This has been the dominant strategy so far – tell people how bad things are going to get if we don’t make changes now, and the fear of an uninhabitable planet will motivate people to start changing their act. But does this really work? Can we appeal to people to make changes in their behaviour in order to reduce climate change by using fear?
Theories of social influence and persuasion paint a complicated picture. For example, if you think that David Suzuki is a legitimate ambassador and a valuable source of information on climate change, then the fear that rises in you may in fact motivate you to start doing something. If you think the government or oil companies (and their scientists) are legitimate sources of information, then perhaps the opposite will occur. But if you fall into the latter camp, then any fear-based message that is coming from the environmentalist side will be met not with scrutiny. Instead, all the focus will be on the fact that the message comes from an illegitimate source, and the message itself will be ignored without thought or reason. This is why you may often hear things like “Oh, that David Suzuki. Isn’t he kind of radical? He is such an alarmist.” Sure, if that is what you want to believe, but that hardly negates the message, which is separate from David Suzuki himself. Unfortunately, research shows that reactive attitudes are exceptionally persistent, especially when there is pride associated with being resistant to persuasive messages.
The other problem with fear-based approach is that it only works when the target of the message feels vulnerable to the threat. We can talk about increased severe weather – heat waves, tornadoes, hurricanes, snow, etc. but people are very adept at the “it won’t happen to me” bias. As severe weather events increase, this may become easier to overcome – when people in places like New York experience hurricanes, it’s harder for them to say it can’t happen to them. But this means we have to wait until enough people have experienced such adversity before we can get them to change their behaviour. There needs to be another approach in the mean time.
And then there is this gem: a study found that, “the fear of publicly supporting favoured causes in which one had no stake prevented nonvested individuals from acting on their attitudes.” In other words, even if you can persuade someone to change their attitude about climate change, unless how this will serve their self-interest is readily apparent, attitude will not result in behaviour change. It is quite common to talk to people who believe climate change is happening, who believe that human behaviour is a contributing cause, and who are not necessarily doing anything about it because the personal costs right now are high, and personal costs in the future…. are for future you to worry about.
Many of our current behaviours are habits of convenience – and changing those takes more than changing attitudes. What we must focus on is building up people’s capacity to effect change in their lives, and their belief that these changes are not a waste of time, that they will have an impact. The perception of control – that people are choosing to do something, that they have the resources to do it, and that it will have impact, is crucial to mobilizing all the people who are already silently on our side.