Appeals to fear gain little support for the Left on climate change. What next?

Summary: Fear has worked wonders for the Right but despite massive investments it has failed to produce much for the Left, hence their diminished state in US politics. As their major campaign clanks on with little public policy effect, some on the Left ask questions about this tactic — and scientists’ studies give answers. Today’s post reviews the action, on which so much depends.  {1st of 2 posts today.}

Few activists,Left or Right, believe John. They find FEAR a more reliable tool.John 8-32

After 25 years of fear barrages, one of the greatest efforts of the Left in recent history, public concern about climate change in the US remains low vs. other environmental risks (see this post and a 2015 Gallup poll). Now they’re beginning to ask questions about their tactics. Why has fear worked wonders for the Right but done so little for them?

It’s a pivotal moment for the Left in America. Climate change has been their key issue, one that ties together much of their work and in which they have invested massive resources. So far it has failed due to a combination of an uncooperative climate, opposition from the Right, and an unusually fear-resistant public. How they react might determine the role in US history for another generation — or longer.

For an excellent long-form look at these complex issues, see Andy West’s article at Climate Etc about “Contradiction on emotional bias in the climate domain“. He sets the stage…

Along with a great deal of subconscious or unconsidered emotive communication advocating CAGW {catastrophic anthropogenic global warming}, deliberately emotive communication campaigns have been a feature of the Consensus (in its widest sense, i.e. including government agencies, NGOs, much of academia etc.) for many years. There doesn’t seem to have been any systemic effort to hide this approach.

Quite the contrary; articles and papers discussing the various merits or otherwise of specific emotive crafting are easy to find, often with recommendations for improved efforts along the same lines. And this literature is clearly phrased in the context that such campaigns are, as self-perceived, a norm. Perhaps even more than just a norm; a gratifying achievement with an aspiration for more. Yet the relative lack of success of these campaigns (as assessed via surveys) has caused more reflection and analysis in recent years.

Diagnosis of failure

West cites many powerful articles about this. Here are excerpts from several of them. First, “The Role of Emotion in Global Warming Policy Support and Opposition“, Nicholas Smith and Anthony Leiserowitz, Risk Analysis, May 2014. What makes people concerned about climate change? Appealing to which emotion gains the most support?

This research found that discrete emotions alone were able to explain a large proportion of the variance (50%) in public global warming policy support. Further, discrete emotions were the strongest predictors of policy support, even controlling for other factors like holistic affect, imagery, values, sociodemographics, political party, and ideology.

Worry, in particular, was the single strongest predictor. That is, the more respondents worried about global warming, the more likely they were to support national climate and energy policies.

Interestingly, however, fear was not associated with increased policy support. … This finding has important implications for climate change educators and communicators. Fear appeals have often been used under the assumption that scaring the public about climate change will engage them in the issue, motivate individual action, and generate public support for broad policy change, but recent research demonstrates that fear appeals are often ineffective or even counterproductive. “Dire” fear-based messaging around extreme weather and other climate phenomena (39, 53) has been found to raise anxieties, but also to distance the public. (54)

O’Neill and Nicholson-Cole (55) found that catastrophic and alarmist visual imagery actually decreased public engagement with the issue. When frightened about a threat that seems individually uncontrollable, many individuals purposively disengage, via psychological distancing, as a form of emotion-focused coping. (56)

Fear appeals have also been tested by health communication researchers, who have also found that they can be counterproductive, especially in the absence of messages that increase perceived self-efficacy. (57) Moser (58) argues that fear can cause attitude and behavioral change but only in situations where the individuals feel personally “at risk,” among other factors.

The limited success of global warming fear appeals may also be attributable to a feeling of personal invulnerability combined with the belief that individual or collective action either is too difficult or would not make a difference. As many Americans view climate change as a relatively abstract and distant threat, (46, 59) the challenge for climate communicators is to increase both the sense of threat while also increasing the sense of personal and collective efficacy.

By contrast, worry was the strongest predictor of public support for global warming policies, suggesting that perhaps “worry appeals” should be a focus for risk communicators. “Worry appeals” might promote a more sustainable and constructive emotional engagement with the issue of global warming. By contrast, fear is an intense emotion typically experienced in response to a perceived immediate threat and primes the body for immediate action,


Many scientists have seen the failure of appeals to fear of climate change, as described in “The Psychology of Climate Change” at The Breakthrough Institute.:

A growing body of scholarly and scientific studies finds that fear-based appeals around climate change backfire, resulting in increased climate skepticism and fatalism among much of the public. This post summarizes scholarly and scientific articles published in peer-reviewed publications on the psychology of climate change.

Many of the same studies indicate that liberals and conservatives respond to fear-based appeals about climate change differently. Efforts, for example, to link current natural disasters to climate change motivate liberals and environmentalists, but alienate moderates and conservatives.

In a recent BBC roundtable environmentalist Joe Smith made a remarkable admission about this.

The idea that we will mobilise any more people with fear messaging is wrong. I think we’ve knocked at the door of everyone that might respond to such a thing, but you’ve then also got to ask whether it’s an accurate and a full way of telling the science. I think it is more respectful to the nature of the science to say that it’s one of humanity’s most ambitious questions, of the last couple of decades and the next couple of decades.

… I think there was a tactical wrong turning, in suggesting that by insisting that “The debate’s over, we can move on to the action” – it somehow implied that science was complete, that there were simply some facts on which we now stood. And that, of course, left lots of space for those people who have arguments about the actions on climate change to stand in the way of us having a proper public conversation about those actions, because they were able to pick apart minor details in the science. It’s not just that climate science isn’t finished, it’s actually unfinishable.

A new beginning

What next for the Left?

How will climate activists react to the realization that their fear barrages have failed? The first reaction of many will be to double down, as we see in “Climate Change and Emotions: How We Feel Matters More Than What We Know” by David Ropeik.

But caveats aside, what this new research clearly says is that risk communication that wants to shape how people feel about global warming, or any risk issue, must go beyond simply communicating the facts. It must respect the primary role that feelings play in how we see those facts. It must identify, with research, the particular emotional and instinctive characteristics that shape people’s feelings about the issue, and present information in ways that will resonate with those underlying emotions.

Any climate change communicator who ignores that truth and thinks that just educating people is enough, is ignoring what an important and growing body of research tells us about the best way to get people to care, and act, about this immense threat to human and environmental health.

Andy West

The first half of West’s article at Climate Etc provides more examples of climate activists seeking to manipulate us by appeals to our emotions, and analysis showing the baleful results on society of de-rationalizing debate about this important subject  (the citations here are just a sample of those he provides). The second half discusses the effect of fear-based communication strategies on the scientists themselves. It both clouds their vision and disturbs their psychological balance.

The full article is well worth reading.

Click here to download a free copy.

About the author

Andy West is a science fiction author. Here are two of his books: The Outcast and the Little One (2012) and Engines of Life: Tales of Evolution (2013). Download a free copy of his short story “Impasse”.

He sometimes writes at We Are Narrative. He’s published two other articles at Climate Etc: Climate psychology’s consensus bias and about the CAGW memeplex.

For More Information

To learn more about the state of climate change see The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change by Roger Pielke Jr. (Prof of Environmental Studies at U of CO-Boulder, and Director of their Center for Science and Technology Policy Research).

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See these Reference Pages for other posts about climate on the FM sites: the keys to understanding climate change and my posts about climate change. Also, see these posts about climate change propaganda:

  1. Watch the Left burn away more of its credibility, then wonder why the Right wins.
  2. Scientists speak to us about the warming pause, while activists deny their work.
  3. Climate denial by Left & Right dominates the public debate.
  4. More good news about the climate, giving us a priceless gift.
  5. Good news: the warming pause finally appears in the news as journalists learn about science.
  6. Climate activists’ last play: attempting to start an “availability cascade.”

21 thoughts on “Appeals to fear gain little support for the Left on climate change. What next?”

  1. This is a problem for the broader left ( beyond liberals). For example Naiomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything”. Instead of convincing people that a post-capitalist society is desirable on its own merits, taking a shortcut by arguing that capitalism should be dropped because of climate change.

    1. SocialBill,

      That’s a great example!

      How to compare the use of fear by the Left and Right? I have a good analogy, but I thought that most people would not get it. It’s from Tolkien’s The Two Towers, comparing Saruman’s Isengard with Sauron’s Barad-dûr. It is imo an exact analogy.

      “But Saruman … {was} deceived — for all those arts and subtle devices, for which he forsook his former wisdom, and which fondly he imagined were his own, came but from Mordor; so that what he made was naught, only a little copy, a child’s model or a slave’s flattery, of that vast fortress, armoury, prison, furnace of great power, Barad-dûr, The Dark Tower, which suffered no rival, and laughed at flattery, biding it’s time, secure in its pride and its immeasurable strength.”

  2. “Fear has worked wonders for the Right but despite massive investments it has failed to produce much for the Left.”

    The war fear of the Right simply asks people to continue our warmongering ways with little sacrifice from anyone but a few unfortunate impoverished “volunteers.” The Left’s GW fears are asking for changes in a way of life that is decades even centuries old –a much tougher nut. GW is a problem on a scale like no other I can think of, it makes sense that there would be resistance to accepting it. If the Left did drop the fear element, I question the likelihood that support for doing something about GW would go up. In each issue on that poll list there is an element of fear, this seems inherent with any list of political issues.

    1. Good one. Now let’s see how long we can keep this thread going without mentioning all the thousands fear based campaigns that worked.

      1. Gloucon,

        That’s a fascinating question! How often do political campaigns win when based largely on fear? There have been big ones: the Cold War (e.g., foreign foes), the ones based on fear the “other” (race, ethnicity). But my guess (emphasis on guess) is that such campaigns usually fail other than when hitting these almost hard-wired hot buttons.

    2. Peter,

      Thanks for posting the link to this fantastic story from history. Got to win best of thread.

      Schlitz should have stayed with the tried and true methods of selling beer.
      [caption id="attachment_83545" align="aligncenter" width="400"]Schlitz beer Click to enlarge.[/caption]

  3. FM said: “After 25 years of fear barrages…public concern about climate change in the US remains low.”
    So let’s see, if instead we had had a barrage of 25 years of mild concern we would now be living in a fossil fuel free world?

    1. Gloucon,

      “if instead we had had a barrage of 25 years of mild concern we would now be living in a fossil fuel free world?”

      (1) To characterize my recommended actions as “mild concern” is a serious reading FAIL.

      (2) To assume a realistic goal in 1989 was a “fossil fuel free world” in 2015 would have been delusional. Most of the growth in emissions since 1989 has been from the emerging nations lifting themselves out of poverty. Assuming that could happened while we converted to new tech — tech which existed in 1989 only in primitive form is less realistic than hoping for the Blue Fairy to fix our problems

  4. (1) To characterize my recommended actions as “mild concern” is a serious reading FAIL.
    Your recommendation is that we must stop climate activists must from making fearful claims. You written post after post on that topic. As for your recommendations on the actual problem of AGW, there were none in this post. From this one might easily assume this blogger doesn’t think AGW is an important problem.

    1. Gloucon,

      “Your recommendation is that we must stop climate activists must from making fearful claims.”

      Please provide a quote.

      All conversations with climate activists end with them making stuff up. Even by that standard, your example is quite delusional.

  5. It’s interesting to understand the details of the calamity cascade too. First you roll out the disastrous ad. Then sales plummet. Now your product rots on the shelf. Beer goes bad in about two months. Now you don’t call the retailers and explain you made a mistake and they need to pull your product off the shelf. Now your sales force goes into each and every store, takes a shopping cart, and buys all the bad product, goes through check out, pays full retail, and now they restock. Consequences. Few understand this.

  6. Please provide a quote from this article describing your recommended actions on AGW. And since we both know there is none, why not just state what they are, or write a post describing them.

    1. Gloucon,

      (1) “Please provide a quote from this article describing your recommended actions on AGW.”

      I accused you of lying about what I said. This is your reply? Whatever respect for you I had just went to zero.

      (2) “And since we both know there is none”

      From this post in the “For More Information” section: “See these Reference Pages for other posts about climate on the FM sites: the keys to understanding climate change and …” If you click on that you would see this post…

      (f) For the past five years my recommendations have been the same:

      1. More funding for climate sciences. Many key aspects (e.g., global temperature data collection and analysis) are grossly underfunded.
      2. Wider involvement of relevant experts in this debate. For example, geologists, statisticians and software engineers have been largely excluded — although their fields of knowledge are deeply involved.
      3. Run government-funded climate research with tighter standards (e.g., posting of data and methods, review by unaffiliated experts), as we do for biomedical research.
      4. Start today a well-funded conversion to non-carbon-based energy sources by the second half of the 21st century; for both environmental and economic reasons (see these posts for details).
      5. Begin more aggressive efforts to prepare for extreme climate. We’re not prepared for repeat of past extreme weather (e.g., a real hurricane hitting NYC), let alone predictable climate change (e.g., sea levels climbing, as they have for thousands of years).

      (3) “And since we both know there is none, why not just state what they are, or write a post describing them …”

      I have written many such posts. Here is the first: My “wish list” for the climate sciences in 2009, 2 January 2009. The latter ones became more detailed, shifting from research to public policy actions.

      *** I would like an apology. ***

  7. “Your recommendation is that we must stop climate activists from making fearful claims.”

    Geez, talk about an overreaction. You make no direct recommendation in this post, so this statement was a guess based on post’s topic, I should have ended it with a questionmark. So,I apologize for not using a ? instead of a period.

    Your recommendations on AGW are good and I wish you would write about them more often. In fact, I can’t remember any recent climate post detailing them. I think we had this conversation before and I said then that most climate activists would agree with those recommendations.

    1. Gloucon,

      (1) There is no basis for saying I that I wanted to stop people from saying anything. When called on your making stuff up, I suggest you just admit it — and not reply with the liar’s favorite evasion of “why don’t you do xxx”. If you believe being called on such things is an overreaction, that’s something opinions differ on. The difference between an assertion and question is meaningful.

      In my considerable experience, climate activists frequently resort to such ad hominems when the weakness of their statements is uncovered. Such behavior is one reason for their failure to gain strong popular support.

      (2) As for writing about recommendations, I’m not a fan of the “if I were King” posts (again, opinions differ on this). In a nation where people don’t agree on facts, imo there is no point on writing about what America could do IF we agreed on facts. So I focus on two things: to try and get some people to agree on some simple facts (not deductions from them, let alone on values) — or motivate them to become more politically involved citizens.

      Both goals are perhaps hopeless. But I don’t have any better ideas.

  8. FM said: “After 25 years of fear barrages…public concern about climate change in the US remains low.”
    So let’s see, if instead we had had a barrage of 25 years of mild concern we would now be living in a fossil fuel free world?
    FM said: (1) To characterize my recommended actions as “mild concern” is a serious reading FAIL.
    My statement was not a characterization of any recommendation of yours, it was a hypothetical. Since court is still in session here, would you apologize for that mischaracterization of what I said which led us down this lengthy path?
    We both know that there are misunderstandings and poor wordings that could be straightened out in about ten seconds face-to-face. I apologize for my part in any misunderstandings and adamantly maintain that they were completely unintentional. That’s my closing statement.

  9. Exaggerating vague science and telling kids science isn’t allowed to be “certain” they are doomed was not progressive let alone civilized. The last 34 years of climate action FAILURE is 100% proof that science’s 34 years of 97% certainty was NOT certainty, no matter how much you hissy fit hate fear mongering neocons.

    Who’s the neocon now? Only unstoppable global denial and war crimes trials are certain.

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