Why Fear is the Wrong Approach to Climate Change

Climate skeptics are growing in numbers within the U.S., currently comprising about 25% of the general population, up from about 15% or so a few years ago (goes to show that no matter how small the group, being well-funded will go a long way to hijacking the political and educational system). Regardless, there is now a growing effort to convince climate change deniers that it is real, that it constitutes a large threat to natural and human health, and that something must be done about it.

The most common approach has been to inundate the public with information about the disastrous potential of climate change on all aspects of life as we know it. Central to this approach is the idea that climate skeptics are skeptics because they lack information, and the best remedy to that is education. This doesn’t appear to be working, in fact, it may be doing more harm than good. Because the consequences of climate change are usually negative, ‘education’ usually involves telling stories about how bad things will get in the future, and right-wingers have seized on this calling it, not entirely inaccurately, ‘liberal fear-mongering‘.

Oft ignored is the psychology behind climate change beliefs. In particular, we need to understand how to get skeptics on board (which plays into the much bigger psychological picture of choices, ideology, and self-identification). A new paper in Nature Climate Change presents an incredibly interesting take on the situation. Bain et al. devised a way to experimentally assess which messages get positive reactions from climate skeptics.

They found that negative messages, essentially attempting to educate the skeptics on the effects of climate change, led to skeptics entrenching in their beliefs even further. In contrast, messages that ignored science and instead focused on their self-identity, perception within the community, and economic impacts received significantly more positive responses. That is, messages that suggested taking action on climate change would lead to a friendlier, less hostile community, more positive perception of the individual by his or her peers, and promised that taking action on climate change would create jobs actually worked! Not 100% of the time, but far more than the ‘wrath of nature’ approach.

So maybe it’s time for us to switch tacks in this debate. Science is a dirty word, and presenting scientific evidence in some camps is likely to reinforce negative opinions of climate change. Maybe now its time to suggest that taking action on climate change would help individuals be better citizens, would help this country heal as a whole, would provide capital and jobs for a huge number of green start companies. Maybe taking a ‘responsible citizen’ approach, ignoring the science, would help us make progress. On a religious front, perhaps championing the notion that we are ‘stewards of the earth’, as ordained by God in Genesis, would help climate deniers realize that our responsibility is to care for the planet (look up the definition of steward and debate its meaning later). After all, negative actions by another party only reinforces one’s belief in one’s self and ideology. If we’re trying to reach across idealogical lines, perhaps its time to be a bit more positive. Trying to be positive can’t hurt.


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