Risks, threats and vulnerability

Life is inherently risky. There is only one big risk you should avoid at all costs, and that is the risk of doing nothing.” Denis Waitley


The communication of relative risk is integral to environmental issues. Risk is frequently exaggerated, or totally underestimated. Consider air travel. Air travel is the safest form of mass transport, yet how many of us are afraid of flying? I can put my hand up straight away. Moreover, I am afraid of flying in big aeroplanes but not little ones! Once I flew in a small firefighting plane with a drunk pilot who flew down a steep mountain valley and buzzed the top of the trees in the forest, and I was not in the slightest afraid. If I were rational about risk, then I surely should have been afraid of the latter…where I was likely at extremely high risk of dying in an air crash! And how many of us are afraid of driving? I suppose it depends on where you live (I am afraid of driving in my home country of South Africa, but in my adopted country of Australia, I am not in the slightest afraid). But if you look at the degree of risk attached to both activities, driving is far more dangerous than flying. For example, using the metric, deaths by billion kilometers, you get the following table, and leaving aside the space shuttle, you can see that air travel is pretty safe[1]:

Deaths per billion journeys
Bus: 4.3
Rail: 20
Van: 20
Car: 40
Foot: 40
Water: 90
Air: 117
Bicycle: 170
Motorcycle: 1640
Space Shuttle: 14,925,373

As is shown above with the cars and aeroplanes, relative risk is frequently miscommunicated. Environmental issues are much the same, and arguably, many campaigns depend on this. Years ago, I had a brief contract working for a very large multinational environmental organization (they do a lot of really good stuff, so I am not going to name them). I was hired to run a campaign to highlight the shipping of nuclear waste (which is not necessarily a good thing, but is not the point of this article). I had to organize demonstrations, send out media releases, etc etc, all based around the fact that the ship might sink and the nuclear waste end up at the bottom of the sea.

I was provided with “fact” sheets, and told to emphasize the huge risk of this ship passing by, particularly that the area was prone to freak, giant waves. Because I am a researcher, I did a little digging into some of these statements, particularly the threat to the ship by the freak waves. I contacted the world expert into these waves and asked him if this were indeed the case. He answered, most certainly…but why on earth was I wasting my time protesting against shipping nuclear waste, which was one of the most controlled activities on the planet, when there were far more severe environmental risks that I would be better off focusing on?

My curiosity aroused, I asked, what? He said that many companies (and probably countries) had extremely unseaworthy ships which sailed under flags of convenience (registering a ship in another country to avoid regulations or operating costs, such as maintenance requirements[2]). These ships often carried highly toxic products, such as crude oil, other fossil fuels or dangerous chemicals, and because were not well maintained, tended to hug the shoreline…where they were most vulnerable to freak waves, not to mention hazards such as rocks and reefs. He told me that should one of those ships be sunk, it might cause vast environmental damage to sensitive shorelines, and that the risk of this happening was an order of magnitude higher than the nuclear waste ship sinking (the cargo of which was encased in a block of glass and metal) and controlled by international regulations.

But nuclear sounds so nasty and dangerous, why would anyone care about some old rust bucket? And of course, let me be very clear, there are indeed risks with nuclear waste, some of which are extremely serious. But the point is that the perception of the relative risk was completely incorrect.So, why do people not think rationally about risk? There are ten factors related to risk evaluation (under and over-estimation of risk), and I will detail these below[3][4][5]:

  1. Dread (and catastrophic potential). We are pretty useless at predicting the future, despite what late night TV psychics might claim. When we attempt to predict what might happen, we more often imagine terrible scenarios (i.e. that a tornado will destroy our home instead of just damaging a couple of cars). We are not rational about such risks, and the media know this. Many more people will buy a newspaper or click on a link if it has a sensationalist headline. This has recently been taken to extremes by some media outlets such as Upworthy and News Limited.
  2. Control and choice. The majority of us have a deep need for control over our lives, and often assume that we have more control than in reality. This is related to choice; having a choice between two activities of equal risk, we can minimize the risk, because we feel that choice gives us more control. This is one reason why we underestimate risks.
  3. Natural or man-made risks. We often think of natural disasters as less risky than man-made disasters. This is related to the point about control; we think we have more control over man-made disasters. On the other hand, sometimes the feeling of reduced control over natural disasters can make them seem all the more terrifying. This is related to intentional vs accidental events. For example, we may be terrified of the thought of bio-terrorism (using viruses to kill people) or Ebola but blithe about the risk of influenza. Yet, according to the World Health Organization, influenza kills between 250,000 and 500,000 people annually, and bio-terrorism kills approximately none.
  4. Children. Anything that is mooted as a risk to children is deemed greater than a risk to adults. This attitude gives rise to some countries being termed “nanny states, where any risk to children is legislated against. The anti-vaccination brigade use this argument very effectively, arguing incorrectly that vaccination is a greater risk to children than not being vaccinated. Although this is completely fallacious, the immediate risk of a vaccine injury seems more dangerous than the future risk of a preventable disease.
  5. Novelty. If we have never encountered a risk before, we might spend more time thinking about it, and thus assume it is more risky than it really is. We drive in cars almost every day, but underestimate their risk in comparison to aeroplanes, in which we might fly only once a year. That is why anomalous things are given so much emphasis in the media. We like to read about the unusual, but then we assume that the unusual is more common than it actually is. Some call this the “red car syndrome”; we rarely notice red cars on the road, until we buy one, then every second car seems to be red. This is also related to the human tendency to find patterns, even when they don’t exist.
  6. Publicity and media. This is paramount. If something receives a lot of media attention, we might assume the risk is a lot more significant. For example, in 2011, the State in which I live, Queensland Australia, had a major flood event. Some areas were badly flooded but very few were killed. However, the media inflated these floods to such an extent, that people overseas panicked, thinking their relatives were in extreme danger, when in reality, there was a lot of property damage, but very little risk unless someone did something really stupid, like driving on flooded roads.
  7. Propinquity. This means that a risk to me is seen as greater than a risk to someone else. This is related to the neighbourhood or personified effect, which I talk about later. If something is more immediate, and directly influences me, then I think it is a greater risk. A serious accident in my local suburb is of far greater importance than a thousand dying in one month in automobile accidents in another country. We may overestimate the risk, say to our own children, without knowledge of the facts (the driver might have been under the influence of drugs, speeding or had a medical condition, all or any of which may have made him or her much more likely to crash).
  8. Immediacy: We overestimate threats that are immediate rather than those that may occur sometime in the future. This is the most important reason why the risk of climate change is underestimated (and deliberately communicated as such). Those with vested interests overestimate the risks of taking action now (generally economic) and underestimate the risks of doing nothing (vast social, economic and environmental devastation). This is also related to the timing of something, and is sometimes called the frog in hot water syndrome. If something happens slowly and imperceptibly (i.e. a change in climate averages) it is likely to be taken less seriously than something happening in the short term (i.e. a flash flood).
  9. Risk-benefit tradeoff. If taking a risk can also lead to opportunities (i.e. gambling) then often performing a risky action can be viewed as less risky than it actually is.
  10. Trust. If we trust the other people involved, we are more likely to minimize the risk than if we don’t trust them. If I go climbing with my cousin who is a climbing instructor, I might feel more secure than say, going climbing with someone who I do not know, and “looks a bit dodgy”.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aviation_safety

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flag_of_convenience

[3] http://scienceblogs.com/thepumphandle/2013/01/16/how-do-we-perceive-risk-paul-slovics-landmark-analysis-2/

[4] http://changingminds.org/explanations/meaning/ten_risk-perception_factors.htm

[5] https://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2006/11/perceived_risk_2.html

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A quick update

This is an Australian brush turkey.


They like vegetable gardens! And particularly baby carrots (so it seems)


Here are some hints and tips on how to get deal with them. They are protected, and very interesting birds, but as you can see, they can do a lot of damage!


This is chicken wire! Hopefully it does the trick, especially when tomorrow, it is going to be adorned with a large plastic snake!




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The other veggie garden.

This is my veggie garden in the front yard. I’ve just planted cherry tomatoes, sugar snap peas, button squash, and spinach. I had great success with chillis (lethal Habanero, I use them to make chilli jam), swiss chard, and cherry tomatoes, but my zucchini got powdery mildew, so I need to watch the squash. I also have basil, thyme, mint and rocket.

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I live in a rented house, or I’d dig up all the lawn and plant veggies, as the front garden gets great sun all day!


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Self Watering Planting Boxes

Hi, this is a rundown on how I made some self watering veggie boxes (based on this very inspirational man and his family (http://spurtopia.blogspot.com.au/2014/04/spurtopias-invention-self-watering.html#box)

What you need

  • Polystyrene boxes (I sourced these for free from the local fruit and veggie shop)
  • Some PVC downpipe (I get these from skips at building sites) These are great sources for garden/building etc material, as so much good stuff is thrown away
  • A hacksaw
  • A dogfood can
  • Some good potting mix
  • Some old papers
  • Plants (or seeds)

All of this cost me about $30 (for the seedlings, manure and potting soil)


I used two methods, one detailed in Roman’s blog post, and the other which I found on gardening websites (as I had two boxes with holes in the bottom and no lids).

Method 1

For the first method, I put the holey boxes in a sunny spot and filled the bottom with some torn up paper to about 6 inches (a great use for old bills/bank statements etc that you don’t want to throw away because of sensitive information. I had soaked these in water overnight)

I then filled the boxes with soil (from the bottom of the garden), cow manure (matured) and potting mix.

Method 2


I had four identical polystyrene boxes (broccoli boxes). I used two as bases and put them to the side. For each of the top boxes, I used a dog food can to mark three holes.


I then cut out the holes with a mini hacksaw.

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Then I measured the distance between the bottom of the base box and a bit higher than the top, and cut three sections of PVC guttering to fit.


I pushed these into the holes in the box (it is better that they are a tight fit)

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I then filled the holes with gravel (from the bottom of the garden, it had a lot of existing mulch)


I stuck in a longer section of pipe, so I could fill up the base of the box, then added torn bills and stuff to the bottom, above the gravel. I then started to fill the box up with garden soil, manure, compost and potting mix.

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Ready for planting!

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The new veggies! I put in Kale, Carrots, Asian lettuce mix and Bok Choy.

I’ll update on how they are going, and compare the results between Method 1 and 2.


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Evaluating the use of fear-based campaigns.

Fear based campaigns and environmental issues


Despite the potential problems with these, fear-based campaigns are frequently used to attempt to get people to change their environmental behaviour. As discussed above, fear-based appeals rely on two major techniques; they provide information to arouse fear of something, and that fear has to be seen as a direct threat to a person or group of persons; and they present simple techniques so people can do something about the problem. I’ll highlight a relatively recent example to show why these campaigns rarely work in environmental issues, and will use the extremely large issue of climate change, as attempts to use fear-based campaigns to induce people to change their behaviour to reduce GHG emissions have largely failed.

For example, at the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference, a video by the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, entitled, “Please Help the World” (http://youtu.be/NVGGgncVq-4)[1] was played at the opening ceremony. The video showed scenes of icebergs melting, starving children, cars being washed away in a flood, and a little girl going to sleep in bed with her teddy bear, and waking up in a desert, with an empty swing-set moving ominously in the wind. She then walks toward the swing, and the earth starts cracking behind her, and she drops her teddybear in a hole. When she turns to retrieve it, the sky darkens, ominous music plays, and water starts flooding the area, she climbs up a tree, as the water rushes below her. She screams, and wakes up, and the video shows her, with her father, watching a YouTube video called Raise Your Voice on Climate Change, and shows clips of people like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Ban Ki Moon, talking about climate refugees. She then runs up to the roof and yells out, “please help the world” and hundreds of other children are shown in rapid succession, repeating the words.

This video, with its images of destruction, the earth cracking, flooding and the like was certainly scary. The use of a child as the main character was deliberately intended to add further emotional impact to the film. The tone of the video, the frightening music, and the vulnerable child, were definitely dramatic, frightening, and could certainly arouse fear in anyone watching the film. Further, the sense of urgency and impending disaster was palpable. Psychological research has shown that people will often respond to an issue if it is termed as a crisis. In water conservation, for example, the media labelling droughts or water shortages as crises, can lead to significant reductions in household water consumption[2]. So, for the first factor ensuring a successful fear campaign, causing fear, was definitely successful.

However, the important second factor responsible for the success of fear campaigns, is that they have to be perceived as a direct threat to someone, or to something important to someone. Were the television images of floods and starving children directly relevant to the little girl or to her father? Were the calving glaciers going to raise the sea level and flood their neighbourhood in the near future, or was this going to be a much longer term process? Although it is obvious that there is a huge issue, any further reading on the subject (if the person does not already know about it) will highlight the fact that it is not likely to occur in the near or even medium term future. Let’s assume the average watcher of the video is an adult, and aged between 20 and 80. Something highly threatening that is going to occur “within a couple of centuries” does not pose an immediate threat to that hypothetical reader or their children, or probably even their grandchildren. Yes, it is a threat, and it is extremely important, but will most people launch into action and DO something about it?

So, we have seen that the campaign has caused some degree of fear, but this fear does not necessarily directly impact on most of the audience. This is generally the first indicator that a fear campaign is not going to be very successful. Much as someone might care about the fate of their future unborn great-grandchildren, it is very difficult for most people to fully empathise with some future that does not include them. Unfortunately for large, long term environmental issues, people are largely focused on their past and present, and it is often difficult to evaluate the potential impacts of something that might happen in the middle to distant future.

So, what about the second essential factor for a fear-based campaign to be successful, that of efficacy? This is probably the major reason why fear appeals don’t work very well for prompting action about environmental issues. Successful fear appeals present simple techniques so that people can do something about an issue, for example, cutting down on smoking or wearing a seatbelt when driving. But these are individual choices, for actions that are under the almost complete volitional control of an individual. Environmental issues, on the other hand, and particularly climate change, are exceptionally complex, with a multiplicity of interrelated, often global, causes, and are the result of many small actions, by billions of people. They are what a noted academic called, “death by a thousand cuts”[3]. Anthropogenic climate change results from the excess production of GHG, from industrialization, transport, land clearing and agricultural activities (amongst others), by everyone on the entire planet!

So what exactly are the simple techniques that people can put into place to deal with an issue such as the melting of an ice sheet thousands of kilometers away, on the other side of the world, caused by pollution from 7 billion people, of which you or I are just one individual? To deal with climate change in the future (and now) we are going to have to act as individuals, but also together, as communities, governments, NGOs and corporations. Unfortunately, while there are some simple techniques to reduce CO2 and other GHG emissions, others are highly complex, and will require the cooperation of huge nation-states that loathe one another, politicians from all sides of the spectrum, and vast multi-national corporations with huge vested interests in maintaining the status quo.

Further, even if we were to “act NOW”, what exactly can one individual actually do, to stop the melting of vast glaciers in Antarctica, or storm surges, or runaway bushfires, or sea level rise? Nothing in this video illustrates even simple actions or practical advice on anything we can do;for example, getting people to drive their cars less, such as providing links on fuel-efficient cars, or suggestions that people ride their bikes to work one day a week instead of driving. Nor are there any suggestions showing us how what we do can actually be effective (anyone could tell that shouting from rooftops won’t help anything).

Understandably, this video was aimed at the delegates to a climate change conference, who are often representatives of governments or large NGOs. However, no matter what the audience, a successful fear-based campaign still needs to instill directly relevant fear, and suggest practical, simple actions. Because climate change is such a huge issue, arguably, it needs to be communicated in a different manner entirely.

How to run a successful fear-based environmental campaign

Here is an example of how a couple of NGOs are running potentially successful fear-based campaigns against the same issue, the use of neonicotinoid, which are a type of pesticide that have been implicated in colony collapse in beehives, and a global die-off in bees worldwide[4][5]. These pesticides, which are extremely common, are used in more than 120 countries, comprise a quarter of all pesticides used in the world, and have a global market value of US$2.6 billion. However, not only have they been implicated in honeybee colony collapse, they have been found to leach into soils and waterways, the consumption of treated with these can be toxic to small mammals, birds and invertebrates, and are a direct threat to many ecosystem services.

First, SumOfUs.org[6] is a web-based activist group fighting for a fairer global economy, which includes corporations involved in actions that could lead to environmental disasters. SumOfUs are running an internet campaign to lobby Home Depot, Lowes and other large retailers to stop selling neonicotinoid pesticides. The organization is running a campaign to get people to sign the petition to get the retailers to stop stocking these chemicals. They are also running another petition against Bayer, the major manufacturer of these chemicals. They use their website and social media[7] to highlight the issue, and are aiming at getting 750,000 people to sign the petition, which they will then present to the head of the retailers concerned. SumOfUs run various campaigns, including protesting at gardening shows[8].

Second, the Pesticide Action Network (PANNA) [9] runs a number of campaigns against these and other pesticides. Their well referenced website has links to academic articles on the pesticides, links to donate money, information on how to run your own campaign, write to newspapers, picket stores selling these pesticides, etc. They carefully reference the scientific literature on the subject, and communicate the research findings, in simple language that does not talk down to the people. They use a variety of media, including the internet and social media, to promote their message. The website has a lot of scary (yet not exaggerated) information on what will happen to world agriculture if the bee populations decrease, how this will influence the fruit and vegetables that are grown, and how expensive some foodstuffs will become.

“While wild pollinators like bats and bumble bees are also facing catastrophic declines, managed honey bees are the most economically important pollinators in the world. According to a recent U.N. report, of the 100 crops that provide 90% of the world’s food, over 70 are pollinated by bees. In the U.S. alone, honey bees’ economic contribution is valued at over $19 billion.”

The organization also offers some practical suggestions on how people can deal with issue, such a link to “Bee the Change: Tips & Tools For Protecting Honey Bees”. Some of these include, buying certified seeds that have not been sprayed with the neonicotinoid chemicals, not using certain types of chemicals on your garden or in your home (but also giving a range of easily accessible alternatives), and planting bee friendly native plants in your garden.

Both these campaigns work very well, for example, SumOfUs, has to date (13 June 2014), 736,429 signatures of their goal of 750,000. PANNA is a very well-regarded website, and is frequently featured in media articles. These groups, and others involved in the neonicotinoid issue (including academic researchers) are getting increasing levels of media (for example, the cover page of Time Magazine), public and even corporate and government support (the EU has implemented a trial 2 year ban on 3 major neonicotinoid pesticides[10][11], for which, incidentally, they are being sued by Bayer and other pesticide manufacturers[12]).

People see the images of bees dying, and of the research showing how fruit and vegetables will become so expensive, and how the pesticides have been linked to certain childhood illnesses, skin rashes etc, and they do become scared. They also realize that the problem is directly related to them, that even if they are not gardeners, they use the sprays in their house to kill bugs, and their food might get more expensive. So the campaigns have succeeded in frightening people, and they seems directly relevant to them (everyone eats fruit and vegetables, and many people have gardens or pot-plants).

Secondly, the campaigns offer simple alternatives to the neonicotinoid, which people can easily access. It is very simple for someone to buy an alternative marked product from the same place, at more or less the same price, as another product. By doing this, not only can they help the environment, but they can also reduce a real risk to their own families. Within months, the manufacturers of the neocotinid products are losing money hand over fist, and the government is considering following the EU in banning them entirely.

So, as shown above, fear based appeals can work, and can work very well. But they have to be relevant, and simple to carry out.

[1] http://youtu.be/NVGGgncVq-4

[2] Jorgensen, B., Graymore, M., & O’Toole, K. (2009). Household water use behavior: An integrated model. Journal of environmental management91(1), 227-236.

Syme, G. J., Nancarrow, B. E., & Seligman, C. (2000). The evaluation of information campaigns to promote voluntary household water conservation.Evaluation Review24(6), 539-578.

[3] This is not all bad…if environmental degradation can occur by many small actions, so can improving the environment!

[4] http://www.beecharmers.org/Pollination2.html

[5] Goulson, D. (2013). Review: An overview of the environmental risks posed by neonicotinoid insecticides. Journal of Applied Ecology, 50(4), 977-987.

[6] http://action.sumofus.org/a/home-depot-lowes-bees-neonicotinoids/5/2/?sub=fb

[7] https://www.facebook.com/pages/SumOfUs/181924628560212?fref=ts

[8] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R7eaNlK-pVA&feature=youtu.be

[9] http://www.panna.org/current-campaigns/bees

[10] http://www.epa.gov/pesticides/about/intheworks/ccd-european-ban.html

[11] http://theconversation.com/neonicotinoid-ban-wont-fix-all-bees-problems-20984

[12] http://news.sciencemag.org/europe/2013/08/pesticidemakers-challenge-e.u.-neonicotinoid-ban-court


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The “Seven Deadly D’s” of fear-based campaigns

“Most men would rather deny a hard truth than face it.”
George R.R. Martin

The use of fear-based campaigns for communicating major environmental issues can backfire badly, and result in the seven major problems common to (some) fear-based campaigns; denial, defusing (neutralizing), diminishing (minimizing), defense, derision, depression and even deliberately disobeying. These are all related, but let’s discuss each in turn.


  • Denial: One way people deal with problems that are so huge that they feel they cannot do anything about them, is to deny them. In the case of climate change, this has ample ammunition and support from the concerted campaign by the petrochemical industry[i] which has, for many years, run anti-science and anti-climate change campaigns. This has become such an issue that many researchers talk about climate change in euphemisms, because the phrase has become so politicized. In fact, recent research has shown that it is possible to predict a person’s attitude to climate change only by knowing their customary voting habits. For example, more Republican voters than Democratic voters are likely to be climate change sceptics[ii].
  • Defusing: By defusing an issue, people neutralize the problem, by saying such things as, “it won’t happen to me” or “by the time it happens, our technology will be able to solve the problem”. I recently worked on a research project, where we asked property developers if they felt that climate change was a risk to their business[iii]. Many answered with things like, “sea level rise won’t happen in my lifetime”, “I don’t live near the sea”, or “I’ve lived through floods and cyclones before, and they weren’t that bad”.
  • Diminishing: By diminishing a problem, people claim that the issue is exaggerated, and that the climate scientists are just doomsayers, or a “Chicken Little” constantly claiming that the sky is falling. They might cite examples such as CFCs and the ozone hole, or the Year 2000 computer bug, saying that everyone was panicking, but nothing actually happened. This is a common technique used by those who, reluctantly, acknowledge that something is an issue, but believe that human ingenuity, innovation and technology will be able to deal with the problem in the end. When I researched household water use during a severe drought, those who advocated building more dams and other engineering “solutions” to the water issue, were often the most profligate water users, whereas, on the other hand, those who felt the issue was serious, and accepted personal responsibility for some of the problem, used the least water. This viewpoint is also correlated with income, the more affluent the household, the more likely they are to advocate technological fixes.
  • Defense: Defending, or justifying one’s own position is one of the commonest responses to a serious issue, and it is also one of the commonest human responses to mistakes. No little wonder that one of the “7 Deadly Sins” is Pride. For example, say you have recently bought a new 4WD, and you love it. Ok, it uses a lot more fuel than your other car, but it has so much space, you feel safer on the road, you might use it on your yearly camping trip to drive in places where you normally couldn’t go, and best of all, people envy you, and by being able to buy this car, you feel that you have finally made it in life. Then, one night, you watch the campaign on TV that tells you that large vehicles are major contributors to climate change and your new 4WD is the most unsustainable car on the market. Not only that, you have some annoying environmentalist friends, and they make subtle digs about your choice of vehicle, especially as you don’t like to use it in the bush anyway, because it cost $80,000 and you don’t want to scratch it. Do you sell your car, or do you justify your position. I can go camping, I can transport more stuff, it runs on diesel, so it is not that fuel inefficient, and after all, diesel is a more sustainable fuel, etc. Moreover, the position of the environmentalists begins to irritate you, and you feel that they are directly criticizing you, which leads to the next response, derision.
  • Derision: Most people do not like being criticized, and take critical comments personally, resenting any criticism of their choices, such as the aforementioned decision, to buy a large 4WD. Unfortunately, it is often the case that some people extrapolate criticism of a single issue to all aspects of an issue. For example, criticizing someone’s driving choice might result in the feeling that responding to any environmental issue is  interfering with personal choice and freedom. Many people of Libertarian or other highly individualist mindsets, hold such beliefs. Thus, people may mock or make fun of climate scientists and environmentalists, calling them names such as “doomsayers” or “tree-huggers”. They may accuse environmentalists of wanting everyone to live in the past, or in hippie communes, with no electricity or running water.
  • Deliberately disobeying: One of the worst backfire effects that some fear-based campaigns can have is the complete opposite of what is intended. In some campaigns aimed at combatting speeding, the receivers of the message actually drove faster after seeing the messages. I’m not sure if this is age related, but when I was a young woman, I was very shy, and found that drinking alcohol helped me talk to people and be more comfortable around them. Now I grew up in a relatively conservative home in the country, and neither of my parents drank alcohol, so when I did drink, I had no idea how to moderate my consumption. I was frequently criticized by my older relatives for engaging in dangerous behavior whilst drinking. They used to tell me horror stories about how I could get raped, or end up in a car crash, or permanently affect my health. Did this influence my behavior in the slightest? Yes. I did the opposite. The more that they lectured me, the more I waved this in the faces of those who criticized me, taking delight in “rebelling” against authority. I made my attitude part of my personality. Well, eventually I grew up and stopped engaging in such silly behaviour, but did people trying to make me afraid have the slightest influence on my behavior? No. they would have been better off just ignoring me.
  • Depression: Finally, say you read all the articles, and you take them to heart. You start to think, what can YOU do to help the problem? How can you change your life to help prevent this happening? You could sell your car, but how do you get to work, or take the kids to school? You could move to the bush and go off the grid, but how will you work, and what about the rest of your family? You could write letters the government to implement a carbon price, but there’s a right wing party in power, and you know they won’t do anything. Everything seems to either require a huge life change, and moreover, you are just one person in 7 billion. What on earth could your actions possibly achieve, other than uprooting your family? Hence, you start to get depressed, and become negative about the problem. And the more negative you are, the more disillusioned and bitter you become about the human race, and the less personal efficacy and control you feel that you have.

In summary, trying to get people to change their behavior by using appeals to fear is very complicated, and may not have any impact on what they do. Worst of all, appeals to fear may have exactly the opposite effect to what is intended.

So, are appeals to fear completely useless for environmental issues? No, not at all, but they have to be very carefully crafted, and ensuring that the four major aspects of successful appeals to fear are part of the campaign.


[i] Oreskes, Naomi; Conway, Erik M. (2010). Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. Bloomsbury Press. p. 6. ISBN 978-1-59691-610-4. http://www.merchantsofdoubt.org

[ii] McCright, Aaron, M. (2011) Political orientation moderates Americans’ beliefs and concern about climate change: An editorial comment. Climatic Change (2011) 104:243–253

[iii] Shearer, H, Taygfeld, P, Coiacetto, E, Dodson, J, Banhalmi-Zakar, Z 2013, The capacities of private developers in urban climate change adaptation, National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, Gold Coast, 161 pp. http://www.nccarf.edu.au/publications/private-developers-urban-climate-change-adaptation

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Why fear-based campaigns don’t work for environmental issues.

I’m going to post this rather long blog entry in 3 sections. I’ll start with the generic description and history of fear-based campaigns, then go on to detail some of the ways they backfire, then describe some environmental campaigns (successful and unsuccessful, with reasons).


Evaluating Fear-Based Campaigns

A fear appeal is a persuasive communication attempting to arouse fear in order to promote precautionary motivation and self-protective action”.[1]

The underlying principle of fear-based campaigns was the assumption that fear is a drive state (or motivational process), and that if this state was triggered by fear appeals or campaigns, then this would motivate a person to reduce their fear by changing their behaviour. This idea was first postulated in the early 1950s, by the noted psychological researcher, Carl Hovland, who developed the Drive Reduction Model of persuasion and attitude change[2]. In the 60 years since then, fear-based campaigns are still widely used in attempts to change behaviour, such as health behaviour (i.e. smoking or unsafe sex), traffic behaviour (i.e. dangerous driving), and environmental behaviour (i.e. littering or wasting water).

Fear appeals do two basic things to try and change undesirable behaviour. First, they attempt to provide information that will initiate or arouse fear of something, which may or may not be already considered a threat to a specific person or group of persons. For example, in the early days of HIV/AIDS, fear campaigns presented HIV as a threat, to which people having unprotected sex were vulnerable, and which had severely negative consequences, i.e. debilitating illness, infecting loved ones, and eventual death. Second, they present information to motivate people to engage in simple behaviours to negate or ameliorate the threat. For example, using condoms during intercourse can prevent the transmission of HIV. Some types of fear appeals are quite confronting, and rely on what is known as “shock tactics” which are highly emotive techniques, such as showing pictures of motor vehicle accidents and victims, diseased organs on cigarette packets, or people dying of starvation. Moreover, sometimes fear-based campaigns are used by both sides of an argument; by groups have diametrically opposing opinions of an issue. For example, environmental groups may release images and stories showing the potential for environmental disasters arising from anthropogenic climate change; but lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry may release images and stories showing economic disasters arising from “premature” investment in climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Fear based campaigns rely on three major factors: fear, perceived threat and perceived efficacy[3]. First, fear is an unpleasant emotional state that is triggered by an emotional stimulus, which may be an actual or perceived threat (is that a leopard in the bushes or just the wind?), learned behaviour (if your mother is afraid of lightning, you might learn this fear from her) or instinct (natural fear of snakes). Fear is triggered by the release of chemicals in the brain which then lead to physiological arousal and symptoms such as increases in breathing and heart-rate, muscle tension, stomach distress and so on. The fear response is almost completely automatic[4], and is commonly known as the “fight or flight mechanism”. It is a deep and atavistic instinct, which every creature has, and is intended to help you survive danger by either defending yourself (fight) or running away (flight).

Second, fear campaigns rely on perceived threats, and these have two dimensions, susceptibility and severity of the threat. Unlike fear which is an entirely emotional and largely unconscious state, whether you evaluate something as a threat (or not) is a cognitive and intellectual process. Nonetheless, they are related; if you think something is a severe threat, you will experience greater levels of fear. For example, if someone has a phobia about snakes, they will evaluate any snake, no matter how harmless, as a threat, and experience extreme fear. When faced with a snake in their home (susceptibility to the threat) and degree of existing phobia (severity of the threat), someone with a phobia about snakes will likely behave in an extreme manner which is unrelated to the actual threat posed by the snake.

Finally, perceived efficacy (also known as perceived behavioural control in some behavioural frameworks) also has two dimensions; perceived self-efficacy and perceived response efficacy. Perceived self-efficacy relates to whether or not a person believes they have the ability to undertake an action. For example, if you believe that giving up smoking will be extremely difficult for you to do; you are less likely to respond to anti-smoking campaigns. Perceived response efficacy means the belief whether your response will actually alleviate the threat. For example, if you don’t believe that giving up smoking will improve your health, or that it causes chronic illness, you are unlikely to try and give up.

The outcome of fear appeals.

Despite their almost ubiquitous use throughout society, there is relatively poor empirical evidence that fear-based campaigns actually change behaviour in the direction intended by the advertisers or policy makers who devise and implement them. Fear-based appeals can trigger two diametrically opposite responses in people exposed to them; they can lead to the desired behaviour change, or they can backfire, with sometimes the opposite result. So why do some people choose to change their behaviour and others not? What types of fear-based appeals are more successful?

Firstly, when exposed to a fear-based appeal, for example, a shocking anti-smoking campaign, some people accept the message, and decide to change their behaviour. Fear appeals work best to change behaviour when the fear appeal is stronger, it results in greater levels of fear, and the threat is perceived as severe, and directly relevant to an individual. Moreover, easier the action is to carry out (the stronger the efficacy message), the more likely it is that people will perceive themselves as being able to change their behaviour. Let’s explain this further with an example, related to smoking. Anne, who has smoked for 30 years, is exposed to a shock campaign showing pictures of people dying of lung cancer. Anne already has some degree of health anxiety, and has had a long-term nagging cough. She also saw her father die of lung cancer. The message in the fear-appeal is strong, it is directly relevant to Anne, and she becomes fearful of dying of lung cancer. At the same time, the campaign (which is government funded) offers simple techniques for people to give up smoking, including free online support and nicotine patches. Anne decides to phone the toll-free number, and resolves to stop smoking.

On the other hand, fear appeals may have completely the opposite effect. When exposed to a fear appeal, many may reject the message either partly or completely. This is because fear is generally an unpleasant emotion, so people employ psychological defenses against it: which can include denial, defusing (neutralizing), diminishing (minimizing), defense, derision, depression and even disobedience. These reactions are more common when people are not particularly motivated to change their behaviour. For example, in one American road safety campaign against drink-driving, young people drove faster after seeing a frightening film about road safety! Likewise, in the Netherlands, a television advertisement showing a serious crash had the opposite effect on young men, who after seeing the advertisement, had a diminished attitude to the dangers of driving too fast, and disobeyed the speed limit to a greater extent.

Using the previous example, Angela watches the same anti-smoking advertisement. Unlike Anne, she has only smoked for 3 years, since she left school. She feels perfectly healthy, and has never known anyone die of lung cancer. All her friends also smoke, and they think that smoking is something rebellious and cool, snubbing their noses at authority, so as to speak. She has no desire to give up smoking, and she has no time for things like online support groups. Thus Angela is not likely to take heed of the fear-appeal, as it does not frighten her, she does not see smoking as posing a threat to her, at least in the short term, and she has no motivation to spend any time in activities related to quitting smoking. Instead, when the ad comes on TV, it annoys Angela and her friends, and they either change the channel or make fun of it (derision).

In conclusion, it is quite complicated to devise effective fear-based campaigns that do not backfire. However, some common factors in effective campaigns include the efficacy of the intended behaviour, the extent to which a person thinks they are vulnerable to the risk, and involvement with the message. Strong fear based campaigns (i.e. high shock factor) can also be effective if they recommend feasible and practical behaviour in response. Conversely, high impact campaigns which invoke fear, but which do not contain feasible or effective behaviour recommendations can have the strongest negative or oppositional responses.


References and Footnotes

[1] Ruiter, Robert AC, Charles Abraham, and Gerjo Kok. “Scary warnings and rational precautions: A review of the psychology of fear appeals.” Psychology and Health 16, no. 6 (2001): 613-630.

[2] With Irving Janis, he was also known for his development of the idea of groupthink.

[3] Witte, Kim, and Mike Allen. “A meta-analysis of fear appeals: Implications for effective public health campaigns.” Health Education & Behavior 27, no. 5 (2000): 591-615.

[4] Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can be very effective in training yourself not to be afraid of certain things, such as in phobias


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