“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