How to get action on climate change? Hint: Don’t scare us out of our wits.
We’ve been told time and time again that telling a child they can’t do something just makes them want to do it more. It is particularly difficult to resist a child’s pleas when a prohibition violates their sense of fairness or justice. There is more and more evidence that this kind of resistance happens outside the realm of parenting in the social and political sector as well. Nutritionists worry that our emphasis on “obesity prevention” is negative fear-mongering that only creates more strained relationships with food. Researchers have found that highlighting the healthy outcomes of quitting smoking are far more effective than lecturing about smoking’s risks. Could this be the same for climate change?
Researchers at UC Berkeley say fear-mongering public service announcements about the effects of climate change actually increase skepticism about climate change and, by extension, will likely reduce people’s likelihood to act to prevent it. Researcher Matthew Feinberg began his research wanting to learn more about what made people skeptical of climate change, and ended up learning that skepticism is often deeply affected by negative emotions themselves. Not only is fear-mongering usually shrouded in negative and guilty feelings but, as Feinberg found, climate change public service announcements are often couched in terms that violate people’s sense of fairness and stability.
People like to believe that the world is a just and fair place, says Feinberg, and apocalyptic descriptions of global warming’s consequences – especially those that implicate children who have not themselves caused global warming – undercut this belief and engender apathy and ignorance. Examples like the Environmental Defense Fund’s video – which shows a train speeding toward a young girl as a metaphor for climate change – make people disconnect more than they make them engage. Feinberg’s research encourages climate change activists who wish to persuade others to use tactics that adhere to the “just-world belief system” and lean toward the solutions-based and positive.
Photo: Environmental Defense Fund