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The Misconception of Immediacy


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Irrational Fear Substack

Timescales in Earth Science and Climate Communication
Dr. Matthew Wielicki
Apr 02, 2024

Timescales play a pivotal role in Earth science, serving as a fundamental concept that underscores the vast and often subtle processes shaping our planet. Throughout my teaching experiences at the University of Alabama, I've encountered firsthand the challenges students face in grasping the profound impact of small-scale changes over extensive periods. This difficulty primarily lies in our inherent limitations in perceiving long-term changes, making it challenging to appreciate how incremental alterations can culminate in monumental consequences, such as the formation of ocean basins.

However, timescales are an often overlooked component in the public discourse on climate change, particularly in narratives that prioritize immediacy over scientific accuracy. This oversight can sometimes be observed in the communications of climate advocates and public figures, including notable instances like those by Neil deGrasse Tyson, which at the time of this article had 5M views.

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By illustrating dramatic future scenarios, such as the significant alteration of the USA's coastline due to the complete melting of ice caps, these messages aim to stir public fear and prompt action against climate change. While the underlying intention may be to educate the public about climate, omitting the relevant timescales can lead to misconceptions about the immediacy of such outcomes.

The portrayal of these future landscapes without a clear reference to the extensive timescales involved—such as the 166,000 years required for all ice caps to melt at current rates—conveys a sense of impending doom that is not in line with scientific projections. This framing elicits an immediate emotional response (irrational fear) and contributes to the skewed perception of climate change risks. For the general public, the distinction between what could happen within a century and what might unfold over thousands of years is crucial for understanding the urgency and the nature of actions required to mitigate climate change.

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Earth's History Compressed in One Year

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