The End Isn't Near: A Better Way to Spur Action on Climate Change

From Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, to emotionally wrenching visions such as this video shown at last year's Copenhagen climate meeting, many climate change communicators opt for shock and emotional awe in their efforts to stir action. Given the scope of the fears, it's an understandable tactic.

In fact, litanies of massive environmental disruption -- often paired with images of imperiled children (here, here and here) -- have become a sort of visual cliché used by even the most sophisticated messengers in this arena. Gore's movie -- despite being essentially a PowerPoint presentation on steroids -- even won an Oscar. At their best, they can be educational, stirring visions meant to motivate the public.

At their worst, they do the exact opposite. Given the parlous state of climate efforts, it's pretty obvious that these apocalyptic warnings aren't winning over droves. I've seen it first hand: For every person moved to act by Gore's work, I've observe others who respond with a fatalistic shrug asking, in effect, what could I possibly do about it? Still others have vaulted clear over ambivalence to outright antagonism, angered by the threat these visions suggest, and their implicit accusation of fault.

Now behavioral researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have shed some scientific light on these unintended consequences of climate communication. The new study, which will be published in the January issue of Psychological Science, suggests that dire descriptions of global warming, in isolation, can backfire, causing viewers to shut off, before considering the problem.

In their paper, "Apocalypse Soon? Dire Messages Reduce Belief in Global Warming by Contradicting Just World Beliefs," [PDF] researchers Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer highlight the basic fact that fear and fatalism are poor motivators. The conclusion offers a reminder that, for all the billions being put into mitigating climate change, developing better understanding of human behavior could lead to more change at lower cost.