In The Language of Climate Politics (Oxford Univ., July), Guenther analyzes pro–fossil fuel narratives in mainstream climate news.

How did the climate narrative shift from “alarmism” to “anti-alarmism”?

In 2017, David Wallace-Wells wrote a New York magazine article, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” that compiled worst-case climate change scenarios. It introduced a new way of talking about the climate crisis—before, scientists had tried not to scare people. Then, in 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report that said even two degrees Celsius of warming would be a disaster. But some guys on Twitter started complaining that these “alarmist” scenarios weren’t taking into account decarbonization over time. Two scientists modeled a gentler, decarbonization-based scenario. Wallace-Wells wrote about their research in a 2021 article that said, “We don’t need to be so alarmed anymore.” Wallace-Wells, to his credit, listens to the
science, so he laid out this new,
optimistic scientific story.

So now “anti-alarmism” is mainstream. And it’s propagandistic?

Right. The anti-alarmism position is that climate change is real, but it’s not going to be so bad, it just needs to be managed; that it’s even okay to keep expanding fossil fuels. Right-wing policymakers used this as a basis to start claiming the climate alarm of the past five years had been unwarranted, even though no new climate policy had been passed.

What about the terms cost and growth?

The prohibitive “cost” of decarbonization comes from economic modeling by Ted Nordhaus that makes a big assumption that GDP will continue growing no matter how hot the planet gets. That work is based on “perpetual growth,” which was modeled in the 1950s by Robert Solow, Nordhaus’s PhD adviser; that model was purely hypothetical, because it presumed the constant growth of land. However, Solow speculated that maybe you could substitute technological innovation for land—and presume tech would grow indefinitely instead. All these assumptions don’t match what we’re seeing: global heating will likely lower GDP, decarbonization will put money in most people’s pockets, and capitalism is working against the technological change we need. Energy companies are resisting decarbonization because they know they won’t make the same profits.

How can journalists avoid repeating interest groups’ talking points?

Be more discerning of academics. Before, I thought that the IPCC, for instance, only reported hard earth science. Once I started researching, I was like, holy shit, some of these people are economists and engineers! And their assumptions go unexamined!