Cosmos: Climate Science and Why Fear Didn't Work

With some exceptions, the strategy of the environment movement has been to provoke fear: fear for the quality of our own lives and over the survival of our grandchildren.

It is questionable whether that is working. Some commentators, such as Guardian journalist Anne Kapf say the fear, or rather caring too much about about the fate of our planet, has caused many to switch off to the dangers.

The problem is so enormous, the consequences of failing to act so profound, and yet as a global community we seem unable to take the decisive action required to save our own necks.

Against this background, the Warsaw Climate Change Conference ended last week not with a whimper but a long sustained raspberry. No agreement was reached, or even sought. The best the gathering hoped for in its stated goals was a “viable roadmap to an agreement” to be signed off on in 2015.

In the event, delegates failed to get even that. Poor countries and green groups walked out in protest at what they claimed were bad faith blocking tactics by rich industrialised countries. The Philippines delegate went on hunger strike in a desperate attempt to convince the delegates to stop the climate “madness” that resulted in Super Typhoon Haiyan wreaking havoc on his homeland.

Australia, which refused to send representation at a minister-level, was castigated by green groups that awarded us three “fossil of the day” awards for the federal government’s perceived reluctance to take climate change seriously.

Academics are perplexed by the lack of engagement. The scientific community finds its carefully documented facts and informed speculation carry no special weight. Rather scientists are regularly disrespected by high profile non-scientist climate deniers. It’s no wonder we despair.

But what if our advocacy focus has been on the wrong side of the motivational continuum? What if a failure to understand the frightening implications of climate change is not what’s behind the resistance of key decision-makers? What if the real problem is fear and fear’s partners in crime, a lack of hope that we can change anything.

If fear is the problem, the solution is hope and its bedfellow, empowerment. But how can such hope be kindled, and what role should the scientific community play?

The answer is complex and involves the art of behavioural change. Marketers know all about what makes humans tick, and how to influence them. Since the 1970s the growing body of marketing knowledge has been adapted and built on by those hoping to achieve widespread social change. There are some great resources on how such knowledge can and should be deployed to solve problems such climate change and living sustainably. Unilever’s 5 Levers for Change video is a good example.

That said, the job of scientists is not to morph into behavioural change experts, but to acknowledge the key role such experts will have in efforts to effect influence the climate debate.

Any solution must be come from an holistic approach, not with the failed traditional linear and analytical models.

The key take-home for the scientific community is that its work in alerting those in the community receptive to the fear message is done. Those who can be mobilised in this fashion are alert, alarmed and advocating change – or at least living more sustainably themselves.

The task ahead is to continue to mobilise key decision-makers through an influence strategy based on hope and empowerment. Scientists must understand what will move key decision-makers to act quickly and decisively in defence of the planet, and to play their role in the holistic and flexible strategic communication effort required in the crucial months and years ahead.

Publication history

Fear Didn't Work, How About A Little Hope?   Cosmos: The Science of Everything