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Harvard Climate Panel Talks ‘Hope & Despair’ – ‘I think that there is real value in scaring people’

Hope and Despair

David Wallace-Wells, Cam Webb, Nancy Knowlton, and Nikhil Advani speak Wednesday evening at a panel discussion hosted by the Harvard University Center for the Environment.

Climate change researchers, professors, and journalists debated how best to present the severity of climate change to the public Wednesday evening at an event hosted by the Harvard University Center for the Environment.The discussion, titled “Hope and Despair: Communicating an Uncertain Future,” was held in the Geological Lecture Hall. Elizabeth M. Wolkovich, an assistant professor in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, moderated a discussion about how to best motivate the public to take action on climate change.

David Wallace-Wells, who is the deputy editor of the New York Magazine and wrote the article “The Uninhabitable Earth” this year, advocated the use of fear about the planet’s future as a way to inspire more people to become “climate agents.”

“I think that there is real value in scaring people,” Wallace-Wells said. “When I talk to colleagues it just seems so obvious to me that when you think about the relatively well-off Western world, that complacency about climate is just a much bigger problem than fatalism about climate.”

Nancy Knowlton, chair for Marine Science at the Smithsonian Institution, said she thinks it is more effective to be optimistic about humanity’s ability to stave off disaster.

“I’ve had many, many students come up to me after talks about optimism or the Earth Optimism Summit that we ran in Washington saying ‘you know, this was incredibly empowering, I now really want to go out and work on solving this problem. I almost left the field of conservation because I thought there was nothing I could do,’” Knowlton said. “I do feel that it is absolutely essential to talk about what’s working, why it’s working, in addition to providing this very scary context.”

While the question of mitigating climate change is a regular topic of concern for individuals in scientific circles, Wolkovich said that climate change is rarely the highest priority in politics.

“It’s not the number one political issue and until it becomes the number one political issue, we’re not in the position I think we need to be if we want to change the scenarios,” she said.

Henry G. Scott ’18, who attended the event and is writing a thesis on how humans have historically impacted the environment, said that he enjoyed the panel but was bothered by how few undergraduates attended the event.