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) 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. 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”. 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. 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 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 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.
Second, the Pesticide Action Network (PANNA)  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, for which, incidentally, they are being sued by Bayer and other pesticide manufacturers).
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.
 Jorgensen, B., Graymore, M., & O’Toole, K. (2009). Household water use behavior: An integrated model. Journal of environmental management, 91(1), 227-236.
Syme, G. J., Nancarrow, B. E., & Seligman, C. (2000). The evaluation of information campaigns to promote voluntary household water conservation.Evaluation Review, 24(6), 539-578.
 This is not all bad…if environmental degradation can occur by many small actions, so can improving the environment!
 Goulson, D. (2013). Review: An overview of the environmental risks posed by neonicotinoid insecticides. Journal of Applied Ecology, 50(4), 977-987.