interests, and that has not changed. For example, young people of every generation are suckers for the “civilization in peril” line — they like to think that they as young people are uniquely positioned to save the world from a once-in-a-millennia threat. It’s only the threat that changes. In the 50′s it was communism. In the sixties it was the Vietnam War. In the seventies it was hunger and over-population. You get the idea. I read a really interesting treatment of this topic, how the young want to feel they can change the world, that they don’t have to expend decades of work to build up their skills and credibility — that they can be instantly powerful at age 22. There is nothing compelling among young people in the “do nothing” case on any issue, and the rewards systems (school grades, college admissions) is skewed against those who are not openly advocating to change something. So folks who are young who might be skeptics expend their energy on other issues where they can advocate for change rather than the status quo. It doesn’t mean there are no young skeptics, just that these folks may expend their activism in other areas.

The other thing is that younger people are notorious for dismissing or grossly underestimating complexity and costs. We see this in the climate change notion of the precautionary principle, that supposedly if there is even a tiny chance of catastrophe, we should act. This seems really compelling to the young. Until you understand that on the other side of the equation is a 100% chance of really high economic costs, including punishing effects on the poor of developing nations who are just emerging from millennia of poverty and need to burn every hydrocarbon they can find to do so.

None of this is unique to our times. Skeptics today in their forties are not skeptics because they were in their teens. So the lack of teenage skeptics today is meaningless for whether there will be skeptics in 20 years.

The issue of climate change skepticism is often described as one of feelings versus facts. Just look at the most popular icon of climate change, the polar bear, to see how climate change imagery tugs at heartstrings. But, one might even say it’s just a “phase.” In 20 years, will it even be an issue?

Mr. Watts operates the most visited blog on climate science in the world, www.wattsupwiththat.com now with over 57 million visits. He has spent 30 years on air in radio and television as a weather forecaster, and still does daily radio broadcasts. In 2007, he founded the surfacestations.org project, which with the help of volunteers nationwide found that only 1 in 10 of the weather stations used for monitoring climate in the USA met the government’s own standards for station siting quality. He also operates a weather technology business, embraces energy efficiency with solar power on his home and drives an electric car.