Putting the 'Fear' in Climate Change

dark window.jpg 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… – Saffron O’Neill and Sophie Nicholson-Cole, 2009 According to Daniel Gardner, author of book The Science of Fear, good science, with all its proper caveats and degrees of uncertainty, does not lend itself to scary headlines and shocking one-line summaries. But fear and stories of conflict often ‘make it’ in journalistic news. So do scientists need to radically change the way they talk about the science of climate change to make it ‘scary’?

Do scientists and climate communicators really need the ‘scary’ headlines and alarming facts to get media coverage? Maybe so…

But do scary headlines and alarming facts really increase public awareness and concern about climate change?

The answer to this second question is not so clear…

According to a study by researchers at the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research in the UK, fear-inducing messages on climate change are widely used in the public domain. But, the researchers claim, some literature suggests that using fearful representations of climate change may actually be counterproductive. This 2009 study found that fear is not a useful tool for motivating genuine personal engagement with climate change and action.

Newell and Pitman (2010) provide the following tip to climate change communicators:

Use vivid images of global warming, like shrinking glaciers and melting ice sheets, to engage emotional processing, but do so judiciously to avoid emotional numbing or a ‘despair’ response.

Global climate change is occurring as more energy is entering our planet’s atmosphere than is leaving, setting up a net energy imbalance that can produce negative consequences for the climate system and delicate ecosystems.

Imagine you hear that the total energy imbalance of the Earth is now 6/10ths of a Watt per square meter. Not so bad right? But what if you hear the following:

400,000 Hiroshima atomic bomb explosions per day, 365 days per year – that is how much extra energy Earth is now gaining each day due to human-emitted greenhouse gasses.

Sound a bit scarier? Renowned climate scientist James Hansen used this analogy in his recent 2010 Ted Talk ‘Why I must speak out about climate change’. Although I personally applaud Hansen’s communication efforts, fearful images of atomic bombs may not be the best way to engage the public…

Are fear-based messaging tactics doing anything to increase public concern about and engagement in climate change? Climate communicators have defined engagement as a state of connection comprising cognition, emotion, and behavior. There is much that individuals can do to mitigate climate change, when around 1/3rd of greenhouse gas emissions are the result of energy use in the home and personal travel. Avoiding the more severe impacts of climate change requires action on many levels, including the personal level. But to make public engagement happen, we need a concerned and aware public. To get a concerned and aware public, we need appropriate communications on the part of scientists, politicians, and the media alike.

Fear-inducing phrases, messages, and images of climate change are rampant in today’s media environment:

“It is a terrible, immense, and apocalyptic problem, beyond human control.”

According to researchers at the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research, the well-known IPCC Working Group I report on climate change did not include words like catastrophic, shocking, terrifying, or devastating – all words that appeared in the media in relation to the IPCC report.

This type of language is reflective of fear appeal: a persuasive communication attempt designed to arouse fear in order to promote precautionary motivation and self-protective action. (Ruiter, Abraham, & Kok, 2001)

Global climate change isn’t an issue that the public can sink their teeth into – it is distant and abstract. So how can scientists and science communicators elicit public concern and engagement without using strong language and even fear appeals?

For starters, researchers of the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research study found that many individuals already have a baseline fear about climate change. Participants in their study said things like:

It just seems all kind of out of control. The whole world does. I mean, if you think about it too much, it’s rather scary. How’s it all going to end up? I don’t know if I’ll want to be around.

Instead of using fear, many climate change communications studies suggest that making climate change personally relevant and salient to everyday life would do more for public concern and engagement than strict efforts at fear appeals (M. Nisbet). If people don’t understand how climate change is going to affect them, they are not going act.

But here we have another problem, because when it comes to specific local impacts, there is still much scientific uncertainty. We can be 99% sure that global climate change is occurring due to human activities, and that it will have local impacts, but as of yet science can’t tell local residents exactly what the impacts will look like. But regardless, efforts at engaging publics with personally and community relevant messaging on climate change, and communications efforts that promote concern without fear, may perhaps be effective.

People also must feel that they can DO something about climate change… they must feel empowered… and fear doesn’t seem to give an impression of empowerment for action.

O’Neil and Nicholson-Cole, Researchers at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, concluded in their 2009 study:

Fearful representations of climate change appear to be memorable and may initially attract individuals’ attention. However, they can also act to distance and disempower individuals in terms of their sense of personal engagement with the issue.

The disengagement outcome of fear appeals is especially worrying for an issue such as climate change, which requires individual and well as collective and policy action if mitigation is to be effective. It looks like fear isn’t all it’s cracked up to be when it comes to global warming. Scientists and communicators would do better to emphasize personal relevance, public frames of reference on the issue, everyday issues, and personal efficacy. What can you do about climate change? If you trust the science… a lot.

“On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but – which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands, and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings, as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of disastrous climate change. To do that we need to get some broad-based support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, means getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we may have. This ‘double ethical bind’ we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both.” – Stephen Schneider, Stanford climatologist, in interview with Discover magazine. In The Science of Fear by Daniel Gardner

Climate change and fear appeals… putting the ‘fear’ into children:


O’Neill, S., & Nicholson-Cole, S. (2009). “Fear Won’t Do It” Promoting Positive Engagement With Climate Change Through Visual and Iconic Representations. Science Communication, 30(3), 355-379.

Nisbet, M. Study Finds That Fear Won’t Don’t Do It: Why Most Efforts at Climate Change Communication Might Actually Backfire. Big Think http://bigthink.com/ideas/24991.