“Fear won’t do it”: Promoting positive engagement with climate change through visual and iconic representations

Fear-inducing representations of climate change are widely employed in the public domain, but their impacts on human’s sense of engagement could be counterproductive. In this article, the authors explore this assertion in the context of two empirical studies that investigated the role of visual, and iconic, representations of climate change for public engagement respectively. Fear appeals in climate change are prevalent with the language of alarmism appearing in many guises. Result demonstrate that although such representations have much potential for attracting people’s attention to climate change, fear is generally an ineffective tool for motivating genuine personal engagement. Nonthreatening imagery and icons that link to individuals’ everyday emotions and concerns in the context of this macro-environmental issue tend to be the most engaging.

The most significant channel of information that the general public receives about climate change is the mass media, which arguably has a great influence on people’s perceptions of the issue (Carvalho & Burgess, 2005; Trumbo & Shanahan, 2000). Mass communications are full of images and narratives that have the potential to influence the way people perceive Global Climate Change. However, why is fear so prevalent in climate change communications while it does not often stem from the science of climate change?

Why Fear Appeals?

In a study conducted on the coverage of IPCC Working Group I report in 10 major U.K. national newspapers, only one newspaper die not run a story on the IPCC report. The other nine all ran articles introducing the adjectives catastrophic, shocking, terrifying, or devastating. Yet none of these words were present in the original IPCC document. Accordingly the media most commonly communicates climate change in the context of dramatic climate related events.

Fear in Theory

Another major issue is that unlike marketing or health-based approaches that connect on a personal, tangible level, climate change represents a greater communications challenge as it is temporally and spatially remote from the individual. This presents certain communication difficulties where engagement is concerned because of the perception that climate change is an issue for the far future. Therefore, the constant use of fear appeals may act to decrease issue salience and increase individual feelings of invulnerability, if the narratives of disaster and destruction do not ring true or not “proven” within an imaginable period.

Fear Message May Produce Unintended Reaction

The continued use of fear message can lead to one of two psychological functions. The first is to control the external danger, the second to control the internal fear (Moser & Dilling, 2004). If the external danger — the impacts of climate change — cannot be controlled (or is not perceived to be controllable, then individuals will attempt to control the internal fear. These internal fear controls, such as issue denial and apathy, can represent barriers to meaningful engagement, uncertainty and skepticism, an externalization of responsibility and blame or stating other issues as more immediate and pressing, and fatalism or a “drop in the ocean” feeling. All are maladaptations; that is, they lead to an individual controlling his or her internal fear by no longer interacting with the climate change issue, but the action does not decrease the individual’s exposure to climate risk.

Engaging More Meaningfully

Fearful representations of climate change appear to be memorable and may initially attract individuals’ attention. However, they can also act to distance and disempower individuals in terms of their sense of personal engagement with the issue. Therefore, these results suggest that the use of fear-inducing or dramatic representations of climate change can be counterproductive when trying to foster public engagement. However, many kinds of visual or iconic representations can engage people productively. In fact certain types of visual imagery, icons, and combinations of message that can be engaging and can specifically help to make climate change a personally salient issue for people and one that they feel able to do something about.


Although the objects and intentions of various communication strategies may be genuine and aimed at bolstering public engagement with climate change, many risk resulting in generating tokenistic and general concern that operates at arm’s length from the individual. Future research attention in this field must concentrate on how a much deeper personal concern and lifestyle engagement with climate change.

Do share on your views on this topic.


O’Neill, S. & Nicholson-Cole, S. (2009). “Fear won’t do it”: Promoting positive engagement with climate change through visual and iconic representations. Science Communication.

– tarrycher


3 comments so far

  1. snowkinz on

    i agree that fear is not the best solution.
    fear only tells people that something is happening, but it does not necessary instill everyone to change.

    fear work best on health hazards that happen close to people, take SARS for example. at that time it is the most important issue and it will affect everyone directly with immediate effects. people are then afraid and will all look towards preventive measures.

    however, for global warming/climate change, it is something that will happen many years later. people cant see the change in their current life. what they see now is the work of their ancestors and they have grown up with it. what they are doing now will affect their predecessors, and they themselves might not even be able to live to see climate change. therefore people will not be bothered by the fear that does not affect them directly.

    also if a message is told several times, it will wear off on people and have no effect. especially for fear messages. people get tired of it, and will “grow out of the fear” thereby losing the whole point of the message.

    i agree with your point on engaging messages. people will need to be told about the situation, how their current actions will affect the world, how they can change to improve the situation, and how they can help the world for the better good.

    (cr eco singapore) People will have to be told about:
    Appreciation of Earth
    Awareness of situation
    Action to take to save the situation
    Advocate – to let people influence others

    • tarrycher on

      Yes Snowkinz, I do agree with your point. Climate change is scary for people who live in countries where the environmental conditions are already challenging and are getting worst. Therefore, fear of effects of climate change is a very immediate concern. But for people in developed countries, climate change still represents a future threat.

      However, using of fear factor might not be the best solution but It can still works as many early climate change communication strategies by government agencies drew the reasonable conclusion that because the threat of climate change was perceived as something to worry about in the future, increasing the ‘fear factor’ might be a good way of getting people to be more concerned. And according to (Spence, Poortinga, Butler Pidgeon, 2011) by linking individual experiences with climate change is one way of increasing the chance that people will want to do something about it.

  2. durianshells on

    I agree with snowkinz and the author that the utilization of fear messages will not be able to appeal to a large extend of the audience. The problem with climate change is that it is often seen as delayed, not current. It’s abstract and global, not closely related to our daily lives which are already hard as it is, not tangible and local. It certainly doesn’t help when climate change fears are exaggerated like in the case of this report which mentions that carbon dioxide levels will double and cause temperatures of 10 degrees when in reality the maximum increase is likely to be only 2.6 degrees. This is probably piss people off more than it helps get the message across. (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2065954/Climate-change-fears-exaggerated-say-scientists-claim-apocalyptic-predictions-unlikely.html)

    In my opinion, I feel that people should be educated on the effects of climate change and also focus on things that emphasize personal relevance, everyday issues and personal efficacy. People can be told how they can help with the situation on a personal level. In the Tyndall Centre study, the conclusion came up that communication approaches that take account of individual’s personal points of reference are more likely to meaningfully engage individuals. The strategies must be in touch with concerns and pressures on everyday life that people experience. (http://bigthink.com/age-of-engagement/study-finds-that-fear-wont-dont-do-it-why-most-efforts-at-climate-change-communication-might-actually-backfire?page=3) The mass media could probably produce narrative stories that frame human stories that affect human emotions. Programmes by the government that promote eco behavior and promote awareness and giving tangible rewards for efforts would also help. The scientific community needs to actively and effectively share information about climate change risks and potential solutions with the public especially the decision makers in the public, private and nonprofit sectors.

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