In “Ten Commandments of How to Fail in an Environmental Campaign”, Avner de-Shalit discusses the various ways environmentalists alienate potential supporters. The Second Commandment is my favorite: Always Use the Terminology of Despair. We see violation of this Commandment all the time in discourse about climate change: although the IPCC predictions run the gambit from manageable to catastrophic, climate activists focus on the worst-case scenarios. I imagine their rationale is to motivate people and governments to take more aggressive measures to deal with the threat. So we hear about agricultural collapse, mass famine, global warfare, and possibly even the extinction of the human race. And yet the masses haven’t gotten with the program. Per a recent Pew Research survey, just 42% of Europeans and Americans are “very concerned” about climate change. Several countries have actually seen a decline in the perception that climate change is a “very serious” problem. In China, for instance, the percentage of people polled who consider climate change to be a very serious problem dropped from 41% in 2010 to 18% in 2015.
How could this be happening? It’s not all that mysterious. As de-Shalit puts it, “…people generally react in a very basic way to the threat of dire consequences and horrific scenarios. They simply repress and doubt what they hear - a common strategy when faced with alarming prognostications. Thus while environmentalists try to force an impression on the general public with their somewhat exaggerated predictions, the eventual outcome is counter-productive: many people simply disbelieve, do not want to believe, or even refuse to listen.”
All this reminds me of a study about people who had seen the climate change disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow. Although the film was clearly marketed as fictional and not a scientific treatise, some environmentalists hoped the vivid images in the movie might galvanize the public to increase pressure on their governments to do more about climate change. Instead, the researchers found that viewers’ “belief in the likelihood of extreme events as a result of climate change was actually reduced.”
So there you have it.
“Ten Commandments of How to Fail in an Environmental Campaign”; Environmental Politics Volume 10, Issue 1, 2001 by Avner de-Shalit, Associate Fellow Oxford Centre for Environment, Ethics and Society, Mansfield College, Oxford
“Does tomorrow ever come? Disaster narrative and public perceptions of climate change” Lowe et al Public Understanding of Science Public Understanding of Science October 2006 vol. 15 no. 4 435-457