In 2004 we responded to newspaper headlines claiming that climate change would cause "1 million species to go extinct by 2050” with the argument that sensationalist reporting of science risks tuning people off and undermines the credibility of scientists (Link for papers). Each year we debate with our students the merits of ‘over-egging’ science in media reporting and the related issue of fear-based messaging.
The arguments for and against are finely balanced. Overall we’ve moved to the view that headlines of impending doom help push an issue up the political agenda and attract people’s attention. However, we also argue that doomsday messages of future catastrophe and social collapse do little to bring about meaningful and lasting social change. This is because most people are focused on the everyday and block out (or worse dismiss) issues that are distant or beyond their control. A recent study by Saffron O'Niel and Sophie Nicholson-Cole in Science Communication link supports this premise and argues for more research on how to promote a 'deeper personal concern and lifestyle engagement with climate change'.
Maybe the lesson from Copenhagen is that fear-based messaging can bring politicians to the table but struggles to create the atmosphere for a solution. When faced with a serious problem we instinctively look after our own. Perhaps in order to move forward, we need to finds ways to articulate future visions for society that frame low-carbon futures as something we'd all aspire to because they hold the prospect of better and more fulfilling lives for ourselves, our children and others. In short we need to balance the ‘hurt to avoid bigger hurt’, narrative with a ‘building for a better future’ narrative.
To do this we should look to broaden the diversity of actors actively debating climate change of solutions. We need to move beyond the climate scientists-NGO-activist-bureaucratic nexus and their deployment of anxiety to mobilize and legitimate political action. Instead, we need to encourage and look to scholars from other disciplines - from psychology, philosophy, sociology and politics - to enter the fray and along with artists, writers, film-makers, religious leaders to engage publics in discussions on visions for low-carbon societies that we’d all want to be part of.
Paul Jepson and Richard Ladle, from http://www.21stcenturyconservation.blogspot.com/