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Fear-Based Climate Appeals Can Be Counterproductive

New research suggests that environmental groups can persuade more people by focusing on a positive attitude toward climate action.
Children and students participate in a #FridaysForFuture climate protest on March 15th, 2019, in Berlin, Germany.

Children and students participate in a #FridaysForFuture climate protest on March 15th, 2019, in Berlin, Germany.

Calls to take action against climate change are growing increasingly urgent. Drawing on recent research, advocates often point to the enormous costs of inaction, and how the perils will only mount in the years ahead.

Scaring people is a time-honored way of trying to convince people to change their minds. But new research suggests that, when it comes to climate change, that strategy might be backfiring.

In two experiments, a team of researchers found that people were more likely to get involved in the effort to save the environment if they read a pitch that emphasized the health benefits that would result, rather than one that frightened them with visions of likely losses.

The researchers report that, for some participants, negative campaigns inadvertently served as reminders of their own health issues, or those of family members. This turned their focus inward, prompting an attitude of "I'd like to help, but I don't have the time or energy."

"Our results suggest that the dominant justification for carbon reduction policies may unintentionally make policy change less likely," write Adam Seth Levine of Cornell University and Reuben Kline of Stony Brook University. Their study is published in the Journal of Experimental Political Science.

One experiment took place in May of 2016. Partnering with an environmental organization, the researchers purchased about 100,000 email addresses from Care2, which calls itself "the world's largest online community for good." All belonged to women over the age of 25.

One third received a control message that advocated for clean-energy policies. Another third received that message in a framework that emphasized loss. It stated that, by taking action on climate, "We would be less affected by food and water shortages, and health issues that come with higher temperatures."

A final third received the message of activism in a positive frame: "Using cleaner forms of energy will reduce air and water pollution," the email stated. "It'd make for a healthier society."

After reading the message, recipients were asked to sign an online petition, and in the process join the environmental organization. The researchers report that 366 people who received the positive message did so, compared to only 269 who received the email emphasizing loss.

Among those who read the frame-free message, 321 signed up. These findings suggest that the positive frame inspired activism, while the negative one dampened it.

The second study, which featured 526 people recruited online, was similarly structured, except it also included a question about whether the respondent or a family member had experienced a health emergency in the past year.

The researchers found that the dampening effect of the loss-framed message was restricted to those who were dealing with, or had recently dealt with, serious health problems in their family. Those people "were also more likely to say that the information they received reminded them about how their health limited their ability to do things they want to do."

So, while the frightening framing may have been persuasive, it simultaneously triggered reminders of the subjects' own personal difficulties, which reduced the likelihood they would get involved in climate advocacy.

"People become more active when organizations employ frames that resonate with personal goals such as staying healthy," the researchers conclude. But this new research suggests that people's "perceptions of whether they can 'afford' activism are context-dependent—and political rhetoric can affect those perceptions."

In fairness, there's little reason for optimism regarding climate change. But if they wish to motivate folks to join the cause, environmental groups would be wise to find frameworks that offer a positive payoff.