It’s not often that a story about climate change goes viral, but last week, David Wallace-Wells’ New York story “The Uninhabitable Earth” did. (It even claimed the distinction of being most-read-of-all-time article on the magazine’s website.) The piece, which is an assessment of how bad things could get if we don’t curb greenhouse gas emissions, also prompted a huge conversation about whether its “worst case scenario” framing was too scary to be helpful in spreading the climate message. Some argued that the deep terror the article inspires would be paralyzing, not productive, invoking psychologists who found that fear froze up their research subjects. Others parried: “Social scientists are forever testing how individuals respond to various messages in lab conditions, in the short-term, but the dynamics that matter most on climate are social and long-term,” Vox’s David Roberts wrote. “It may be that there are social dynamics that require some fear and paralysis before a collective breakthrough.”
This is an excellent point, and one that can be adjudicated using history. We’ve managed to live for decades with another existential fear: the threat of nuclear war. What can years and years of atom bomb terror teach us about how the existential fear of mass death and societal collapse might affect our ability to respond to climate change? And why did atomic culture thrive, producing hundreds of books, movies, essays, and songs, while climate change has struggled for attention—Wallace-Wells’ barnburner aside?
I asked Spencer Weart, historian of science and author of Nuclear Fear: A History of Images (1989) and The Rise of Nuclear Fear (an update published in 2012), if he could help me think through the comparison. Besides those books, which are jam-packed with examples of the many novels, movies, essays, television shows, and video games produced in response to the advent of atomic weapons and nuclear power, Weart has also written The Discovery of Global Warming, putting him in a fine position to comment.
Weart was dubious about the scientific accuracy of Wallace-Wells’ article—several scientists have been, which is why Wallace-Wells later released an annotated version of his story for others to assess, a somewhat unprecedented move. Given that we spoke just as that updated version was published, and Weart had not had a chance to see it, I will not adjudicate his factual concerns.
But Weart was willing to speak in favor of the piece’s rhetorical style. “There’s this widespread idea that it’s dangerous and counterproductive to elicit fears,” he said. “But I don’t think the history of nuclear fears supports that.” Instead, Weart has found that in some cases the terror associated with Cold War nuclear capabilities, felt throughout culture and at the highest levels of government, did help mitigate nuclear threats. At other times, though, the dread of nuclear war has prompted increased defensiveness and an unhealthy concentration of power.
Psychologists have studied how the existence of nuclear weapons changes people’s worldview for the past 70 years, but when I asked Weart whether he thought these findings might be transferrable to the psychology of climate change, he was skeptical. “Much less so than you would think,” he said. What is perhaps more useful is to think through how the threat of nuclear weapons has activated people’s fear and inspired action, and consider how this could apply to climate change.
One of the main differences between the two cases is that stories related to climate change have failed to tap into deep-seated pre-existing terrors. Nuclear fear doesn’t have that problem—it draws on a number of extremely potent tropes. As Weart put it: “the mysteries of the universe, the mad scientist, the apocalyptic end of the world.” During the Cold War, people living in the grip of nuclear fear often reported feeling like they were being carried away by something ancient and inexorable. In The Rise of Nuclear Fear, Weart cites a widely reprinted 1945 editorial, Norman Cousins’ “Modern Man is Obsolete,” which described this new terror as a resurgence of an atavistic anxiety: “It is a primitive fear, the fear of the unknown, the fear of forces man can neither channel or comprehend. This fear is not new; in its classical form it is the fear of irrational death. But overnight it has become intensified, magnified. It has burst out of the subconscious and into the conscious.” The primal nature of nuclear fear amplified its potency: Everyone could picture the impending apocalypse.
So far, Weart argues, climate change lacks a visceral image of the worst-case scenario. “What we actually see with [public awareness of] global warming is some kind of a bloodless Manhattan, with water up to a certain level,” he told me. It’s not very scary-looking. And the prominence of the Arctic and Antarctic in coverage of warming hasn’t done us any favors. “The most common imagery of global warming, which you see everywhere and has become iconic, is the collapsing glacier with bits of ice flowing into the ocean,” said Weart. “That has no psychological history. It’s not like giant radioactive Godzilla monsters, which have a history going back to witchcraft.” Weart suggests that the imagery of the flood, with its biblical resonances, could possibly anchor climate change in one of our most durable myths, but people-free diagrams of flooded city streets don’t tap into that potential.
Nuclear fear also benefits from our bias toward individual stories. In his essay, Wallace-Wells cites Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement, in which Ghosh argues that because climate change is about social fate, not individual agency, it’s hard to narrativize. Nuclear war, unlike climate change, has often been imagined as the opposite—it is a tragic story of individual folly. A person who creates or deploys nuclear weapons, Weart writes in The Rise of Nuclear Fear, is on the brink of becoming a murderer, but also on the brink of committing suicide. The story of the scientists who unleash the atom on the world harks back to the trope of the wizard, witch, or shaman, who meddles with the occult to become more powerful. It’s a permutation of the Faust story, and it’s both recognizable and useful.
Nuclear fear offered another familiar figure for 20th-century novelists and screenwriters to play with: the warmonger whose feckless ego dooms us all. This is why the idea of Trump’s wee fingers on the nuclear button is so scary. We understand that we’ve concentrated world-changing power in these weapons, and that that our governmental and social structures don’t guard us from the possibility that a single deranged person—or a small clique of determined maniacs—could end everything. Climate sins, on the other hand, are sins of omission, not commission: much less dramatic to witness, much more difficult to villainize, and much easier to ignore.
The split-second nature of nuclear war, in which you could be fine one minute and ashes the next, also amplifies nuclear terror. With climate change, Weart said, bad effects are “projected into some future beyond our time. Whereas with nuclear war, it was something that could literally happen tomorrow.” Novelist and doomsayer Philip Wylie, who often worked with nuclear themes, underscored this with an exclamation point in the title of his 1954 book called Tomorrow!—which compared the fates of two cities hit by bombs. Imagery like photos of the “shadows” left by victims in Hiroshima show how nuclear fear is the fear of (as Cousins put it) “irrational death,” which can strike at a moment’s notice. The immediacy makes it a priority.
Nuclear fear, Weart told me, could be useful in influencing decision-makers, even when it was exaggerated. Look at Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, a 1957 book (and 1959 movie) in which the last survivors of a nuclear war, the residents of Australia, wait for the inevitable southward drift of fallout to kill them. “People understood at the time that this was fiction,” Weart said, but the drama of the situation lingered nonetheless. “When the Cuban Missile Crisis came along [in 1962], we have it on the record that both Kennedy and Khrushchev said [privately], ‘This could be the end of humanity if we don’t get a rein on this.’ ” The atmosphere of apocalyptic fear may have helped resolve the situation without conflict. During our second big wave of nuclear fear, in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan watched the TV movie The Day After in the White House. Apparently, it depressed him for days, and his biographer Edmund Morris thought the viewing experience might have pushed him to pursue a policy of strategic defense rather than deterrence.
Weart argues nuclear fears may have “intensified suspicion and hostility on both sides” during the Cold War. Drawing on work by Garry Wills, Weart writes that nuclear terror facilitated the creation of a national security state, and the expansion of presidential powers “far beyond anything imagined in the original Constitution.” Unlike in the case of climate change, where a campaign of disinformation has obscured scientists’ message of danger, people on the right and the left “agreed that nuclear war was terrifying,” as Weart put it to me. But that fear didn’t always lead to positive outcomes.
This history warns us that existential alarm, even if it does prompt action, has diverse results. Our current president seems entirely unbothered by climate change, which makes it tempting to think that ringing alarm bells could force citizens to insist on positive action. But in the case of the nuclear, that feeling of fear was only the beginning. In some cases, it prompted leaders to do the right thing. In others, leaders used the people’s panic to expand their own power. Critics of the “securitization” of climate change echo this warning, noting that if the military is in charge of planning our response to warming, the outcome might not be good.
It seems that in both cases, the answer to the question “Is fear helpful?” is a resounding (and unsatisfying, save perhaps to historians!) “It’s complicated.” It depends on what the fear yields. And it depends on what you are trying to achieve.