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Why scare tactics won't stop climate change

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Doomsday scenarios don’t inspire action

NASA ICESCAPE, melt ponds on Arctic sea ice Photo by Kathryn Hansen/NASA

Some climate scientists are pushing back against a bleak portrayal of the coming climate apocalypse that was published Sunday night in New York magazine. The cover story’s vivid and doom-heavy forecast won’t help the fight against climate change, they argue. In fact, it’s possible these scare tactics could do just the opposite.

The story, the “The Uninhabitable Earth,” trails the four horsemen as they thunder after runaway carbon emissions. Natural disasters could become so common that “we will just start calling them ‘weather,’” journalist David Wallace-Wells writes. New and long-dead viruses might emerge from thawing ice. Famine and mass migrations may fuel wars. And parts of the Earth could become almost uninhabitable by the end of the century.

To put it mildly, it’s an unsettling take on the future of our planet — and people are paying attention. The story has been shared more than 375,000 times on Facebook, Crowdtangle reports. But some climate scientists say that the piece describes extreme and unlikely worst-case scenarios. And just as there’s a danger in understating the risks of climate change, climate scientist Michael Mann wrote on Facebook, “[T]here is also a danger in overstating the science in a way that presents the problem as unsolvable, and feeds a sense of doom, inevitability, and hopelessness.”

This critique is a wake-up call for journalists, like me. Covering climate change can feel frustratingly like screaming into the void. In the face of climate denial, the temptation is to yell louder about more frightening consequences. “I look at the world we live in now and it seems to me like complacency is just so much of a bigger problem when it comes to responding to climate change than fatalism,” Wallace-Wells says in an interview with The Verge. “There are probably some people who are ‘burnt out’ or who have ‘given up,’ but I think the much bigger issue is that in general the public doesn’t appreciate the kind of threat we face.”

The public’s certainly listening now — and that’s a good thing, says Edward Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University. “I applaud every journalistic effort to report on climate change,” he says in an email to The Verge. “The biggest problem is the ‘climate silence’ in America.” But the balance between sharing alarming information, and being alarmist, is tricky.

To be clear, the vast majority of scientists agree that climate change is real and dangerous, that we’re driving it, and that we can and should fight it. The question is whether apocalyptic climate change narratives are the best way to communicate these dangers.

Research about the persuasiveness of scare tactics is somewhat mixed. Some argue that in certain situations, scary stories can make people change their ways — especially if those changes are easy, and the stories not overly frightening. But the balance of evidence seems to lean more heavily on the side that fear by itself just isn’t very effective at motivating people to change. (Remember Reefer Madness?)

In fact, scare tactics can backfire when people put up their psychological defenses against the threatening information, rather than defending against the threat itself. These can include paying less attention to a frightening message, or straight up denial about the extent of the danger, a 2014 review of the literature reports. “Truly scary information has a nasty tendency to get ignored — because [people] don't want to learn it or think about it,” Maibach agrees.

Part of the problem is that people tend to prioritize their lived experiences over abstract, future predictions, like the ones about how climate change could reshape our planet. That’s why Eric Steig, a glaciologist at the University of Washington, doesn’t talk about polar bears when he inevitably finds himself discussing his work on a plane or in a coffee shop. “The last thing I would want to suggest is to self-censor against some scenarios because they’re scary — because there are some scary scenarios out there,” he says. “Is it scary if polar bears are going to be extinct? To the extent that you care about that, sure.” In reality, species go extinct all the time, but that affects few people directly.

Instead, Steig focuses on trying to draw people’s attention to the more mundane and approachable effects of climate change. Like, for example, the fact that engineers on a massive tunnel project in his hometown of Seattle are accounting for future sea level rise. “That’s a narrative of, ‘This is a serious issue that we have to take seriously.’ That’s different than ‘we’re going to die tomorrow,’” he says. He worries that otherwise, hyperbole can strain scientific credibility. “If they think it’s over the top, which most people would, then they think scientists are over the top,” he says. “So then they buy into the narrative that scientists are being political, and extreme.”

Even when scare tactics do grab people’s attention, they need to be paired with clear action items to drive change, the research suggests. When the climate apocalypse movie The Day After Tomorrow hit theaters in 2004, researchers surveyed viewers. Initially, Jake Gyllenhaal's plight boosted people’s concern about climate change and most felt that “everyone has to do something.” But that “something” wasn’t clear. After a month, viewers’ sense of urgency retreated. One particularly self-aware viewer responded, “Unfortunately I have to say that my awareness and involvement and concern will fade away until the next thing triggers it to the forefront.”

That’s why Maibach recommends dialing back the fear, and dialing up messages of hope and the efficacy of individual actions, like buying from companies that run on clean energy, and using energy-efficient products. “There is no magic bullet to solve these challenges,” Maibach says in an email. “But we do know that people do tend to learn simple clear messages (about problems) that get repeated often by a variety of people whom they trust.”

Atmospheric scientist Andrew Dessler agrees. “I think it’s important to not discourage people — you don’t want to go from denial to despair,” he says. Dessler, however, has a somewhat more cynical view on individual, virtuous action. “Individual actions are not going to make a huge amount of difference,” he says. “But the things that do help are voting for elected representatives that share your concern for the climate.”

In the end, even though they may disagree about the best strategy, climate scientists and Wallace-Wells agree that there’s an urgent need to convince readers to care about climate change. “One raindrop doesn’t carve a canyon, but enough raindrops will,” Dessler says. It will take a flood of raindrops to start carving away at climate change. “Hopefully we’ll win soon enough that we can avoid the worst-case scenarios.”