Fear Appeals in Climate Change Communication
Abstract and Keywords
There is a strong view among climate change researchers and communicators that the persuasive tactic of arousing fear in order to promote precautionary motivation and behavior is neither effective nor appropriate in the context of climate change communication and engagement. Yet the modest research evidence that exists with respect to the use of fear appeals in communicating climate change does not offer adequate empirical evidence—either for or against the efficacy of fear appeals in this context—nor would such evidence adequately address the issue of the appropriateness of fear appeals in climate change communication. Extensive research literatures addressing preparedness, prevention, and behavior change in the areas of public health, marketing, and risk communication generally nonetheless provide consistent empirical support for the qualified effectiveness of fear appeals in persuasive social influence communications and campaigns. It is also noteworthy that the language of climate change communication is typically that of “communication and engagement,” with little explicit reference to targeted social influence or behavior change, although this is clearly implied. Hence underlying and intertwined issues here are those of cogent arguments versus largely absent evidence, and effectiveness as distinct from appropriateness. These matters are enmeshed within the broader contours of the contested political, social, and environmental, issues status of climate change, which jostle for attention in a 24/7 media landscape of disturbing and frightening communications concerning the reality, nature, progression, and implications of global climate change. All of this is clearly a challenge for evaluation research attempting to examine the nature and effectiveness of fear appeals in the context of climate change communication, and for determining the appropriateness of designed fear appeals in climate change communications intended to both engage and influence individuals, communities, and “publics” with respect to the ongoing threat and risks of climate change. There is an urgent need to clearly and effectively communicate the full nature and implications of climate change, in the face of this profound risk and rapidly unfolding reality. All such communications are, inherently, frightening warning messages, quite apart from any intentional fear appeals. How then should we put these arguments, evidence, and challenges “on the table” in our considerations and recommendations for enhancing climate change communication—and addressing the daunting and existential implications of climate change?
Keywords: Fear-based influence appeals, environmental risk psychology, boomerang effects, evaluation research, emotions and issue engagement, hybrid environmental risks, influence versus engagement, global existential risk
The objective of this article is to consider and discuss recent research findings, contexts, and key issues, specific to the strategic use and appropriateness of fear appeals in efforts to communicate with and engage the public on climate change. There exists an extensive research and discursive literature addressing the nature and use of fear appeals in the context of risk communication and other social influence communication spanning well over six decades (Janis & Feshbach, 1953; Janis & Terwilliger, 1962). This literature has included comprehensive reviews and meta-analyses of the effectiveness, appropriateness, and at times counter-productivity of such strategies (e.g., Floyd et al., 2000; Maloney, Lapinski, & White, 2011; Noar, 2006; Peters, Ruiter, & Kok, 2013; Ruiter, Abraham, & Kok, 2001; Ruiter et al., 2014; Tannenbaum et al., 2015; Witte & Allen, 2000). Given the multiple ways in which “fear appeals” have been discussed and understood, clarity is achieved with a frequently used definition found in the broader risk communication literature, and employed in the context of climate change. “A fear appeal is a persuasive communication attempting to arouse fear in order to promote precautionary motivation and self-protective action” (Ruiter et al., 2001). Thus, fear appeals possess two defining characteristics: an intent to induce fear, and an “appeal” to do something about the source of this fear. As discussed in this article, not all studies of fear appeals include both components, nor is such a definition particularly satisfactory.
This existing research literature has substantially informed and influenced the discussion and questioning of the strategic use of fear appeals in the context of climate change communication and public engagement. Yet few of these considerations and reviews of fear appeal use and effectiveness have specifically addressed the case of climate change communication, leaving unanswered the question of how applicable and useful have such appeals been in the context of climate change. This article examines this question, the modest research evidence to date, and underlying conceptual and methodological considerations. Further, this review addresses reasons why this seeming straightforward application of what has been an at times successful risk communication and social influence strategy in other contexts has not been judged to be appropriate or efficacious in the context of climate change communication and public engagement. Alternative and companion strategies that address specific issues in the use of fear appeals in this climate change context are considered and addressed with respect to pragmatic and strategic ways forward.
The following review and discussion are of particular importance for a number of reasons. Although there has been considerable discussion of the appropriateness and efficacy of fear appeals in the broader context of climate change communication and engagement in the early 21st century, as of this writing there has not been a substantive review of available research evidence—the arguments advanced both for and against such use—or of professional views with respect to the use of this social influence and behavior change strategy in the arguably different context of this global environmental threat, unfolding environmental consequences, and projected ecosystem and societal crises. In this article we argue that there also does not yet exist an adequate experimental or quasi-experimental evidence base specific to the use of fear appeals in climate change risk communication and issue and behavioral engagement, to enable clear and evidence-based conclusions to be drawn. This situation does, however, make a reflective consideration of broader research findings, expert opinion, current arguments, and the nature of climate change as a distinct risk domain, timely—indeed urgent—given dramatically escalating global impacts of climate change. Such a review also mandates a broader consideration of what is implied when moving from risk communication and persuasive messaging strategies to the far more encompassing objectives of climate change communication and public engagement.
There are many challenges when “communicating the risk(s)” of climate change, or, more inclusively, “communicating with and engaging” the public with respect to the profound threat, issues, and implications inherent to global climate change. These challenges include the multiple meanings and understandings of climate change, cutting through the complexity and multiple issue status of climate change, and accurately characterizing the distinctive nature of this global and hybrid risk domain. Other important challenges are taking into account the full implications of the ongoing threat of climate change, the nature of climate change as a chronic environmental stressor, and the fact that substantial proportions of most publics across the world are already concerned about the threat and phenomenon of climate change. Still other concerns are the existing uncertainty, intertemporal/interpersonal distance, and the reality that any designed risk communication messages, strategies, or campaigns will be contending with myriad other effective “risk communications,” as well as other social representations about climate change as a grave global risk—along with other pressing and convergent environmental and societal security threats.
The plurality of perspectives on the nature and objectives of climate change communication and engagement also make evaluations of the efficacy of a particular strategy such as the use of fear appeals problematic (e.g., Ballantyne, 2016). A common stated aim of risk communications is “to supply people with the information they need to make informed decisions about risks to their health, safety, and environment” (Morgan et al., 1992, pp. 248–249). But when “risk” is replaced by “climate change” and “communication” is followed by “and engagement” the scope and focus of risk communication again becomes much more encompassing, and the putative function of a deliberate fear appeal strategy far less clear and convincing.
What do we mean by “public engagement” with climate change? This involves a cognitive, affective, and behavioral dimension (i.e., people grapple mentally with and gain understanding of the issue, experience an emotional response, such as interest, concern or worry; and actively respond by way of changes in climate-relevant behavior or political action) (Lorenzoni et al., 2007; Moser, 2009; Moser & Dilling, 2007, National Research Council, 2002). (Moser & Dilling, 2011, p. 162).
Public engagement in the context of “science and society” refers to an active public or audience involved in discussing, leaning about, prioritizing, and acting on climate change
(Ballantyne, 2016, p. 339)
Basically the nature and purpose of the communication and the desired outcome changes dramatically; the strategic alignment of the fear appeal with this much broader target outcome becomes much less straightforward; and an evaluation of efficacy both more nuanced and more challenging.
Climate Change Communication and Engagement
Reference to “fear appeals” in the context of risk communication requires reflective consideration and clarification. Risk communications can elicit multiple emotional and analytic responses, with fear being often effectively equated with arousal, concern, anxiety, uncertainty, distress, and multiple other risk-as-feelings (that is, intuitive and emotional responses which are strongly based on experiences and risk-as-analysis appraisals and sense-making responses (e.g., Dickert, Vastfjall, Mauro, & Slovic, 2015; Loewenstein, Weber, Hsee, & Welch, 2001; Slovic, 2010). While a number of these responses can “get in the way of” or otherwise hamper or counter message reception, acceptance, and adaptive responding, it is problematic to collapse them all under the umbrella of fear, which is a distinctive emotional state (e.g., Barrett, Lewis, & Haviland-Jones, 2016; Davey & Wells, 2006; LaBar, 2016; Nabi, 2010). Taking the difference between anxiety and fear as a classic example, fear typically has a specific risk or danger referent whereas anxiety tends to be “free-floating” without a specific, current, or concrete danger or risk object. In the case of natural disaster warning messages, for example, anxiety is typically targeted rather than fear, with the objective being that of managing, not necessarily reducing, this natural and adaptive arousal level and heightened vigilance and readiness response (e.g., Reser & Morrissey, 2008). The reality with respect to the ongoing global threat and environmental stressor character of climate change is that this far longer term phenomenon and unfolding global condition is not an acute or time-limited, or region-specific, environmental event or danger (e.g., Evans & Cohen, 1987; Evans & Stecker, 2004; Reser & Swim, 2011). Rather, it is a likely millennia-long global emergency and uncertain future, with grave and continuing challenges and risks. Also “risk” communications in the context of climate change are very different in meaning, implications, and intent from extreme weather event or specific imminent danger situation warning messages or preventive health communications; these climate change communications address public understandings, lifestyle changes, and the coming to terms with a rapidly changing planetary condition of profound consequence (e.g., Dilling et al., 2015; Reser, Bradley, & Ellul, 2014).
Examining the Research Evidence
Does the use of fear in climate change communication increase the likelihood of issue and behavioral engagement? Questions of causality such as this require experimental studies in which fear is manipulated under controlled conditions and consequent levels of message acceptance are assessed (Abrahamese, Schultz, & Steg, 2016). Although experiments represent the best evidence of cause-effect relationships, other research approaches can shed light on fear-related effects. In the climate change domain, three broad alternatives to “true” experiments are (1) studies that use inductive, naturalistic, case analysis and other non-numeric methods (“qualitative” studies); (2) those that use non-experimental quantitative methods aimed at identifying correlations between variables and differences between established groups (“correlational” studies); and (3) those that seek to shed light on possible causal relations but lack the necessary control over variable manipulation and/or participant assignment to comparison groups (“quasi-experiments”). Examples of each of these alternative methods are examined before we present a critical review of the experimental evidence.
Qualitative research investigating climate change-related emotions (including fear) has the potential to provide in-depth, subjective, contextualized understandings of the cognitive, affective, social, and other processes underlying individual responses to climate change (Wolf & Moser, 2011). A prominent example is O’Neill and Nicholson-Cole’s (2009) study of associations between visual and iconic representations of climate change and sense of engagement. In addition to a questionnaire-based survey (see below), this study used semi-structured interviews, focus groups, and a sorting task that elicited personal understandings of the issue. Among the study’s most important findings was evidence suggesting that representations of climate change as shocking and fearful are associated with perceptions of climate change as distant in time and space—and of more relevance to other people than to the self. Those images that drew attention to the importance of climate change were also likely to give rise to feelings of helplessness. Thus, rather than promoting self-efficacy and issue engagement, dramatic (including fear-inducing) imagery was associated with a sense of fatalism, disempowerment, and disengagement. Taking a rather different, albeit primarily qualitative approach, several studies (e.g., Hart & Feldman, 2014, 2016; Scharks, 2016) have sought to describe and characterize mass media portrayals of climate change, including the threats and possible solutions presented. These content and thematic analyses make passing references to fear, fear appeals, and related constructs but do not provide direct evidence pertaining to the efficacy of fear appeals.
This kind of research involves the use of questionnaires, structured interviews, and other self-report techniques to survey (ideally, large and representative) samples of people. An example of this approach is Reser et al.’s (2012a) surveys of stratified samples of Australian adults (total N > 7,000). This research showed that self-reported distress (an emotional response inclusive of but often broader than fear) regarding the threat and reality of climate change was correlated in the range .60 to .80 with climate change risk perceptions, self-efficacy, and psychological adaptation, and in the range .40 to .50 with self-reported engagement in environmentally responsible (mitigation) behaviors. Structural equation modeling showed distress to be a powerful unique mediator of the effects of climate change beliefs on psychological adaptation and behavior. As a second and rather different example of this kind of research, Smith and Leiserowitz (2014) investigated whether discrete emotions (including fear) predict support for (or opposition to) climate change policies. Among the many findings, more than a third (36%) of their 1,001 U.S. respondents indicated that they felt afraid when thinking of climate change. This was a smaller percentage than for other emotions such as disgust, worry, and hope. When included in a regression model with other emotions, fear did not explain a significant amount of unique variance in policy support. Of note is the common use of mixed research methods in this field: as with the study of O’Neill and Nicholson-Cole (2009); both Reser et al. and Smith and Leiserowitz complemented their survey approach with qualitative self-report data.
Other nonexperimental quantitative studies have measured fear and other outcomes from exposure to direct (or, more often, indirect) experiences of climate change. Because these studies do not involve random assignment to groups or manipulation of fear/threat exposure, they cannot be considered true experiments. Illustrative of this type of research are studies (e.g., Howell, 2014; Leiserowitz, 2004; Lowe et al., 2006; Nolan, 2010) that have investigated the aftermath of exposure to potential fear-inducing climate change media. On balance, such studies find that exposure has an impact on climate change–related knowledge, attitudes, and behavioral intentions. Effects on risk perceptions are less consistently found, while effects on actual behaviors are not typically investigated. The few studies that have included longer-term follow up assessments of participants (e.g., Howell, 2014) suggest that the effects tend to be short lived.
Experimental research investigating the effects of fear appeals date back at least to the classic work of Janis and Feshbach (1953). Most of the many hundreds of studies conducted since have examined effects on personal health, safety, or consumer outcomes. Numerous reviews and meta-analyses of this literature have been published (e.g., Boster & Mongeau, 1984; de Hoog, Stroebe, & de Wit, 2007; Peters, Ruiter, & Kok, 2013; Ruiter, Abraham, & Kok, 2001; Sutton, 1982; Tannenbaum et al., 2015; Witte & Allen, 2000). Although conclusions drawn by these reviewers vary, some generalizations can be made. Most importantly, there is majority agreement that fear appeals can be effective. These effects tend to be modest in size and to dissipate over time. Most fear appeal effects depart only slightly from linearity, meaning that changes in outcome variables increase in approximate proportion to the fear aroused. Fear effects tend to be stronger (a) on attitudes than on behaviors, (b) when coupled with explicit behavioral instructions, and (c) when accompanied by information that increases audience perceptions of self-efficacy and response efficacy. Stronger effects are produced by messages that promote efficacy beliefs than by those that simply provide information about threats, with mounting evidence of positive threat x efficacy interaction effects (Peters et al., 2013). Tannenbaum et al. (2015) additionally conclude that effects are stronger on “one-off” (rather than repeated) actions, a finding that is in accord with Weber’s claim (2006) that individuals tend to do just one thing (hence, they have a “single action bias”), with this satisfying the felt need to take further actions when responding to perceived environmental threats. Tannenbaum et al.’s (2015) meta-analysis also indicates that effects are invariant across several method factors (e.g., research setting, individual or group testing, whether subjective fear is measured), message factors (e.g., media used, issue targeted, content specificity), and audience factors (e.g., age, stage within the behavior change process).
Relatively little experimental research has examined the impact of fear appeals on attitudes, intentions, and behaviors in the environmental domain, and even less has focused on messages that contain climate change-related content. Studies that have been conducted are so methodologically diverse with respect to sampling, message type, dependent variables, other manipulated and measured variables, and reporting quality, as to defy meaningful quantitative summary. Moreover, many studies display one or more of the following method weaknesses: student-only samples, artificial (“laboratory”) environments, non-random assignment to groups, absent or inadequate manipulation of fear and/or threat, measurement of few and/or exclusively self-reported dependent variables, uncontrolled extraneous variables, and lack of long-term follow-up. At a more fundamental level, doubts exist as to the conceptualization and operationalization of fear, with some studies seemingly including within the fear construct more general aspects of arousal and drive, or ignoring other interacting emotions that may be influenced by a successful fear induction. In summary, research investigating the effects of fear appeals on environmental attitudes and actions has been limited in both quantity and quality.
This modest body of experimental research addressing the impacts of fear appeal impacts on environmental variables has yielded mixed findings, with the majority of studies offering at least partial or qualified support for the effectiveness of fear appeals in promoting environmentally responsible attitudes and behaviors (Duval & Mulilis, 1999; Hine & Gifford, 1991). Focusing just on that research which has presented participants with information regarding the threat of climate change, and even when defining “fear appeals” broadly so as to include (rather than exclude) studies that manipulate threat or fear, and those that do not present clear and explicit instructions for action, fewer than ten studies are known to the authors. Table 1 contains details of these and selected other studies. Of the most relevant studies, some (e.g., Meijnders, Midden, & Wilke, 2001a; van Zomeren, Spears, & Leach, 2010) have shown fear appeals to be broadly effective, others (e.g., Hartmann, Apaolaza, D’Souza, Barrutia, & Echebarria, 2014; Li, 2014; Meijnders, Midden, & Wilke, 2001b) have produced more mixed findings, and still others (e.g., Chen, 2016; Scharks, 2016) have found fear appeals to be mostly ineffective.
Two examples of the research that have found fear appeals to be broadly effective are given for illustrative purposes. Hartman, Apaolaza, D’Souza, Burrutia, and Echebarria (2014) reported few differences between the effect of high and medium threat messages; however, compared to their control condition, high threat messages produced higher levels of perceived threat, subjective fear, and two (voting and green electricity purchasing) behavioral intentions. Subjective fear (a measured variable) predicted the two intentions, and it mediated the relationship between the threat message and intentions. This study also found threat message x coping efficacy information interaction effects on fear and perceived response efficacy. In two supportive studies, van Zomeren et al. (2010) found that compared to control conditions, exposure to fear appeals and to collective efficacy information (but not exposure to self-efficacy information) led to heightened environmental action intentions. The fear x efficacy interactive effects were not significant in the studies of van Zomeren.
Significant additive or interactive effects have been reported in other climate change–related experiments. The variables involved include (a) threat and efficacy on attitudes and intentions to engage in pro-environmental behavior (Li, 2014), (b) fear and strength of arguments regarding the efficacy of an environmentally friendly behavior on attitudes to adopting that behavior (Meijnders et al., 2001a), (c) fear and strength of arguments on attitudes and behavioral intentions, both immediately and at three-week follow-up (Meijnders et al., 2001b), and (d) threat and beliefs in a just world on climate change skepticism (Feinberg & Willer, 2011). In several of these studies, efficacy statements contribute more to the significant effects than does threat information, with collective efficacy arguably more potent than self-efficacy (Chen, 2016; van Zomeren et al., 2010). Importantly, climate change fear appeals have been shown to have both main and moderating effects on attitudes and/or behavioral intentions only, with no known study having shown effects on actual behavior. Equally, it should be noted that no known study of climate change fear appeals has reported non-significant effects on behavior or on most other indices of issue engagement.
Similarly to the experimental research that has found fear messages can produce pro-environmental shifts in attitudes and intentions, studies that have yielded negative, or “boomerang,” effects have typically observed these effects under qualified conditions only. Scharks (2016), for example, reported evidence that climate change–related threat messages produced only weak effects, with message acceptance (e.g., support for climate change policy changes) decreasing with message-induced psychological reactance (operationalized as anger, thoughts of being manipulated, and production of counter-arguments). Of interest in this study were interaction effects involving political orientation, with right-leaning (compared to left-leaning) participants displaying more reactance and stronger evidence of a boomerang effect when presented with a high (versus low) collective efficacy message. Consistent with this, Hart and Nisbet (2012) reported boomerang effects when Republican—but not Democrat—voting participants were presented with news stories regarding the ill-effects of climate change in distant (versus near) locations. Importantly, the studies (Chen, 2016; Hart & Nisbet, 2012; Li, 2014; Scharks, 2016) that have yielded negative effects have not sought, have not found, and/or not reported evidence that their messages were effective in actually heightening levels of fear. As such, questions regarding the possible negative persuasive effects of fear arousal, per se, remain largely unanswered in the climate change domain.
Arguments for and Against Fear Appeals in Climate Change Communications
Arguments for the Use of Fear Appeals
Arguments offered for the use of fear appeals in the context of climate change largely reflect an understanding of climate change communication as environmental risk communications with a persuasive, criticalness of response intent. These arguments include:
• the need to enhance message salience and audience attention
• the arousal and motivational force of fear
• the argument and some evidence that fear appeals promote systematic elaborated processing of risk information
• the appeal-implied adverse consequences if ameliorative actions are not taken
• the conventional wisdom of increased acceptance of or compliance with suggested harm avoidance actions
• the extensive research evidence from other fields, particularly personal preventive health and safety, that fear appeals (if accompanied by appropriate behavioral instructions and efficacy supports) can assist with message acceptance and engagement
• the widespread precedent of using such a strategy—with this being particularly the case for emergency warnings in the case of environmental threats such as extreme weather events and natural disasters and in the case of preventive health messaging
• a general belief that fear appeals can be effective with respect to communication and influence success.
These arguments and assumptions are typically not raised or addressed in particular applications, with the efficacy of such risk communications using fear appeals depending on many other factors and considerations. Some of these factors are communication source, medium, message framing and content, specific objectives, the success of the fear induction along with other accompanying emotions, as well as the level of fear induced or amplified by the fear appeal used. Again, there is the broader question of how relevant some of these arguments are to climate change communication and engagement.
Arguments Against the Use of Fear Appeals
• Fear appeals have been shown to be counter-productive in particular contexts, having the opposite effect of what was intended and at times referred to as a “boomerang” effect.
• Fear appeals can heighten existing levels of fear—and other related emotions such as anxiety and stress—and in effect reduce the efficacy of the communication.
• The complexity of the phenomenon, threat, and current unfolding reality of climate change makes the selection of the content of the fear appeal problematic.
• The notional psychological distance of climate change with respect to temporal and geographic distance and the difficulty of imagining such a future global phenomenon are factors.
• Chronic use and overuse of fear appeals can diminish issue salience and dangerousness and taxes a “finite pool” of worry (e.g., Weber, 2006).
• Media saturation and sensationalized coverage of projected dangers and implications of climate change appreciably erode public attention and issue engagement.
• These arguments, both for and against, are important, both because of the current dearth of research evidence specific to the context of climate change communication, and because of the underlying considerations and issues they raise. A majority opinion on the part of those working in the “climate change communication and engagement space” has clearly been that fear appeals have not worked and will not work in the context of climate change. Comparison of the content of Box 1 and the Table 1 summary of research suggests the existence of substantial discrepancies between the experimental evidence and the expert advice. Possible reasons for this evidence-advice disparity are discussed in the pages that follow.
Box 1. Representative Views with Respect to the Use of Fear Appeals in the Context of Climate Change Communication
But can such appeals to fear (weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and war) generate a sustained and constructive engagement with this issue of climate change? The answer is usually not. Risk communication and psychological studies add weight to the cautious use of fear appeals. Empirical studies show, for example, that fear may change attitudes and verbal expressions of concern but not active engagement with the issue or actual behavior. (Moser & Dilling, 2004, pp. 37, 39)
The principal problem with fear as the main message of climate change communication is that what grabs attention (dire predictions, extreme consequences) is often not what empowers action. Numerous studies have documented that audiences generally reject fear appeals (or their close cousin, guilt appeals) as manipulative (Moser, 2007; O’Neill & Nicholson-Cole, 2009). Conservative audiences—at least on climate change—have been shown to be particularly resistant to them (Jost et al., 2007). Effective action motivators avoid being blatant and offer solutions that help audiences translate their concern into feasible and effective actions (Floyd et al., 2000). Fear appeals or images of overwhelmingly big problems without effective ways to counter them frequently result in denial, numbing, and apathy (i.e., reactions that control the unpleasant experience of fear rather than the actual threat) (Swim et al., 2009; CRED, 2009). This is particularly important in light of the fact that individuals have been shown to only have a “finite pool of worry,” in which issues rise and fall (Weber, 2006). An excessive focus on negative impacts (i.e., a severe “diagnosis”) without effective emphasis on solutions (a feasible “treatment”) typically results in turning audiences off rather than engaging them more actively (Moser & Dilling, 2007, pp. 164–165).
Be honest and forthright about the probable impacts of climate change and about the scale of the challenge we confront in avoiding these. But avoid deliberate attempts to provoke fear or guilt. There is no merit in “dumbing down” the scientific evidence that the impacts of climate change are likely severe and that some of these impacts are now almost certainly unavoidable. Accepting the impacts of climate change will be an important stage in motivating behavioral responses aimed at mitigating the problem. However, deliberate attempts to instill fear or guilt carry considerable risk. Studies on fear appeals confirm the potential for fear to change attitudes or verbal expressions of concern but often not actions or behavior (Ruiter et al., 2001). The impact of fear appeals is context—and audience—specific; for example, for those who do not yet realize the potentially “scary” aspects of climate change, people need to first experience themselves as vulnerable to the risks in some way in order to feel moved or affected (Das, 2003; de Hoog, Stroebe, & de Wit, 2005). As people move toward contemplating action, fear appeals can help form a behavioral intent, providing an impetus or spark to “move” from; however, such appeals must be coupled with constructive information and support to reduce the sense of danger (Moser, 2007). The danger is that fear can also be disempowering—producing feelings of helplessness, remoteness, and lack of control (O’Neill & Nicholson-Cole, 2009). Fear is likely to trigger “barriers to engagement,” such as denial. (Stoll-Kleemann et al., 2001; Weber, 2006; Moser and Dilling, 2007; Lorenzoni, Nicholson-Cole & Whitmarsh, 2007). The location of fear in a message is also relevant; it works better when placed first for those who are inclined to follow the advice, but better second for those who are not (Bier, 2001) (Climate Change Communication Advisory Group, 2010, p. 4)
Results demonstrate that although fear-inducing representations of climate change have good potential for attracting people’s attention to climate change, fear is generally an ineffective tool for motivating genuine personal engagement. The results presented here certainly demonstrate that on a standalone basis fear, shock, or sensationalism may promote verbal expressions and general feelings of concern but that they overwhelmingly have a “negative” impact on active engagement with climate change (O’Neill & Nicholson-Cole, 2009, pp. 355, 376).
With respect to the relationship between emotion and response to climate change risk and impacts a somewhat complex picture emerges. Although anxiety is a likely result of experiencing or feeling at risk from climate change and associated impacts such as flooding, the available evidence suggests that this may in some instances lead to avoidance (Harries, 2008, 2012; O’Neill & Nicholson Cole, 2009). Hence anxiety provoking communications may have the unintended consequence of inducing mood protection through denial and avoidance rather than action to reduce risk (Lowe et al., 2006). Although it should be noted that work in the broad field of risk communication suggests that such appeals can be effective if they provide recipients with clear, easy-to-execute steps to reduce their own risk (Witte & Allen, 2000). Where no such steps are presented, however, even individuals already concerned about climate change may perceive a lack of personal agency with respect to risk reduction (Lowe et al., 2006) (Taylor, Dessai, & Bruine de Bruin, 2014, p. 24).
Fear arousal—vividly showing people the negative health consequences of life-endangering behaviors—is popular as a method to raise awareness of risk behaviors and to change them into health-promoting behaviors. However, most data suggest that under conditions of low efficacy the resulting reaction will be defensive. Instead of applying fear appeals, health promoters should identify effective alternatives to fear arousal by carefully developing theory- and evidence-based programs (Kok et al., 2014, p. 98).
A trailer for Years of Living Dangerously is terrifying, replete with images of melting glaciers, raging wildfires, and rampaging floods. ‘I don’t think scary is the right word’ intones one voice. ‘Dangerous, definitely.’
Showtime’s producers undoubtedly have the best on intentions. There are serious long-term risks associated with rising greenhouse gas emissions, ranging from ocean acidification to sea-level rise to decreasing agricultural output. But there is every reason to believe that efforts to raise public concern about climate change by linking it to natural disasters will backfire. More than a decade’s worth of research suggests that fear-based appeals about climate change inspire denial, fatalism, and polarization (Nordhaus & Shellenberger, 2014, p. A23).
How is the Risk Domain of Climate Change Different?
How is climate change and the broader compass of “climate change communication” different from those threats and risks that have been the focus of most risk communication and campaign initiatives, programs, and research evaluations since the 1950s? The phenomenon and risk domain of climate change differs from most other risks in being an ongoing, global, and profoundly consequential environmental risk—and, many argue, an increasingly imminent global disaster (e.g., Bell et al., 2001; O’Riordan, 1995; Reser & Swim, 2011; Spratt & Sutton, 2008). Climate change also gives rise to a number of pressing and global systemic risks that are highly interconnected, extremely complex and nonlinear in cause-effect relationships, and random in their effect structures (Renn, 2015). These are integral features of the distinctive character, and “wicked problem” nature and background context of global climate change (e.g., Brown, Harris & Russell, 2010).
In addition, and importantly, climate change is a hybrid environmental risk (e.g., Boyarsky & Shneiderman, 2002; Shaluf, 2007), both of and to the natural environment, reflecting a salient and precipitating human causal contribution and “forcing” of earth’s climatic systems, themselves elemental, powerful, enormously consequential, and deeply symbolic in virtually all cultures (Lockhart, 1988; Hulme, 2008; Morrow, 1996). Such hybrid, natech, tampering-with-nature risk domains bring with them associated meanings (human interference and fault, stigma, projected catastrophic consequences, the unknown) and a skein of intertwined but different emotions (dread, anxiety, loss) (e.g., Baum, Fleming, & Davidson, 1983; Dickert et al., 2015; Finucane & Holup, 2005; Hansen, 2006; Sjoberg, 2000; Slovic, 1987, 2000, 2010). A further and distinctive feature of “climate change” is that the term itself currently conveys and evokes multiple and intersecting referents relating to its issue status, including environmental and ecosystem sustainability issues; vexed political and implicated policy issues; psychological, societal, and humanitarian impact issues; water, food, and extreme event security and safety issues; and the looming threat of dramatically heightened national and global conflicts.
The sustained research fronts and foci that best inform present understandings of the risk domain of climate change are arguably those relating to the “psychometric paradigm,” underscoring attempts to both measure and “map” differing risk perceptions, appraisals, and meanings (e.g., Breakwell, 2010; Dickert et al., 2015; Flynn, Slovic, & Kunreuther, 2001; Pidgeon, Kasperson, & Slovic, 2003; Slovic, 1987, 2000, 2010). While applications of this approach to climate change have been modest (e.g., Finger & Weber, 2011; McDaniels, Axelrod, & Slovic, 1996; Townsend, 2006; Zwick, 2005), this broader body of work tells us much about why and how the risk domain of climate change is so distinct. Although competing models of risk perception exist, such as cultural theory (Douglas & Wildavsky, 1982; Wildavsky & Dake, 1990), the outrage model (e.g., Sandman & Valenti, 1986), and the Attitude and Risk Perception Model (ARPM) (e.g., Sjoberg, 2000), they share much common ground, although they differ in primary levels of analysis. The work of Slovic and colleagues has been particularly valuable in appreciating the relevance of this psychological risk perception and appraisal approach to climate change (Dickert et al., 2015; Slovic, 2000, 2010). A relevant outcome of the work by Sjoberg (2000) and others (e.g., Corner et al., 2013; Hansen, 2006) is that a dimension of “tampering with nature” has been consistently found to be a principal driving factor of the perceived nature and level in environmental risk.
An Existential Threat?
The “existential threat” nature of climate change requires expanded consideration. The full implications of climate change are arguably profoundly frightening and distressing for many, an objective and subjective risk assessment and risk perception “reality” that has been underscored in much media coverage (e.g., Time’s 2006 “Be Worried, Be Very Worried” cover and special climate change issue (Kluger, 2006; Romm, 2016), and in many research reports and articles, popular science articles, and books (e.g., Cullen, 2011, Hansen, 2009, Kolbert, 2006, 2014; Leiserowitz, 2004; Mann & Kump, 2008, Zwick, 2005), and popular culture, including commercial films, documentaries, television series, and social media (e.g., The Day after Tomorrow ; Six Degrees ; State of the Planet ; The 11th Hour ; An Inconvenient Truth ; Years of Living Dangerously ).
While the nature of an existential threat has been a matter of deliberation for many years, a 21st-century consensus definition assists the present purpose and argument.
An existential risk is one that threatens the entire future of humanity. More specifically, existential risks are those that threaten the extinction of earth-originating intelligent life or the permanent and drastic destruction of its potential for desirable future development.
(Future of Humanity Institute , pp. 1–2).
In this and other respects, the ongoing threat and dire global consequences of anthropogenic climate change have much in common with the nuclear threat (e.g., Hulme, 2008; Lifton, 1991; Macy & Brown, 2014; O’Riordan, 1995; Schell, 1982; Zwick, 2005) and an envisioned “nuclear winter” (e.g., Turco, Toon, Ackerman, Pollack, Sagan, 1983; Weinberger, 1985). These commonalities include not only the probability of harm and degree of catastrophe but also how well the phenomenon is understood, how equally the danger is distributed, how well individuals can control their exposure, and whether the risk is voluntary or imposed. In the case of both of these anthropogenic planetary disasters, the risk phenomena evoke the daunting challenges to individual and societal adaptive responding that such grave, global, and potentially catastrophic emergencies pose. An insightful review by Elizabeth Boulton of Timothy Morton’s reframing of climate change as “hyperobject” underscores the existential character of this profound threat in multiple and interesting ways (Boulton, 2016; Morton, 2013). An equally relevant Global Challenges Foundation report (Barratt et al., 2016) views climate change as the most important among global catastrophic risks, followed by nuclear war.
The full nature and psychological and societal implications of this ongoing and existential threat of global climate change have been addressed by many authors (Bostrom, 2013; Bostrom & Cirkovic, 2008; Fritsche & Hafner, 2012; Greenberg, Koole, & Pyszczynski, 2004; Lertzman, 2015; Lovelock, 2009; Marshall, 2009; Posner, 2006). The compass and implications of global climate change and a “nuclear winter” are both of a wholly different magnitude and planetary consequence than the focus of conventional risk communications and fear appeals and are suffused with powerful cultural currents, meanings, and anxieties. What becomes apparent from considerations such as these is that the simple addressing of “climate change” in public communications and media coverage itself constitutes an appreciable “fear appeal,” evoking a spectrum of emotional and analytic risk perception and appraisal responses and symbolic associations in which fear jostles not only with anxiety, uncertainty, anger, loss, and guilt (e.g., Böhm, 2003; Ferguson & Branscombe, 2010; Editorial, 2012; Wang, 2016), but with a genuinely existential angst and dread for many.
The Quantum of Climate Change Risk Communications in the Multimedia Information Environment
Discussions of climate change risk communications have rarely encompassed the parallel existence of myriad climate change risk communications, warning messages, and effective “fear appeals” of a less formal and often non-deliberative nature by way of media coverage and popular culture that publics are constantly exposed to.
We are living in a culture of fear for our future climate. The language of the public discourse around global warming routinely uses a repertoire that includes words such as “catastrophe,” “terror,” “danger,” “extinction,” and “collapse.”
(Hulme, 2008, p. 5)
Such considerations have nonetheless been obliquely examined in research addressing the media coverage of climate change (e.g., Boykoff, 2011; Doulton & Brown, 2009; Pew Research Center, 2015; Stokes, Wike, & Carle, 2015). Hart and Feldman (2014) examined just such media representations in their research addressing climate change in U.S. network news. Media coverage, environmental documentaries, commercial advertising with a climate change theme, television programming, and other popular culture conveyed social representations of climate change typically constitute effective risk communications and fear appeals (e.g., Petty & Wegener, 1998), and their nature and character should arguably be recognized, examined, and taken into consideration when designing what becomes “yet another” risk communication program or campaign. The frightening and increasingly proximal specter of global climate change has, since around 2000, constituted both backdrop and a principal focus of this constant barrage of informal warning messages relating to the global environment and the potent risk to basic life-support systems for many regions of the world. These communications and representations can also reflect contested views, vested interests, and often sensationalized media coverage, resulting in cumulative uncertainty, information overload and fatigue, and the spectrum of emotions that are accompanying the here and now environmental stress of climate change (e.g., Bostrom & Lofstedt, 2003, Ereaut & Segnit, 2006). Although such coverage and representations in many ways simply reflect and express shared concerns, unease, and a collective and culturally mediated foreboding on the part of the world’s publics, this itself is an integral aspect of climate change as an ongoing environmental stressor. And its presence is increasingly felt in our information environment and cultural circuits (e.g., Carvalho & Burgess, 2005; Evans & Cohen, 1987; Reser & Swim, 2011).
The impact of these ubiquitous informal risk communications and effective fear appeals is compounded by daily indirect and virtual exposure to and experience of social representations and media coverage of environmental threats, natech environmental accidents and disasters, and extreme weather events and “natural” disasters (e.g., Balzarotti & Ciceri, 2014; Moser, Bruppacker, & Mosler, 2011; Reser et al., 2014). Increasingly substantial proportions of national populations have as much commerce with the global “information environment” as they do with their immediate and direct natural, built, and social environment (e.g., Hassan, 2008; Krotoski, 2013). Exposure to and experience of environmental threat representations in this information environment are in many ways no less psychologically real than are direct transactions with one’s immediate objective environments. Indeed, “perception is reality” in the context of risk perception and appraisal, aided and abetted by this full spectrum of exposure and experience in our risk appraisals (e.g., Moser & Dilling, 2011). Designed climate change communications have clearly become an integral part of this risk environment to which we are exposed and indeed which we inhabit in our daily lives (e.g., Adam, 1998; Beck, 1992; Tulloch & Lupton, 2003).
It is noteworthy that many of the de facto fear appeals found in the contemporary information environment are by way of multimedia images and popular culture representations and dramatizations of the climate change threat, its manifestations, and its human and environmental consequences. There is little question that many of these images powerfully evoke a spectrum of emotions, including fear (e.g., Hart & Feldman, 2016; Huddy & Gunnthorsdottir, 2000; Mann & Kump, 2008; O’Neill & Nicholson-Cole, 2009; O’Neill et al., 2013; Valkenburg et al., 2015; Visschers et al., 2012; Weber, 2010). The more recent body of work addressing other than text-based risk communications and portrayals of climate change (e.g., Balzarotti & Ciceri, 2014; Lazard & Atkinson, 2014; Metag et al., 2016; O’Neill et al., 2013; Sakellari, 2015; Stenport & Vachula, 2016) clearly suggests that a more encompassing appreciation of environmental risk communications across myriad channels and forms needs to inform research addressing the nature, efficacy, and the appropriateness of more conventional text-based risk communications using fear appeal strategies. Certainly the nature and extent of the images used to convey and communicate the nature, contexts, and consequences of climate change, ranging from environmental documentaries, to commercial films, to richly illustrated books on climate change, to commercials, on line presentations, and television and U-tube news coverage provide innumerable examples of objectively frightening images relating to attributed or foreshadowed climate change impacts. These images as well as texts and talking heads constitute only part of the climate change risk communications being delivered and available through the information environment. Although the “fearful” content of many of these images and visual coverage is often commented upon, there appear to have been few studies examining these de facto fear appeals and their influence. It is noteworthy that a recent study examining such climate change images found that they were rarely associated with feelings of self-efficacy (Metag et al., 2016).
In addition to this indirect experience and exposure, there is increasing and credible evidence that the proportion of national populations that have directly and personally experienced what they believe to be environmental manifestations of climate change is substantial and growing (Reser et al., 2014; Leiserowitz et al., 2013; Myers et al., 2012; Moser, 2014). Reported figures for the United States are 39% (Leiserowitz et al., 2013), 45% for Australia (Reser et al., 2012a), 85% for the Philippines (Social Weather Stations, 2013), and in the case of many indigenous communities in those parts of the world where the impacts of climate change have been felt (and are forcing dramatically altered lifestyles and whole settlement relocations) the numbers would be approaching 100% (e.g., Crate & Nuttall, 2009; Stepien et al., 2014; Wolf & Moser, 2011). The nature, psychological significance, and influence of these personal encounters appear to catalyze prior indirect climate change exposure and experience, making climate change both “real” and a clear, present, and profound danger (Reser et al., 2014). Formal and informal risk communications (including fear appeals) addressing climate change can thus be viewed as redundant to an ongoing and ubiquitously evident “State of the (global) Environment Reporting” that is increasingly centerstage with respect to public and government policy attention and concern. Again, this reality is rarely acknowledged or discussed when strategically crafting public risk communication and issue engagement communications.
Language, Reference, and Meanings
Matters of language and meaning, construct clarity, and message comprehension and response clearly matter in the context of effective communication, particularly with respect to complex environmental phenomena and issues. This certainly matters in the context of implicit or explicit fear appeals in communicating climate change and consequent emotional impacts and responses. Yet the language used in the context of climate change communication remains a largely muted but consequential problem (e.g., Ballantyne, 2016; Nerlich, Koteyko & Brown, 2010). Such considerations relate directly to fear appeals in that the widely accepted meaning of “climate change,” that of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), clearly underscores the anthropogenic character of climate change as a hybrid phenomenon and environmental risk, reflecting both human and natural causal contributions.
Past discussions on how to best make this highly complex and uncertain phenomenon and risk scenario analyzable and experientially meaningful does not appear to have informed the language utilized in fear appeals with respect to the projected human impacts and implications of unfolding climate change. Hence, matters such as the appropriate nature and level of fear in fear appeals, whether related to formally judged “dangerousness” or “emotive” language in the context of climate change communication, remain a vexed and confusing consideration. If we step back from “fear appeals” and consider the nature, multiple referents, and meanings of “climate change” and “global warming” as they have emerged and morphed over the past half century, it is clear that “climate change” encompasses much more than global atmospheric and climatic pattern changes, with its referential and associative meanings including human causality and interference, attendant political, policy, economic, social, humanitarian, and life-support system sustainability issues, and far older and diverse cultural narratives of impending and catastrophic “end of the world” scenarios. These emergent and historical meanings reflect not only scientific and societal apprehensions and alarm but also the current and increasingly well-informed objective assessment of the “dangerousness” of climate change (e.g., Dorries, 2010; Hansen, 2006; Hulme, 2008; IPCC, 2014).
Advice in Climate Change Communication Guides with Respect to Fear Appeals?
What advice is found in existing guides to effective climate change communication with respect to the use of fear appeals? The arguably most authoritative guide, that produced by the Center for Research and Environmental Decision Making at Columbia University (CRED, 2009, 2014), does not address the use of fear appeals, other than by passing reference to “too scary” (p. 31) and “dramatic images that prompt fear” (p. 41), notwithstanding substantial coverage of other influence appeals to identity, self-image, and to virtues, values, and morals. In the forward to this guide the following statement is made:
In 2009, the incoming Obama administration shifted away from Al Gore in its approach to communicating climate change. Research and experience suggested that fear-based arguments had run their course as effective tools for inspiring action.
(CRED, 2014, p. iii)
This stance may well be due to the continuing relative absence of evidence-based best practice with respect to the efficacy and appropriateness of fear appeals in the context of climate change communication. It may also reflect a judgment that there has been too much discursive attention given to the issue of fear appeals and too little emphasis given to the broader compass and mission of communication itself and enhanced issue engagement and understandings.
The advice found in a communication best practice document from the (U.K.) Climate Change Communication Advisory Group (2010) recommends honesty about probable impacts but the avoidance of deliberate attempts “to provoke fear.” Such guidelines at times include reference to both the general fear appeal research and the climate change-specific research that has been undertaken, mentioning key problems and a strong caution, and emphasizing that fear appeals can only be effective when coupled with strong response and outcome efficacy messages and when context and audience specific. (See also Box 1.) An overall impression in reading the advice provided in such guides and relevant articles is that likely problems and issues outweigh possible advantages. Examination of current and classic risk communication and crisis communication guides finds little or no reference to climate change or global warming (e.g., Covello, McCallum, & Pavlova, 1989; Fearn-Banks, 2007; Lundgren & McMakin, 2013) with a few exceptions (e.g., Arvai & Rivers, 2014). While organizations such as the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) in the United States do have “global warming” on their websites and provide many PDF documents online, none of these seem to specifically address risk communication in the context of climate change; nor does the use of fear appeals appear to get specific mention. The general absence of climate change in this broader risk communication context would seem to suggest that experts appreciate that climate change is a very different risk phenomenon and threat, and conventional risk communication expertise does not really address either the challenges involved nor how risk “prevention and preparedness” communications in this context may be best addressed.
It is disappointing and troubling that the recommendation and advice sections of most recent and relevant sources (to the extent they are present) are not particularly helpful. The following concluding statement of a substantial review, for example, provides little in the way of specific advice.
A wide body of literature on the subject of risk communication exists. However, when it comes to the question of how one can best communicate information regarding risks posed by climate change and the steps that may be taken to adapt to resultant impacts to the public in a specific region, there is not a readymade solution. The risk communication literature does, however, provide a framework for addressing this issue (for guidelines see Fischhoff et al. (2012) and Morgan et al. (2001). Strategies for designing effective communications about climate change mitigation or adaptation require a thorough understanding of the target audience, including their relevant perceptions, affect, experiences, beliefs regarding responsibility and agency, attachment to place, identity, and values. Interviews and survey research with the intended audience provide the needed insights (Bostrom, 2013) and is especially important in the context of climate change, where climate experts’ perceptions of climate change differ from those of nonexperts. The review provided here suggests that motivating behaviour change is a feasible endeavour. (Taylor, Dessai, & Bruine de Bruin, 2014, p. 25).
The phenomenon, risk domain, and ongoing threat and challenges of climate change are dramatically different from other well-researched public safety and health-related risk domains and risk communication foci and agendas. Additionally, climate change risk communication is appreciably different from (but shares much common ground with) other public education, public health, and environmental issue engagement initiatives addressing much-needed behavior and lifestyle changes intrinsic to ecological and life support system sustainability and human health and well-being, at both individual and societal levels. These salient differences, notwithstanding commonalities, require a serious rethinking of much conventional wisdom, and what currently constitutes an increasingly daunting and at times confusing body of research findings and best practice principles with respect to climate change risk communication, and climate change communication and engagement. The issue of the efficacy and appropriateness of the use of fear appeals in the context of persuasive social influence communications and campaigns relating to climate change mitigation and adaptation has been a continuing and somewhat paradoxical challenge in this broader context, given the profound and increasingly urgent global threat and disaster that already unfolding climate change constitutes. Also important is the reality that the evidence base with respect to the use of fear appeals in the context of climate change is extremely modest.
This article has attempted to briefly outline why climate change is very different from other risk domains for which fear appeals may be considered or have been utilized. It is particularly worth noting that climate change is an environmental risk, with its anthropogenic character making it a risk both to and of the environment. Hence environmental risks are less clear with respect to endangerment (i.e., who/what is the threat and the victim). Global environmental, ecological, risks are also expansive in that whether the threat is to or of the environment, consequences can be widespread, interactive, self-perpetuating, and irreversible. Climate change is also an ongoing and global environmental risk and condition likely to be with us for millennia. The research literature on environmental risks, and their perception, appraisal, and response, is in many ways as important as the research literature addressing the nature and efficacy of fear appeals in persuasive communications; yet this body of work is only infrequently referred to when considering fear appeals (e.g., Bell et al., 2001; Böhm et al., 2001; Böhm & Pfister, 2005; Gifford, 2014; O’Riordan, 1995). Also the psychometric research literature examining environmental risks as contrasted with other risk domains, and particularly hybrid or natech environmental risks, suggests that risk perceptions and emotional responses to such an anthropogenic and potentially catastrophic environmental risk encompass a spectrum of salient and specific emotional responses and associated meanings in addition to fear, with these latter including dread, stigma, the unknown, involuntary exposure, and “tampering with nature” (Breakwell, 2010; Dickert et al., 2015; Renn & Benighaus, 2013; Slovic, 1987, 2000, 2010).
Clearly climate change communications to public audiences will elicit a range of emotional and analytic responses of which some level of fear is a probable response, whether or not an intentional fear appeal is embedded in the communication and message. A number of other likely emotional responses are closely aligned with fear, including alarm, concern, foreboding, anxiety, and distress. These other emotional and cognitive responses are inevitably interacting with any fear response, including arousal itself, uncertainty, sadness, anger, guilt, vulnerability, and powerlessness. These emotional responses can also constitute powerful motivators. Fear does not arise or operate independently of other feelings and thoughts, of symbolic associations, or one’s immediate circumstances and contexts (e.g., Nabi & Wirth, 2008; Slovic et al., 2004; Schwarz & Clore, 2007).
The real matter in question then is to what extent can a strategic and informed public communication inclusion of personal or collective risk relating to the ongoing threat of climate change enhance or possibly diminish target audience issue engagement, climate change understanding, psychological adaptation, or pro-environmental behavioral responses and changes. Framed somewhat differently, does intentionally elicited and actually experienced fear in climate change communication contexts appreciably influence, positively or negatively, attention to, reception of, acceptance of, retention of, or subsequent action with respect to recommendations or exhortations made (e.g., McGuire, 1985). The research literature and available evidence would suggest that such influence is very modest in the case of climate change, whether positive or negative, and that the nature of this climate change risk domain, ongoing and salient environmental changes and events attributed to climate change, and the disturbing and frightening nature of the risk messages carried by our contemporary “information environment,” would account for far more response variance than this one embedded fear appeal aspect of message content and strategy in public communications about climate change.
We know from decades of research on the relative efficacy of fear appeals in behavior change focused persuasive and risk communications that risk appeals can be useful, but the use of such fear appeals in climate change communication and engagement has not been demonstrated, to date, to be particularly effective. There are many reasons for this which have been canvased in this article and by other authors. They include:
• the distinct risk domain nature of climate change
• its status as a global threat and rapidly unfolding planetary condition of profound consequence
• its companion status as an ongoing and global environmental stressor interacting with and exacerbating other environmental and social stressors
• the ubiquitous use of fear-evoking framing, images, and language in contemporary media coverage, popular culture, and scientific reports relating to climate change
• the already elevated levels of climate change concern, anxiety, and distress within the general populace of most countries
• the seeming disconnect between the requisite companion emphasis on felt self-efficacy and ideally outcome efficacy and the global magnitude and convergent drivers and momentum of climate change
• the reality that for most non-climate change social influence campaigns, the objectives are very different from that of communicating and engaging with individuals and communities in their coming to terms with and acting adaptively to the realities and full implications of global climate change
The nature of risk-as-feeling and risk-as-analysis takes on particular immediacy and relevance in this broader context of the psychological impacts of the ongoing and ultimately existential threat of climate change, and the continuous virtual and vicarious exposure and experienced vulnerability associated with the contemporary information environment (e.g., Clayton, Manning & Hodge, 2014; Doherty & Clayton, 2011; Weissbecker, 2011). In this context emotions such as concern, distress, and felt need to counter experienced helplessness and take personal action would appear to be more salient and potent than fear in initiating issue engagement, resolve, and lifestyle changes and decisions (e.g., Loewenstein et al., 2001; Reser et al., 2012b).
It is evident that there exist a number of conflicting stances and arguments with respect to the use of fear appeals in the context of climate change communication. On the one hand, there is credible evidence and reasonable consensus that well-considered fear appeals accompanied by strong response and outcome efficacy messages can be effective across a number of contexts, including preventive health and disaster preparedness risk communications. On the other hand, there is little evidence (but nevertheless cogent argument and a prevailing view) that fear appeals do not appear to be efficacious in the context of climate change communication and engagement and can indeed be counterproductive. Yet there are also compelling arguments to the effect that the impending and indeed unfolding environmental and human impacts of global climate change will be profoundly consequential, and this grave reality, “global emergency,” and the “dangerousness” of climate change must be clearly and accurately communicated to the public, to policymakers, and to national and international government bodies.
It is also the case that effective climate change communications must counter the vexed politics, vested interests, and continuing lobby group efforts to undermine the science, the urgency, and the crucial need for effective global action. Additionally, it is clear that although there are conflicting and contested messages addressing climate change in the media-infused information environment that so encompasses modern life, the majority of these “communications” are effectively “risk” communications, often presented with powerful and disturbing imagery and scientific authority. Many though have argued that media representations and popular culture have exaggerated, sensationalized, and at times caricaturized the phenomenon and threat of climate change, with this so-called climate porn leading to both the spurious amplification and worrying attenuation of this pending and objectively catastrophic global crisis (e.g., Ereaut & Segnit, 2006; Lowe et al., 2006; Pidgeon, Kasperson & Slovic, 2003). These conflicting views and this existing spectrum of climate change communications also reflect in varying degrees the differences between science- and professional-judgment-based environmental risk assessments, social representations of environmental risks, and individual-level subjective risk perceptions and appraisals (e.g., Böhm et al., 2001; Gifford, 2014; Steg, van den Berg, & de Groot, 2013).
The emerging science and professional practice of climate change communication and engagement (e.g., Moser, 2010, 2016; Whitmarsh et al., 2011) must navigate this increasingly urgent, multidisciplinary, and contested arena of influencing individual, civic, and policy responses with care and clarity of purpose. If the objective is that of risk communication, persuasion, and targeted preventive or corrective behavior change, fear appeals have not evidenced appreciable efficacy and may be counterproductive. If the objective is to communicate with and engage public audiences, then it would seem that issue engagement and strategically fostering and guiding a more individual and societal level coming to terms with the realities and implications of climate change would be a more strategic and achievable aim. It is arguable that a more strategic and useful communication inclusion would be an acknowledgement of the objectively grave threat of climate change, an acknowledgement of the concern and distress that exposure to media coverage, conversations, or thinking about climate change can lead one to experience, and that “coming to terms with” this reality, and engaging with the issue or taking action, can substantially assist in managing one’s internal “environment” while making a difference in one’s external environment and lifespace, with these convergent multiple benefits having appreciably more psychological significance and motivational currency than designed fear induction (Bradley et al., 2014; Reser et al., 2012b).
The matter of the appropriateness of the use of fear appeals in the context of climate change communication is a different question from those of efficacy or strategic merit. It is, essentially, a values-based and ethical issue and judgment consideration, with the relevance of empirical research relating to efficacy having more to do with assessments of relative benefit versus adverse emotional and well-being impacts. Appropriateness is nonetheless an important matter in the context of the preceding review given the views expressed by many experts working in the climate change communication and engagement space (see Box 1). An important question is whether these views are largely based on incorrect assumptions with respect to what current research findings with respect to the efficacy of fear appeals more generally and in the context of climate change communication are indicating. Or, conversely, are they based on more reflective, values-based ethical judgments? If indeed research findings were to demonstrate that intentional fear induction consistently and appreciably enhanced aspects of climate change communication message reception and influence with respect to issue engagement, a cost benefit analysis may be justified. But if future and credible climate-change-specific research findings evidenced only modest or no efficacy with respect to fear appeals, then the ethical appropriateness of the continued use of fear appeals could well be called into question (e.g., Guttman, 2000; Guttman & Salmon, 2004).
The quandary and challenge, however, is that the urgency and unfolding consequences of climate change require clear and honest risk prevention and preparedness communication programs on the part of relevant government agencies and authorities. There is an inevitable and intrinsic grave environmental threat and consequent risk perception, appraisal, and strong emotional response character to such public communications and campaigns. It is clearly of paramount importance to clarify the distinctive and interactive roles of ongoing environmental threat and those emotions involved in environmental risk perception and appraisal, with particular consideration given to the hybrid risk of climate change. Such advances will better inform the putative arousal and motivational roles of strategically induced fear within the broader context of individuals’ responses to the ongoing threat and stressor of climate change. They will also encourage specific attention to the nature, salience, personal importance, and content of ubiquitous warning messages and de facto fear appeals relating to climate change and its unfolding and projected consequences in the contemporary information environment.
In concluding this article we have tasked ourselves with compiling a set of recommendations which we feel reflect current research evidence and evidence-based best practice guidance with respect to considerations and decisions regarding the possible use of fear appeals in climate change communication and engagement. See Box 2. Our caution is that the requisite and broader experimental evidence base which is needed to more adequately inform and support these recommendations and guidelines does not currently exist, but remains an urgent priority.
Table 1. Summary of Experimental Research into Effects of Climate Change–Related Fear Appeals (plus selected research that used other methods, messages, and measures).
Authors & Year
Source, Channel & Context of Fear Appeal
Participants (Audience or Recipients)
and Message Content
DV(s) & Findings
written scripts, supplemented, in the HF condition, with a photo. Source of stimulus material not given.
217 Taiwanese undergraduate students.
Between-subjects experiment, with three levels of fear as the IV and one DV. LF condition text contained information about the “climate crisis” and its causes. Plus information specific to Taiwan in MF condition. Plus emotive photo in HF condition. Messages contained no actual “appeal.”
Compared to HF, LF yielded greater self-reported fear, and greater intentions/willingness to engage in pro-environmental behavior. In the MF condition, evoked fear was not different from the LF condition. The effect of MF on intentions is not reported.
Some evidence that moral obligation to act predicts intentions regardless of fear condition. Collective efficacy predicted intentions in the HF, but not the LF, condition.
Feinberg & Willer (2011) Study 1
Message sourced form IPCC material. Presented in newspaper article format.
Pre- and post-tests after receipt of dire (devastating outcomes) vs. positive outcomes messages.
(Beliefs in a just world were measured 3–4 weeks prior to the experiment.)
Exposure to the dire message led to increased CC skepticism in pts. with strong beliefs in a just world, but not in those with weaker beliefs. Exposure to the positive message led to decreased skepticism, regardless of just world beliefs.
Findings interpreted as showing that people will be dismissive of a dire/catastrophic CC message, rather than having their just world beliefs undermined.
Two segments of 60 seconds from TV and Internet advertisements
45 community members.
Pts. were first primed vs. not primed to make just world beliefs more salient. Then all pts. were exposed to a dire CC message. Messages contained no actual “appeal.”
Pts. primed with just-world statements reported higher CC skepticism and lower willingness to make lifestyle change to reduce CC impacts, than did those not primed.
Effect of just world priming on willingness was mediated by increased CC skepticism.
Hart & Nisbet (2012)
Presented as news stories, with photos of eight victims of CC.
Sourced from Associated Press.
240 non-student residents of upstate rural New York.
Random assignment to high vs. low social distance news story vs. control (no story) conditions. Tested a moderated mediation model, with measures of political partisanship as the moderator and identification with the victims of CC as the mediator. Messages contained no actual “appeal.”
Message (H vs. L) condition, political partisanship, and their interaction predicted identification with victims. The interaction also had an indirect effect on CC policy support, with Republicans (but not Democrats) influenced in a negative direction in response to the messages. A second analysis revealed a direct effect on policy support of message condition, with this effect seemingly stronger for H (vs. L) social distance messages among Republicans only.
Findings interpreted as providing evidence of a boomerang effect among Republican voters, in that policy support was lower after message exposure than in control condition, and this effect was stronger when the message depicted distant (vs. local) victims.
Subjective fear was not measured.
Hine & Gifford (1991)
Presented as a 318-word written script, together with 14 vivid slides. Source not given.
104 psychology students.
Random assignment to either an experimental (factual anti–water pollution editorial, containing local and global content) or control (article on postmodernist architecture) conditions.
Experimental group displayed higher verbal commitment to pro-environmental actions and donated more money.
No effect on donation of time.
(Also no effect on willingness to sign a petition, which had ceiling effects and was dropped prior to analyses.)
None of seven individual difference variables (including gender, optimism, and political orientation) was correlated with the behavioral DVs, and only one was correlated with verbal commitment.
Hartmann, Apaolaza, D’Souza, Burrutia & Echebarria (2014)
Presented as a series of photos, with text captions, on screen as part of a questionnaire. Source not given.
Nationally representative quota sample of 600 Australian panel members.
3 (threat message) x 2 (coping efficacy information). HT message contained climate-change related mortality salience. MT displayed less severe threats. Also, a control (no message) condition. Messages contained no actual “appeal.”
No differences between HT and MT conditions on perceived threat, the mediator (subjective fear aroused), or the two behavioral intention DVs (voting and green electricity purchasing).
All comparisons between HT and the control condition showed effects of threat message on perceived threat, fear, and both intentions.
Subjective fear predicted both intentions, and it mediated the relationship between threat message and both intentions.
Coping efficacy information led to reduced fear arousal.
Perceived threat, fear aroused, and perceived coping efficacy predicted one intention DV, and all but coping efficacy predicted the other.
Also found threat message x coping efficacy information interaction effects on fear and response efficacy.
Four news stories depicting CC warnings extracted from a database of 2281 Taiwanese news stories.
Convenience sample of 263 Taiwanese communication students.
Pretest-posttest design in which two kinds of attitudes and two kinds of intentions were measured both before and after reading one of four randomly allocated news stories—either high on both threat and efficacy (HH), high threat-low efficacy (HL), low threat-high efficacy (LH), or low on both (LL).
At T2, among LL participants only, most attitudes and intentions were lower than at T1; among HH participants only one attitude was higher at T2 than at T1.
At T2, most attitudes and intentions were highest in the HH condition than in HL and LH, which were in turn higher than in the LL group.
Regression analyses revealed efficacy statements predicted attitudes and intentions better than did threat statements.
Findings interpreted as supporting an “additive” version of the Extended Parallel Processing Model (Witte, 1992) model.
Neither threat nor efficacy seem to have been effectively manipulated. (Efficacy manipulation resembles a behavioral instruction manipulation).
Meijnders, Midden, & Wilke (2001a)
700-word written script (MF) Same script plus 5 vivid photos (HF). Source not given.
120 (paid) Dutch community members.
3 (Fear: high vs. medium vs. control) x 2 (Strength of arguments regarding use of a new energy-saving light bulb (a de facto response efficacy message): four strong arguments vs. four weak arguments)
Compared to the control condition, MF and HF messages had positive effects on attitudes to adopting the behavior. No differences between MF and HF. The HF-effect occurred regardless of argument strength, whereas MF effect occurred only with strong arguments.
Some evidence that the relationship between intention and behavior was stronger under HF than other conditions. Also evidence that the number of issue-relevant thoughts generated increased with fear.
Measured perceived fearfulness of message, and demonstrated successful manipulations of both IVs.
Argued that the effects of fear may be direct (if HF) or indirect, through deep processing of arguments (if MF).
Meijnders, Midden, & Wilke (2001b)
3.5 minute videos on CC that varied not in risk information but in vividness (sound, music, expressiveness of voice-over). Videos included explicit
recommendations for action. Source not given. Written texts were used to manipulate strength of arguments in favor of using energy-efficient lightbulbs.
162 Dutch community members.
2 (Prior levels of measured CC concern (median split): high vs. low) x 3 (Fear: moderate (MF) vs. low (LF) vs. control [irrelevant video]) x 2 (Strength of arguments regarding use of a new energy-saving light bulb (a de facto response efficacy message): three strong arguments vs. three weak arguments).
Attitudes and behavioral intentions measured at T1 and T2 (three weeks later).
No main effects for the fear IV on attitudes or behavioral intentions.
Main effects of prior concern on attitudes to adopting the behavior. Concern x fear interaction on T2 (but not T1) attitudes: concern affected attitudes in the control condition only, i.e., fear neutralized the previously obtained difference between concern groups.
Most important finding was the significant argument strength x fear interaction on attitudes and intentions: at both T1 and T2, the effect of argument strength was significant on both DVs in the MF condition only (i.e., attitudes and intentions were highest in MF-strong argument condition).
Pilot showed videos to not induce different CC risk perceptions or knowledge.
Measured subjective fear, and successfully manipulated both IVs.
Also found a concern x argument interaction on issue-relevant thoughts (strong arguments produced deep processing in concerned pts only), and a marginally significant three-way (fear x concern x arguments) effect on T1 intentions.
Findings interpreted as showing that fear, but not prior concern, increases systematic processing of risk communications.
(Scharks, 2016) Study 2
Presented by researcher (without acknowledging the source) as a 20-second exposure to a mock, still advertisement on screen.
Source not given.
845 US Mechanical Turk panel members.
2 (CC advertisement vs. control advertisement) x 2 (psychological distance of threat: low vs. high) x 2 (self-efficacy: low vs. high) x 2 (collective efficacy: low vs. high).
Counter-arguments elicited via a thought-listing task.
Measured political orientation
Relative to the control, the CC advertisement had a small positive effect on CC policy support.
The CC advertisement led to reactance (operationalized as measures of anger, thought-manipulation, and counter-arguments). This CC advertisement-induced reactance did not decrease with increasing efficacy or distance.
Message acceptance (e.g., policy support) decreased with reactance, but more so for right-leaning pts.
Right-leaning pts. displayed far more reactance (hence, there was an advertisement exposure x political orientation interaction).
The IVs affected policy support not directly, but indirectly through reactance, and this effect was also stronger for right-wing pts. (Hence, it was a moderated mediation model.)
Reactance was negatively associated with donations, and reactance suppressed this effect regardless of political orientation.
Did not report a check on whether pts. experienced fear.
Some evidence of a boomerang effect, with policy support lower in the CC advertisement condition than the control condition, but only among right-leaning pts. who displayed high reactance.
As for Study 2
As for Study 2
2 (psychological distance of threat: low vs. high) x 2 (self-efficacy: low vs. high) x 2 (collective efficacy: low vs. high), with right-wing orientation (Yes. vs. No) as a measured variable
No effect of the psychological distance manipulation. Effects of the efficacy manipulations were weak.
No significant distance x efficacy interaction effects. Main finding of interest is a boomerang effect on policy support for the collective efficacy manipulation among right-leaning pts.
The experimental manipulations did not affect self-reported levels of fear.
van Zomeren, Spears, & Leach (2010): Study 1
Written text containing data attributed to the IPCC.
105 Dutch under-graduate students (81% female).
2 (Fear: present vs. absent) x 2 (Self-efficacy: present vs. absent).
Group efficacy was also measured.
Fear, but not self-efficacy, yielded elevated levels of environmental action intentions. The interaction was not significant.
Regression analyses revealed unique effects on the DV for the fear manipulation and the group efficacy measure.
Written text containing data attributed to the IPCC, plus in the fear condition, a one-minute clip from the film, An Inconvenient Truth.
78 Dutch under-graduate students (82% female).
2 (Fear: present vs. absent) x 2 (Group-efficacy: present vs. absent).
Both the fear and the group-efficacy, manipulations yielded elevated levels of environmental action intentions. The interaction was not significant.
Findings interpreted as evidence in support of a “dual coping process” model, with fear triggering emotion-focused coping, and collective efficacy triggering problem-focused coping
Xue, Hine, Marks, Phillips, Nunn, & Zhao (2016)
Excerpt from the Chinese Greenpeace website. Presented as longer and shortened versions of a video.
515 adult residents of Beijing, China.
Two message versions, both high CC threat, but only one contained strategies to reduce threats and advice as to how to apply these in daily life. Measured environmental worldviews, and perceived self- and response-efficacy. Tested effects of message, worldviews, and message x worldviews.
Worldviews predicted intentions to engage in damage control responses and fear control responses.
Perceived efficacy predicted both response intentions.
Worldviews predicted perceived efficacy.
Message type (presence vs. absence of strategies) x worldviews predicted perceived efficacy.
Fear arousal was not measured. Main contributions include identification of the worldviews held by individuals whose perceived efficacy in responding to CC increased with presence (vs. absence) of “concrete, actionable advice about how to combat CC” (p. 49).
Abbreviations used: CC = climate change. FA = fear appeal. HF = high fear; MF = moderate fear; LF = low fear. HT = high threat; MT = moderate threat; LT = low threat.
Box 2. Recommendations Regarding Use of Fear Appeals in Climate Change Communications
Fear appeals have effects that vary with aspects of the goal, source, content, mode of presentation, audience, and context of the message. There is, therefore, no single or simple answer to the questions of whether and how fear appeals should be used in climate change communications. Two preliminary points can, however, be made. First, fear appeals are more likely to be effective if used in ways that conform to general principles of effective persuasive communication (e.g., use of attractive and credible sources, clear and comprehensible content, tailoring to the audience, etc.; see Moser, 2010; Moser & Dilling, 2011; Ruiter et al., 2001). Second, given the potential for unwanted outcomes (including no effects, diminishing returns from repeated use, and boomerang effects), fear appeals need to be used with caution. Prior to implementation, their content and mode of presentation need to be pilot tested in settings that approximate their intended use and refinements made based on feedback received. This need for caution is reiterated frequently in the literature. Moser (2007, p. 69), for example, noted that emotions such as fear can be powerful motivators as well as de-motivators of action, and thus “playing with emotional appeals to create urgency is like playing with fire” (p. 69). Relatedly, Meijnders et al. (2001b) observed that the use of fear appeals as a communication strategy “requires a delicate touch” (p. 965).
Beyond these points, what advice can be offered that is more specific to fear appeals? We address this question by posing three other questions:
How scary? Fear appeals can be of persuasive benefit by fulfilling one or both of two roles: first, by grabbing attention and thereby mobilizing action, and second, by facilitating elaborate processing of information. To serve these roles effectively, messages must induce the amount of fear that is optimal for the particular goal, audience, and context. Too little fear may not engage and energize; too much may overwhelm. On some occasions, what is optimal are medium to high levels of threat severity and medium to high levels of audience susceptibility. In other circumstances, lower levels of threat and susceptibility may be appropriate. In making this “how scary?” decision, important moderating factors to consider include preexisting (baseline) levels of climate change–related fear, and (left versus right-wing) political affiliation, with higher levels of fear induction more likely to be efficacious with audiences dominated by moderately, but not excessively concerned individuals and politically moderate and left-leaning individuals. Ethical issues, especially the potential for messages to increase fear to unwelcome and unhealthy levels, require consideration. These concerns may be a particularly strong deterrent to the use of fear appeals when the audience contains large numbers of individuals who lack self-efficacy and other sources of resilience.
Accompanied by what other message content? Fear appeals are unlikely to be effective unless accompanied by instructions or practical advice as to what actions should be taken (Meijnders et al., 2001b; Ruiter et al., 2001). Instructional information should enable recipients to appreciate the connections and contingencies between, on the one hand, the problems posed by climate change and potential solutions to these problems and on the other hand, performance of the recommended actions. Instructions that break the needed behavioral responses into short-term, achievable goals may increase self-efficacy and encourage engagement.
In addition, fear messages should include credible response efficacy and self-efficacy information: that is, assurances that the recommended behaviors are achievable and effective. When the goal of the message is an increase in political engagement, messages may also include information pertaining to “external efficacy”—or information aimed at increasing beliefs that governing bodies will be responsive to public opinion—and especially responsive to the approaches from and demands of members of the current audience (Hart & Feldman, 2016). The criticality of efficacy information is likely to depend on baseline levels of audience efficacy. When these levels are low, presentation of efficacy information may be more important than presentation of threat information, because, in the absence of efficacy beliefs, threat information may lead not adaptive attempts to manage the threat, but to psychological reactance and fear control responses including message derogation and attributions of manipulative intent (Popova, 2014; Scharks, 2016; Witte, 1992). Arguably, unless accompanied by efficacy information, fear appeals should be not be used at all (Peters et al., 2013).
How presented? Fear messages typically depict both a threat and a means of avoiding that threat. This content can be presented in numerous ways, with effectiveness likely to vary in response. Some authorities recommend using stories, or case studies of determination and triumph to personalize the issue and provide realistic hope of overcoming the threat (Green, Strange & Brock, 2003). Such personal narratives may help recipients to identify with victims. Research also suggests that text providing both fear-induction and efficacy information may be effectively complemented by the judicious use of visual imagery (O’Neil, 2013).
Recognizing that “one size (of persuasive communication) does not fit all,” fear messages need to be framed in ways that appeal to their audience. The message should not, in particular, be framed in ways that threaten the livelihood, deep-seated values, sense of self, and/or social identity of the audience (Moser, 2007). Thus, when communicating with individuals who are dismissive of climate change, the threat is more likely to be taken seriously if not referred to as “climate change,” depicted as local (rather than remote), and not requiring collective action (Hart & Nisbet, 2012; Hine et al., 2016; Scharks, 2016). When communicating with individuals who have strong beliefs in a “just world,” the message may be more persuasive if threat levels are depicted as modest only (Feinberg & Willer, 2011).
Alternatives to Fear Appeals
Fear appeals can play a useful role as one strategy within a multipronged approach to climate change issue engagement. However, as other articles within this volume demonstrate, a range of alternative and complementary strategies can also be used when seeking to engage audiences in climate change–related thoughts and actions. These alternatives include more focused attempts to raise audience self-efficacy/sense of personal control/empowerment, strategies that invite rethinking of expected response costs and benefits, appeals to the audience’s core values (regarding, for example, community and economic prosperity), strategies that emphasize goal setting and feedback as to progress toward goal achievement, provision of tangible and emotional social support, references to descriptive and inductive norms, assistance with the provision of low-cost behavioral alternatives, and arguments linking recommended actions to the audience’s social identity or cherished values (Moser, 2007). Nisbet (2009) identifies eight frames through which climate change messages can be effectively communicated (and fear is not one of them). Many of these strategies and message frames represent more promising approaches to climate change issue involvement than do fear appeals. Even within the narrower intervention domain of “emotional appeals,” fear-induction is not necessarily the most efficacious approach. Thus, many authorities (e,g., Bain, Hornsey, Bogiorno, & Jeffries, 2012; Hastings et al., 2004; Moser, 2007; Smith & Leiserowitz, 2014) recommend appeals to positive emotions such as hope rather than to fear. In addition, Smith and Leiserowitz advocate strategies that draw on feelings of worry and interest, and Hastings et al. recommend use of empathy-inducing messages, humor, and, for younger audiences, postmodern irony. Thus, while fear appeals may work under some circumstances, most writers agree that they are not the best (nor the only) way to appeal for public engagement with climate change.
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