chapter  12
The artful creation of global moral panic: Climatic folk devils, environmental evangelicals, and the coming catastrophe
BySheldon Ungar
Pages 18

Moral panic studies has been critically reassessed in the past few years. In their totality, revisions to moral panic studies pry open virtually every aspect of moral panic, ranging from debates about definition to whether the concept should be retained or superseded. Hier (2008), for example, seeks to subsume moral panic in a broader conception of the moralization of everyday life. Critcher (2009) critically examines moral regulation and concludes that it ultimately obscures moral panic studies. In striking contrast, Waiton (2008) proffers ‘a new framework of amoral panics’, and Goode and Ben-Yehuda (2009) update their conventional model by seeking to rebuff skeptical approaches. In what follows, I do not revisit these deliberations but, rather, selectively examine

key issues that emerge from applying moral panic to climate change. By venturing outside the conventional range of topics – i.e., deviance and youth – I throw moral panic into relief by examining its applicability and utility in a disparate domain. But to apply the concept to something as far afield as climate change begs the question, ‘What is a moral panic?’ The conventional use of the concept invariably involves some tacit assumptions or knowledge and exemplars of past practices that help identify relevant cases and procedures for analysis. No hidden consensus operates for climate change, creating the conundrum of demonstrating that moral panic applies even as the effort is being made to evaluate its nature and utility. Given the various conceptual contortions it has been recently put through, it is not immediately obvious whether extending its range will help to focus or clarify it or simply generate a more distended hybrid. As compared to the paradigmatic moral panic involving localized issues of youth

and social control, climate change is a unique and challenging issue. It has been on the global agenda for more than 20 years, and the evolving series of worldwide moral panics over climate are simply unprecedented. To capture something of the progression of these far-reaching moral panics, this chapter offers a number of empirically

grounded revisions to the concept. Given that climate change has been around for more than two decades, a distinction is drawn between ‘low-grade’ panics and episodes of volatility. Low-grade panic creation is aimed at maintaining and stoking a generalized sense of awareness and concern, effectively keeping the threat warm. These commonplace background claims are in turn punctuated by episodes of volatility – upsurges of dread-inspiring claims and actions purposively timed to correspond to planned events like the Copenhagen Conference or built around opportunistic real-world events like Hurricane Katrina. There is a wide range of climate advocates, a term used here to encompass major

claims makers, including activist scientists, political leaders, bureaucrats and environmentalists, as well as the supportive media. Where climate change commenced as an elite engineered panic led by scientists, it has gone on to encompass various interest and grass-roots groups (Goode and Ben-Yehuda 2009).1 For the most part, these assorted advocates possess only a limited understanding of this ‘post-normal science’ (this is elaborated later), and hence must rely extensively on the claims made by climatologists. By implication, a distinction is made between weak and strong disproportionality. Weak disproportionality is used to describe the claims made by (lay) climate advocates who generally present the direst threats that can be sanctioned by the official and ostensibly consensual science of climate change; it fits the realm of social rationality (cf. Hier 2003), where claims makers strive to make threats visible to members of the public. Strong disproportionality refers to skeptical challenges to the official science itself, with allegations that climatologists are (more or less) knowingly distorting the certainty of the science and exaggerating the likely effects of a changing climate. Strong disproportionality fits the realm of scientific rationality, where debate is centered on the validity of climate science itself. The chapter takes a biographical approach, and the argument is as follows. Initially,

global warming proved to be an unwieldy issue for the creation of moral panics.2 But after years of misdirected efforts, climate advocates were able to artfully generate an unprecedented series of global moral panics related to climate. Artfulness in this context is necessitated by a number of exceptional challenges. For one, climate advocates must continually orchestrate and hype concern and outrage without letting on that claims are being systematically sensationalized or distorted. They must also render fear axiomatic in the absence of the socially marginalized folk devils found in most panics. And they must reconfirm moral values without alienating the broad swath of people whose life-style is inevitably rendered suspect. Ultimately, the challenge of artfulness is revealed by the partial collapse of the climate consensus in the past few years. With the use of the Internet by skeptics to challenge the consensus, a segment of climate scientists seemingly overreacted and unleashed moral shocks that exposed the machinations of panic creation and undermined a good deal of the trust invested in the climate story. Given this ongoing biography and the conceptual renovations it seems to call for,

this chapter is essentially examining whether climate change is appositely analyzed as a series of moral panics. In other words, is our understanding of moral panic advanced in some demonstrable way? And in reverse, is our grasp of the marketing of climate

change rendered more intelligible? It is of course easier to ask such questions than to answer them.