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Calling for extraordinary measures to prevent potential disaster is a well-known rhetorical tactic in the environmental movement. The precautionary principle holds that even in the face of scientific uncertainty, society should take action to minimize the harm of threats that cross a certain threshold of danger. Usually, it's scientists and tree huggers who summon the precautionary principle—Y2K was one of the few times we saw government officials and corporate leaders do so.
the most important difference between Y2K and global warming is the cultural attitude surrounding each case. Y2K never became a moral issue. It was always framed as a simple design error.
The debate over climate change, meanwhile, has always been as much a social and political argument as a scientific one. "Climate change brings into view questions about modern society in general," the Australian scientist says. It's not just a question of what fuel we should use to power the planet—there are questions about where we should live, what we should eat, how we should travel. It's become a general debate over modernity itself.
Because of this fundamental distinction, Davison doubts that the lessons from Y2K will have much resonance when it comes to global warming. Indeed, in a perverse way, the planet's success in fighting Y2K might actually hamper anti-global-warming efforts. Just look at how people reacted when nothing much went wrong after Jan. 1, 2000. They concluded that the whole thing had been a ruse.
"To capture the public imagination, we have to offer up some scary scenarios, make simplified dramatic statements and little mention of any doubts one might have.
Each of us has to decide the right balance between being effective, and being honest."