Fear Doesn't Work as Climate Change Message


A group of ten climate change researchers has called on the scientific community to establish a new initiative “to actively and effectively share information about climate change risks and potential solutions with the public, particularly decision-makers in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors.”

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Writing in the Nov. 19 issue of the journal Science, the researchers, led by Thomas Bowman of the Climate Solutions Project, argue that “in the face of efforts to undermine public confidence in science,” there is a need for “a trusted broker of unbiased information for people on all sides of the issue.”

Alas, even the most reliable nonpartisan evidence is not always enough. Consider the case of Rep. John Shimkus, vying to become chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who acknowledged after making a trip to Greenland that climate change is taking place, but questioned the need for action because, “I do believe in the Bible as the final word of God. And I do believe that God said the Earth would not be destroyed by a flood.”

On a more secular level, a new study slated for publication in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science suggests that sometimes, the most powerful evidence for the impacts of climate change, far from convincing people of the need to take action, may instead force them into the oppsite direction, namely denying that the evidence can possibly be true:

Although scientific evidence attests to the existence and severity of global warming, high rates of people in the U.S. and elsewhere increasingly see global warming as non-existent, exaggerated, or unrelated to human activities. Because scientists agree that large-scale action will be necessary to counteract the effects of global warming, environmental advocates often engage in public appeals designed to increase rates of pro-environmental behaviors and promote support for initiatives aimed at counteracting climate change. These appeals often emphasize the severity of potential consequences, relying on messages that highlight the dire risks associated with unchecked global warming.
But what if these appeals are in fact counter-productive? We contend that one cause of global warming skepticism may be that such dire messages threaten individuals’ need to believe that the world is just, orderly, and stable, a motive that is widely held and deeply ingrained in many people. Research [...] has demonstrated that when individuals’ need to believe in a just world is threatened, they commonly employ defensive responses, such as dismissing or rationalizing the information that threatened their just world beliefs.

The study’s authors, Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer of the University of California, Berkeley, found that messages about climate change can generate this kind of defensive reaction by “emphasizing the harm that will be done to children” and “suggesting that good people will be punished.”

In addition, they found evidence that “this dire messaging led to reduced intentions among participants to reduce their carbon footprint — an effect driven by their increased global warming skepticism.”

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They speculate that one reason why such skepticism is especially pronounced in the United States is that Americans may have a greater belief in the concept of a “just world” than inhabitants of other countries.

Feinberg and Miller measured the reactions of two groups of people — Berkeley undergraduates and volunteers from 30 U.S. cities recruited via Craigslist — to news articles and imagery that alternately emphasized the “doom-and-gloom” aspect of climate change and ended in a positive manner by, for example, referring to human ingenuity and the availability of positive solutions.

They found that individuals exposed to the latter were far more likely to express a belief that global warming is occurring as well as a willingness to undertake personal action to reduce their carboon footprint.

“Our findings extend past research showing that fear-based appeals, especially when not coupled with a clear solution, can backfire and undermine the intended effects of messages,” they conclude.

Image by Nomadz via Wikimedia Commons

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