In an emergency, speak up

by Milan on February 1, 2011

in Climate change, Climate science, Ethics

There is a long section in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers where he talks about the causes of plane crashes. One important cause he identifies is excessive deference to authority. Members of the cabin crew see big problems, but are afraid to speak up. They provide little hints rather than clear guidance. Captains can also be too deferential to air traffic controllers, failing to convey the fact that a very serious situation has arisen. To avoid catastrophe, there must be a time when people say to themselves: “To hell with politeness, this is a crisis.”

It seems to me that the definition of an ’emergency’ could be: a time when the normal rules of business should be suspended. I think the airline example can have some value as an analogy when it comes to how we respond to climate change. As individuals, we have very good reasons to see it as an emergency. The world’s science academies agree that the problem is real and dangerous, and it is clear that governments aren’t doing nearly enough to address it. We are flying the plane into the mountain, so it is not only acceptable but essential that people speak up about it.

People have a natural hesitation about raising the alarm. It draws attention to you when you do it, and there is always some chance that you are overreacting or making an incorrect judgment. At the same time, it seems clear that we should be forgiving when it comes to honest mistakes made by people who think an emergency has arisen. For one thing, a moderate number of false alarms can be beneficial. They let us practice our emergency procedures and remind people that things can indeed go wrong. For another, the cost of missing the warning signs of a crisis and running straight into it is so large that the smaller costs of a few false alarms are worthwhile, it they mean a big crisis might be avoided.

As such, I think a strong case can be made that people concerned about climate change can be excused for circumventing some ordinary procedures. Staying quiet may be individually safe and comfortable, but it creates serious risks for everybody if the problem being ignored is serious enough.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

. February 1, 2011 at 10:15 pm

Mitigated speech is a linguistic term describing deferential or indirect speech inherent in communication between individuals of perceived High Power Distance which has been in use for at least two decades with many published references.

The term was recently popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Outliers, where he defines mitigated speech as “any attempt to downplay or sugarcoat the meaning of what is being said”

Milan February 1, 2011 at 10:18 pm

This seems like mitigated speech to me:

Unmitigated climate change would, in the long term, be likely to exceed the capacity of natural, managed and human systems to adapt.

This statement from the IPCC seems to be saying that if climate change goes far enough, humanity and the natural world simply will not be able to deal with it, no matter how much we choose to spend on adaptation measures. I don’t think the strength and importance of that claim comes through with this language, though.

Much of what is written about climate is even more opaque.

. February 22, 2012 at 9:11 pm

Related: Warnings ignored

. May 14, 2012 at 8:26 pm

Stories of resistance
Shades of grey
When it is right to say “no”

Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times. By Eyal Press. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 196 pages; $24. Buy from

YOU have a decent job and work hard. You keep your nose clean, respect authority and have never joined a protest march. Suddenly you have the bad luck to face a cruel and seemingly impossible choice. Your superiors tell you to do something outrageous or unacceptable. Do you obey or, at grave personal cost, refuse? In “Beautiful Souls”, a subtle and thoughtful book, Eyal Press, an American journalist, tells the stories of four very ordinary people who, in widely different times, places and circumstances, surprised themselves by saying “no”.

This morally courageous foursome includes a Swiss police official who broke the law in 1938 by giving entry permits to Jewish refugees; a Serb who, at risk to his own life, saved captured Croats from summary execution during the Serb-Croat war in 1991; an Israeli special-forces soldier in the occupied territories who could no longer stomach orders to protect Israeli settlers who were doing wrong, as he saw it, to Palestinian farmers; and a mid-ranking whistle-blower in a Texas investment company accused of fraud.

K0cAIPsydM August 2, 2013 at 12:56 am

–that guy’s photographing me as I’m talking and it’s freaking me out [laughs] [laughter]

. August 30, 2015 at 6:52 am

“If they think there are problems with a government policy, it’s their job to point it out,” he said. “In this government, speaking truth to power has not been encouraged, to put it mildly.”

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