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Study Finds That Fear Won’t Don’t Do It: Why Most Efforts at Climate Change Communication Might Actually Backfire

Over the past few years, a growing body of research from the social sciences has pointed to one of the major challenges in communicating about climate change.  This research suggests that many political leaders, environmentalists, and scientists–by focusing narrowly on the risks of climate change– may unintentionally trigger disbelief, skepticism, or decreased concern among audiences.

A forthcoming study at the journal Psychological Science  by researchers at UC Berkeley provides further insight into these challenges, suggesting that what is needed is a shift in communication away from a focus on the threat of climate change to a much stronger focus on clear and realistic policy solutions.

Emphasis on Catastrophe and Threat

There has been much speculation about the reasons for a shift in public opinion in the U.S. on climate change since 2007.  In surveys, fewer people report concern over climate change, fewer report that they accept that human activities are causing climate change, and a growing number of Americans say that they believe that the news media exaggerate the problem. 

Speculation about the cause of these shifts tends to narrowly focus on the perceived influence of climate skeptics—and even single events such as “Climategate.”  Yet more parsimonious and likely explanations include the performance of the economy and as the emerging research suggests, a de-sensitization among segments of the public to climate change fear appeals, messages that peaked in 2007 with Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and the record amount of news attention to the climate issue, coverage that also tended to focus on extreme impacts and risks.

Many political leaders and environmental advocates–while citing scientific evidence–tend to emphasize, visualize, and portray the most dramatic of climate impacts.  These climate fear appeals, represented perhaps best in An Inconvenient Truth, focus on depictions of rising sea levels, the devastation from severe hurricanes and storms, and the threat to symbolic species such as the polar bear. These types of catastrophe narratives were also, as an example, vividly used in the video that launched last year’s Copenhagen meetings. In another example, prominent climate blogger Joe Romm has alternatively referred to climate change in terms such as “Hell and High Water,” [the title of his book] or “global weirding.”

Generally more careful in their discussion of extreme impacts, climate scientists also tend to use a language heavily steeped in threat, emphasizing terms such as “catastrophic,” “rapid,” “urgent,” “irreversible,” “chaotic,” and “worse than previously thought.”  President Obama’s science advisor John Holdren and others have also suggested that less euphemistic, more dramatic terms are needed than climate change or global warming suggesting instead that the problem be re-named “Global Climate Disruption.”

And given the amount of climate science that forecasts and draws attention to likely impacts and risks, journalists when reporting on new studies and research, tend to focus on these impacts.  A leading example appeared this past Sunday in a front page feature at the New York Times headlined “Rising Seas Predicted as Threat to Coastal Areas.”  Other examples include Elizabeth Kolbert’s New Yorker series and book “Field Notes From a Catastrophe.”

Gaining Public Attention But With Negative Consequences

A study published last year by researchers at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia, applies past research in health communication to understand the likely limitations and negative consequences of using fear appeals to engage the public on climate change. As the researchers note:

  • First, like any stimulus, individuals are likely to become desensitized to the message.  The public have a limited carrying capacity and finite pool of worry, especially when confronted as is the case today with extreme and immediate economic threats and risks. 
  • Second, dramatizing climate change in terms of the most extreme impacts and using exaggerated imagery also risks damaging trust in the messenger, whether it be environmentalists, scientists, political leaders or the media. 
  • Third, and perhaps most importantly, when individuals are confronted with messages that present risks which are perceived beyond their control to manage—and they are given little information about what can be done—they cope psychologically with that risk by engaging in self-denial (i.e. “Other people will get cancer, but I won’t” or “climate change is not real” or “the impacts of climate change won’t affect me.”)  Or they cope with the risk by becoming fatalistic and apathetic, believing that there is nothing to be done about a risk such as climate change.
  • In the Tyndall Centre study, through a series of interviews and focus groups with UK subjects, the researchers asked participants to describe the images that come to mind when thinking about climate change.  The most prominent images—not surprisingly—represented the dominant focus of communication from environmental advocates, some climate scientists, and in news reports.  These included  melting glaciers and icebergs, visions of the sea level rising and inundating coastal regions or countries, intense heat and droughts, landscape changes, impacts on human health (e.g., malaria, water and food shortages), and disastrous weather extremes.

    Yet while these vivid images were easily recalled and discussed by subjects, when asked how they felt about climate change, feelings of powerlessness, helplessness, and fatalism were reported.  Examples included:

    Obviously, from a personal point of view you can walk, use the car less and things like that, and recycle stuff. . . . But on a more sort of wider scale then, I don’t think that the individual has got enough power to do a lot.

    People feel like they can’t do anything. And to be honest, it’s not going to really have a massive effect anyway.

    Subjects also reported though, that in contrast to the “big,” remote, and catastrophic images they were most familiar with relative to climate change, what they would like to see are more “small” images about how climate change relates to their personal communities and lives, along with actions at the local level that can be taken.  Here is the conclusion to the study:

    Although shocking, catastrophic, and large-scale representations of the impacts of climate change may well act as an initial hook for people’s attention and concern, they clearly do not motivate a sense of personal engagement with the issue and indeed may act to trigger barriers to engagement such as denial and others described by Lorenzoni et al. (2007). The results demonstrate that communications approaches that take account of individuals’ personal points of reference (e.g., based on an understanding and appreciation of their values, attitudes, beliefs, local environment, and experiences)are more likely to meaningfully engage individuals with climate change. This was tested here in relation to nonexpert icons and locally relevant climate change imagery. More broadly, communication strategies must be in touch with the other concerns and pressures on everyday life that people experience. Such approaches can act to decrease barriers to engagement; for example, because the icons selected by nonexperts are often local or regional places that individuals care about and empathize with, such approaches are less likely to induce feelings of invulnerability than, say, a fear appeal.

    Belief in  a Just World as a Barrier to Climate Change Communication

    The study released today by Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer in the Department of Sociology at UC Berkeley builds on previous studies and theorizing on the unintended negative consequences of fear appeals.  In addition to the influences highlighted by the Tyndell Centre study, Feinberg and Willer also suggest that the tendency towards “belief in a just world” also serves as a psychological filter on fear based messages about climate change.   

    Belief in a just world is a widely researched construct in psychology with demonstrated relevance to public views on issues ranging from welfare reform to crime.  Strongly embedded in American culture and transcending political ideology, individuals who score high on a belief in a just world tend to view society as ordered by hard work and individual merit.  Future rewards await those who strive for them, and punishment awaits those who don’t work hard or break rules. 

    As Feinberg and Willer describe, messages of climate change catastrophe tend to violate and threaten how individuals who score high on this psychological tendency order and make sense of the world.  These climate messages—as was vividly depicted in the video for example that launched the Copenhagen meetings—often show innocent children and future generations as victims, groups who have done nothing individually to justify these punishments and harms. 

    To test their expectations about the interaction between dire messages and belief in a just world, the researchers recruited subjects from among UC Berkeley students and conducted a series of experiments observing reactions to different messages about climate posed in the form of news articles.   Here’s how the research and results are described in a news release from UC Berkeley:

    In the first of two experiments, 97 UC Berkeley undergraduates were gauged for their political attitudes, skepticism about global warming and level of belief in whether the world is just or unjust. Rated on a “just world scale,” which measures people’s belief in a just world for themselves and others, participants were asked how much they agree with such statements as “I believe that, by and large, people get what they deserve,” and “I am confident that justice always prevails over injustice.”

    Next, participants read a news article about global warming. The article started out with factual data provided by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change. But while half the participants received articles that ended with warnings about the apocalyptic consequences of global warming, the other half read ones that concluded with positive messages focused on potential solutions to global warming, such as technological innovations that could reduce carbon emissions.

    Results showed that those who read the positive messages were more open to believing in the existence of global warming and had more faith in science’s ability to solve the problem. Moreover, those who scored high on the just world scale were less skeptical about global warming when exposed to the positive message. By contrast, those exposed to doomsday messages became more skeptical about global warming, particularly those who scored high on the just world scale.

    In the second experiment, involving 45 volunteers recruited from 30 U.S. cities via Craigslist, researchers looked specifically at whether increasing one’s belief in a just world would increase his or her skepticism about global warming.

    They had half the volunteers unscramble sentences such as “prevails justice always” so they would be more likely to take a just world view when doing the research exercises. They then showed them a video featuring innocent children being put in harm’s way to illustrate the threat of global warming to future generations.

    Those who had been primed for a just world view responded to the video with heightened skepticism towards global warming and less willingness to change their lifestyles to reduce their carbon footprint, according to the results.

    From the conclusion to the article by Feinberg and Willer:

    These results demonstrate how dire messages warning of the severity of global warming and its presumed dangers can backfire, paradoxically increasing skepticism about global warming by contradicting individuals’ deeply held beliefs that the world is fundamentally just. In addition, we 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. Our results imply that because dire messaging regarding global warming is at odds with the strongly established cognition that the world is fair and stable, people may dismiss the factual content of messages that emphasize global warming’s dire consequences. But if the same messages are delivered coupled with a potential solution, it allows the information to be communicated without creating substantial threat to these individuals’ deeply held beliefs.

    Communicating Less about the Problem and More About the Solutions

    Besides demonstrating the inefficacy of fear appeals about climate change to engage the public, these two studies discussed also point to the need to communicate about specific policy solutions, especially if they are posed in the context of personally relevant actions and benefits. 

    In my own recently published research with Ed Maibach and colleagues, we find for example that even audience segments who tend to dismiss the validity of climate science or the problem of climate change respond favorably to mitigation-related policy actions when presented in the context of specific local or personal benefits to public health.

    These conclusions relative to the importance of communicating less about the problem and risks of climate change and more about specific viable policies that lead to tangible benefits are also emphasized in research reports done independently by progressive communication consultant Meg Bostrom and by conservative pollster Frank Luntz.

    Yet despite this convergence among a diversity of researchers regarding the limits of traditional appeals on climate change–and the need to focus less on scientific evidence about causes and risks and more on specific policy solutions–few major organizations appear to be moving in this direction.  Instead, with the newly elected Republican Congress, most attention appears to be focused on the need to ramp up media and public attention to climate science and the warnings of climate scientists, news pegs and spokespeople that by nature typically emphasize risks and leave unaddressed policy solutions.

    What we need instead of more scientific information and focus on risks, is to pursue a post-partisan plan for communicating climate change, one that creates the opportunities for Americans to learn, discuss, connect, and plan around specific regional and local solutions that inspire hope, directly involve the public, and lead to specific and tangible benefits.

    See Also:

    Eye on 2012: A PostPartisan Plan to Engage the Public on Climate Change

    At Slate, A Need for Diplomacy in the Climate Wars

    Study: Re-Framing Climate Change as a Public Health Issue

    Climate Scientists ataCrossroads: Muddling the Differences Between Public Engagement and Deficit-Model Activism

    Nisbet, M.C. (2009). Communicating Climate Change: Why Frames Matter to Public Engagement. Environment, 51 (2), 514-518. (HTML).

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    Nisbet, M.C. & Scheufele, D.A. (2009). What’s Next for Science Communication? Promising Directions and Lingering Distractions. American Journal of Botany, 96 (10), 1767-1778. (PDF)

    Maibach, E., Nisbet, M.C. et al. (2010). Reframing Climate Change as a Public Health Issue: An Exploratory Study of Public Reactions. BMC Public Health 10: 299 (HTML).

    Nisbet, M.C. (2009).  Knowledge Into Action:  Framing the Debates Over Climate Change and Poverty.  In P. D’Angelo & J. Kuypers, Doing News Framing Analysis:  Empirical, Theoretical, and Normative Perspectives.  New York: Routledge. [Link]


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