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Climate communication: Is fear + collective action a winning strategy?

Saturday, March 6th, 2010

In a previous post from my series on why people don’t engage climate change, I described my interpretations of work by Susanne Moser and Lisa Dilling1, which suggested that the use of fear can be a poor way to motivate behavioral changes to deal with climate warming:

Challenge 6: Fear can change perception but not willingness to take action and can lead to counterintuitive behaviors (like the “SUV effect”)

2006 was a watershed year in public opinion on climate change.  Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and Time Magazine’s famous polar bear cover had the world scared to death about climate change.  They grabbed people’s attention and raised awareness, but they didn’t do much to galvanize widespread action against climate warming.  As we’ll see in the next post, 82% of Americans have not engaged the issue of climate change personally.

Even worse, if people become fearful of climate change, it could encourage counterintuitive behaviors.  For example, people might think, if it really does get stormier or icier in my area, I will need the SUV because it has 4-wheel drive.  The irony is not lost, given that large vehicles and their greenhouse gas emissions are part of the reason why we have climate warming in the first place.

When I first saw the Time cover, I thought that mainstream media is finally getting climate change and that people would start demanding action.  Now I’m not so sure fear is an effective tactic for driving change.

I also noted in that post that when people are fearful but don’t know what to do in the face of complex problems like climate warming, there can be a tendency to do nothing.

New research by Martijn van Zomeren and colleagues in the Journal of Environmental Psychology2 is beginning to challenge these views (emphasis added):

An inconvenient truth, the book and documentary by Nobel-prize laureate and former US Vice-President Al Gore, is a real-life example of the presumed power of psychology to increase pro-environmental behavior by telling individuals what they could do, and by telling them what to fear if they fail to do this. Although many applauded Gore’s efforts to raise environmental awareness and action, there was a danger that the fear invoked by his message could be counter-productive. Raising fear about the consequences of smoking and safe sex, for example, is thought to undermine health behavior if individuals do not have a sufficient sense of efficacy to transform their fear into action. Without such a sense of self-efficacy, fear is thought to lead individuals to protect themselves against their fear (rather than to take action to reduce the cause for fear). A key aim of this paper is to challenge this pessimistic conclusion.

Although we believe concern for the counter-productive effects of fear appeals is warranted, we think that self-protective responses are most likely in the context of individual problems such as individual health behavior. When individuals perceive a problem as an individual problem, their individual action should be best predicted by their self-efficacy beliefs. Unlike smoking and safer sex, however, one can perceive the climate crisis as a collective problem that requires collective action. Collective action is aimed at promoting collective interests, even if it is pursued by individuals. When individuals perceive a problem as collective, their collective action should be best predicted by their group efficacy beliefs – the belief that group goals can be achieved through joint effort.

This team is arguing that fear of climate warming impacts needs to be coupled with a clear message that

  • climate warming is a collective-action problem;
  • people can work together effectively to deal with climate warming.

In a series of experiments with university students in the Netherlands, the researchers manipulated climate fear (fear vs. no fear) and collective action efficacy (group action can be effective vs. no information about group action) through the use of different sets of readings.

After completing the different sets of readings, the students ranked in the following order (highest to lowest) in terms of their intentions to take actions on climate warming:

  • fear + group action can be effective
  • no fear + group action can be effective
  • fear + no information on group action
  • no fear + no information on group action

What’s interesting about this is the apparent importance on providing information on how collective action can be important.  Their results suggested that even students who were not given fearful messages about climate warming were still willing to take action on warming if shown how to do so.

This brings us back to one of my points in the earlier post.

Challenge 3:  Specific warming impacts and solutions are seldom conveyed clearly

Rather than just telling people that warming will be bad and we should all be afraid, warming advocates should state examples of how the impacts will be experienced by people in a specific region and specific steps that people can take to help adapt to or mitigate them.  Empower people to become part of the solutions process rather than letting them sit on the sidelines. Climate warming is not a spectator sport.

To paraphrase FDR:  The only thing we have to fear is fear (when used by) itself.

It’s an interesting idea, although I’m not yet convinced for several reasons:

  • I’d like to see how well this resonates with working-class America rather than students from a country like the Netherlands where people are much more likely to be socially conditioned to take action on climate warming.   Put another way, in certain cultural contexts, fear + solutions may work.  In others, fear + anything may turn people off.
  • As I mentioned above, research suggests that 82% of Americans have not engaged the issue of climate change personally.   Is there really a lack of information on what we can do collectively to deal with climate warming, or is there a lack of interest in taking collective action?  I think it’s both.  So long as climate warming solutions are framed in terms of national or international policy (cap and trade or C taxes) or matters of renewable energy innovation and investment, people will feel like they have little leverage to engage either of these approaches—either individually or collectively.
  • One might argue that collective action can be promulgated as political action at local, state, and federal levels.   However, the deep cynicism about the efficacy of federal institutions may dissuade people from investing the effort.  And when the world continues to struggle with the recession and unemployment, jobs will usually trump collective action on climate.
  • It’s a complex story with multiple layers of cultural and economic confounding factors.  Just as scientific evidence seldom speaks for itself, clear pathways for collective action may not translate to greater action either.

1Susanne Moser and Lisa Dilling (2004) Making Climate Hot: Communicating the Urgency and Challenge of Global Climate Change. Environment

2Martijn van Zomeren, Russell Spears, Colin Wayne Leach (2010). Experimental evidence for a dual pathway model analysis of coping with the climate crisis Journal of Environmental Psychology : 10.1016/j.jenvp.2010.02.006


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3 Responses to “Climate communication: Is fear + collective action a winning strategy?”

  1. [...] here: Climate communication: Is fear + collective action a winning … Tags: climate, climate-crisis, consequences, fear, message, safe-sex, safer-sex, the-fear [...]

  2. JD says:

    I find it interesting that you wonder why American are unlikely to combat climate change without even addressing te percentage of American who are convinced that 1) CO2 is the only, or even the primary cause of the 1 degree of warming we’ve seen in the last century, or 2) that warming, and any possible future warming – if caused by man made CO2 increases – will ever constitute a crisis.

    My read is that Americans aren’t convinced on either of those two points. You’re apparoaching this from an advocate’s standpoint, as does Al Gore. You’re convinced, which leads you to ask questions like this. Many others aren’t convinced with that the surface temperature record is reliable, wonder about urban heat island biases, and have seen climate scientists act in ways that are increasingly like advocates.

    Since the emails from East Anglica were made public, and in the recent furor over the IPPC’s use of non-peer reviewed literature, we’ve seen the ‘settled science’ begin to unravel a bit. It’s not quite as settled as some would have us believe, and the vast majority of the American people are not idiots. They can see what’s happening.

    My advice – instead of handwringing over why people ‘just don’t get it’, and trying to craft a marketing campaign to sell it to them, first ensure the product you’re selling is the same one you’re advertising.

  3. Dan Mandle says:

    Love your blog! Nature mag ran some reporting last year that also described how fear-tinged messaging was counterproductive in the struggle to manage global warming. The Center for Research on Environmental Decisions also offers a free booklet on this subject. I work in the communications business (I.e., marketing) and we saw a study recently about how antialcohol and antidrug messages targeting teens actually increase use of those substances when those messages are negative.
    Disclosure: Bowdoin grad, Class of ’99. Part of the team behind the Hopenhagen campaign in the months leading up to the UN COP15 sessions in Copenhagen.


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