Needing Scary Scenarios

There is a concept in risk theory termed the “social amplification of risk”. Normally this takes the form of a minor risk being blown out of all proportion by public reaction to it.

One of the most perplexing problems in risk analysis is why some relatively minor risks or risk events, as assessed by technical experts, often elicit strong public concerns and result in substantial impacts upon society and economy. (Kasperson et al 1988)

The public response is mostly an overreaction to the risk, the actual “chance of harm” and the magnitude of the actual expected effects. Examples that have elicited huge public fear have included the BSE crisis, nuclear issues and the MMR vaccine (links to autism). As public fear spreads the risk is blown out of all proportion.

Collectively, climate activists, the IPCC and world governments, aided and abetted by climate scientists have done the opposite.  They’ve taken a poorly quantified risk that is based on imperfect models and uncertain science and created  a systematic and deliberate attempt at amplification.

As aptly described in Wikipedia, the social amplification of risk is damaging because it causes ripple effects (bold mine):

These ripple effects caused by the amplification of risk include enduring mental perceptions, impacts on business sales, and change in residential property values, changes in training and education, or social disorder. These secondary changes are perceived and reacted to by individuals and groups resulting in third-order impacts. As each higher-order impacts are reacted to, they may ripple to other parties and locations. Traditional risk analyses neglect these ripple effect impacts and thus greatly underestimate the adverse effects from certain risk events.

Let me see – the ‘low carbon economy’, green jobs (for the boys), oh and a whole generation of green-washed students, who can’t think for themselves.

IPCC assessments turned this on its head by neglecting a traditional risk approach and creating ripple effect impacts trying to get the social amplification they desired. As Dr Stephen Schneider famously said:

…we need to get some broad based support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, means getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. (Source)

This worked for a while but ecoactivists bemoaned that the public just doesn’t care enough.   As I said previously I think they are just too sensible.

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16 Responses to Needing Scary Scenarios

  1. KevinUK says:


    May i take this oportunity to shamelessly plug one of the best books I’ve ever read on this subject

    Scared to Death
    by Christopher Booker and Richard North

    CAGW skeptics should be very familiar with both these authors.

    Christopher Booker has also written a related book entitled

    The Real Global Warming Disaster’

    which I can also highly recommend. Both books take pride of place (along with books by John Brignell) on my bookshelf.


  2. j ferguson says:

    I have difficulty understanding how the probability that something can happen and the magnitude of the consequence can be combined, such that the risk of that combination can be fairly rated. It seems to me that risk appraisal must integrate both the probability and the effect of the occurrence.

    For example, if it is possible (bear with me) for a power plant to explode and kill all life within 50 miles yet it has never happened in like equipment, nor is the well-considered likelihood of such an event happening more than extremely remote, maybe there is no real risk. On the other hand, that it could happen should give some pause, if the plant could be easily located somewhere with little life – maybe a place killed off by global warming.

    The scary scenario always seems to be with us. Sometimes they aren’t really as bad as projected. After all, if we are struck by a meteor, we won’t have to get up and go to work that day.

    I well remember sitting through endless system safety analysis meetings pursuant to one of my endeavors where the process was so bureaucratized that the consensus readily dismissed lists of possible faults and their effects as not worth bothering with including one which later did cause an accident. It may have been ridiculous, but it happened.

    Is it at all possible that “risk assessment” can be anything other than witchcraft?

    • “Is it at all possible that “risk assessment” can be anything other than witchcraft?”

      Risk assessment is something I’m familiar with, as it was one of my responsibilities some years ago. The bottom line requirement was survival of the company I worked for, a large (at the time) multinational manufacturer of cameras and film. We in the computer centre had to take steps to ensure the company could continue manufacturing and trading, even if that centre burned down, or was struck by a ‘plane (we were close to an RAF airfield).. Survival of key staff was considered (I was one), so the “disaster recovery” team. as it was termed, had to ensure that data backup was offsite, as was a copy of all recovery manuals, etc, so that our survival wasn’t necessary for data recovery. Sounds cold-blooded, but what we did was commensurate with the risk, and was carefully costed.

      Given the prime requirement for company survival, all measures taken had to have a risk/cost assessment made. What was vital was separated from what was desirable. There were lessons here for me in looking at the risk/cost assessment of mitigation measures for “global warming”. It must be obvious, except to true believers and those who allow others to think for them, that it cannot be justified bankrupting the world economy because it’s going to possibly get a few degrees warmer.

      That engineers, scientists and governments are seriously considering “carbon” sequestration and storage of what can’t possibly be more than a few percent of CO2 emissions, at vast cost, and clearly with hardly measurable effect is unbelievable.

      What really stinks in all this is that those governments commission “projections” of risk and associated costs which always take the upper bound of possibilities. and always assume that nothing whatever is done in adaptation, and then justify expensive policies on based on those “head in the sand” reports. I’ve seen (and blogged on) “scary” simulations of how much of a city would be underwater with an “x metres rise” in sea level, and which assume that not even the currently existing flood defences would be in place! That’s not risk and cost assessment, it’s FRAUD. Environmentalists and city authorities lap all this rubbish up, and expect taxpayers to fork out NOW for something whose effects wouldn’t even be begin to be felt for decades.

      • j ferguson says:

        MostlyHarmless, do you really think very many engineers are involved in the thermopolistic schemes you refer to? My risk assessment activities were in the transportation industry where they were required by regulation. Some day I need to learn to distinguish between something that is a good idea and the diminution of the value of the idea through bureaucratic ineptitude.

        I find some of the schemes bandied about for positively affecting the trend in “climate temperature” fraught with the possibility of awful unintended, unanticipated consequences.

        [Reply – I agree completely. Imagine ifwe were actually successful in pumping Gt of SO2 into the atmosphere, especially now. The possible consequences are too awful to contemplate. V]

  3. Verity Jones says:

    Booktoken (or climate books) needed for birthday methinks!

    @J ferguson
    If risk assessments are ‘witchcraft’, they’ll go very well with ‘Voodoo science’ then 😉
    Voodoo science

  4. Doug Cotton says:

    Here is a simple proof in 10 easy steps why the Greenhouse Effect is a physical impossibility.

    (1) The IPCC claim that radiation from a cooler atmosphere slows the rate of cooling of the (warmer) surface, thus leading to a greenhouse effect.

    (2) The “rate of cooling” is a 24 hour worldwide mean, so wherever the Sun is warming the surface (any sunny morning) the rate of warming would have to be increased by whatever process is slowing the rate of cooling.

    (3) Thus extra thermal energy must be added to the surface by such radiation in order to increase the warming rate in the morning and slow the mean rate of cooling calculated from both day and night rates.

    (4) Now the Second Law of Thermodynamics relates to heat transfer which is not the same as energy transfer. Radiated energy can be two-way, but heat transfer between two points is always one way and it is invalid to split such heat transfer into two opposite components and try to apply the Second Law to each. Physics doesn’t work that way.

    (5) Hence, the surface cannot warm faster in the mornings due to such an imaginary heat transfer, because that would be clearly breaking the Second Law no matter what. Nor can it slow the rate of cooling because of (4). And in general you would expect the same process to happen whether the surface is warming or cooling.

    (6) So, those photons from the cooler atmosphere are not being converted to thermal energy in the warmer surface, as Prof Claes Johnson proved in Computational Blackbody Radiation.

    (7) Hence the effect of the photons being either reflected or scattered is that there is no impact on the surface at all.

    (8) It is also clear that there is no significant transfer by diffusion or conduction from the atmosphere to the surface because the surface absorbs more solar insolation than the lower atmosphere, and we observe that the atmosphere is generally cooler and even cools faster at night than the surface.

    (9) So it really does not matter even if extra thermal energy is trapped higher up in the atmosphere because it does not affect what we call climate, and any such energy cannot make its way back to the surface, except possibly an insignificant additional amount in precipitation.

    (10) Hence there is no valid physical way in which backradiation or absorption by carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will cause a significant atmospheric greenhouse effect.

    If I haven’t convinced you, read this paper Falsification of the Atmospheric CO2 Greenhouse Effects Within the Frame of Physics

    Doug Cotton

    • Verity Jones says:

      most of the readership of this site does not need convincing. Some attempts at simplification of complex science work, but this doesn’t, sorry.

      You assert elsewhere that the points need to be read in order. That being the case, and just like workings in a mathematical solution, an early error can cause the entirety to fall down.

      (4) …but heat transfer between two points is always one way…

      I think you mean “net heat transfer” Unless of course the two bodies are the same temperature.

      Come on Doug these things require very careful words to explain them correctly and succinctly in a 10 point pitch. I realise you are speaking in general terms, but it can be dangerous to generalise if you do not do so carefully.

  5. Eric Simpson says:

    “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed — and hence clamorous to be led to safety — by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” — H.L. Mencken
    “We have to offer up scary scenarios… each of us has to decide the right balance between being effective and being honest.” –Stephen Schneider, lead ipcc author, 1989

  6. Doug proctor says:

    Am reading Superfreakonomics, by Levitt and Dubner. Chapter on What Al Gore and Mt. Pinatubo Have In Common: really recommend you read this. Not very helpful to the Cause that very smart, environmentally-oriented, Nobel-prize winning, ex-Micorsoft, Bill Gates supported physicists describe the hysterial claims by Al et al as implausible, overstated, magical and impossible. Plus explain how a $1.2 trillion idea in the UK gets full support while a $50 million test is described by Gore as “nuts”.

    Check it out. The book is in paperback with and without fancy pictures (the “3D” version).

  7. Another Ian says:

    Does FakeGate fit in here?

  8. George says:

    There’s this that explains how certain organizations actually make a business out of blowing fear out of proportion:

    That is Fenton Communications’ primary method of operating and it is quite good at it. When combined with “astroturfing” where rather than a single large organization being created, they intentionally create many small ones with different names so that a “movement” would seem to be more “organic”. A recent example would be the Keystone pipeline issue. People would have thought that they were trying to put the pipeline across a pristine wilderness or something when the route proposed is *already* traversed by dozens of pipelines already! So why oppose the pipeline? Because that oil is currently being hauled by Warren Buffet’s railroad, Burlington Northern, and building the pipeline would result in his railroad losing a lot of freight. Rail transport of oil us much riskier to the environment and travels by essentially the same route the pipeline would take. And the only reason the federal government had to be involved was because the pipeline crossed the border. So it looks like they are going to build it anyway up to the border and wait for a change in administration to do the final connection. In the meantime it will transport oil from North Dakota.

  9. Verity Jones says:

    @Doug Proctor,
    A couple of my work colleagues have read Superfreakonomics. I know they were warmist beforehand. I must ask them if it made them think at all…? (I’ve learned the hard way that asking about changing minds usually meets with a defensive response.)

    Great band REM. Yes – I feel fine!

    @Another Ian
    I suppose it does. I’ve been dying to write something about it, but the timing was bad for me and it would only be a ‘me too’ one now. I did start to write something over the weekend, but my heart wasn’t in it as it was no longer fresh. I worked very long hours in January and I’m still recovering, sleeping long hours at weekends.

    A few years ago I read and really enjoyed “Risk; the science and politics of fear” by Dan Gardiner. I have worked as a technical specialist in relation to risk in the environmental sector so I can’t say it was all new to me, but find the Fenton Communications stuff (and Futerra “Rules of the Game” in the UK quite chilling.

  10. David says:

    I like to think of it as the Henny-Penny effect. And that didn’t end well for her friends.

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