“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.
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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.