Fear appeals won’t solve our big climate change communication problem

It is the biggest problem the world faces right now – how to respond to climate change. Overwhelming evidence shows that our climate is changing and that humans are causing it. But underlying this problem is the fact that many humans simply deny these facts. This puts governments in a difficult position. On the one hand many political parties know that strong action needs to be taken and that acting late will cost much more money than acting now. On the other hand governments that don’t follow the will of the people don’t end up representing them for very long.

That makes the biggest problem the world faces also the biggest problem faced by communication scientists and science communicators. Almost everyone would agree that recent efforts to shift public opinion on this wicked problem have not been very successful. So how can we persuade more people that governments should do something to reverse climate change?

A recent Phd dissertation has addressed this issue by investigating whether fear appeals could be an answer. Interestingly it isn’t the field of political communication that has the ascendancy when it comes to providing the evidence for fear appeals, it is health communication. Timothy Scharks used the model preferred by many health communicators, the Extended Parallel Process Model (EPPM), (see Witte, 1994), to analyse whether fear appeals might just do the trick.

In a random controlled trial 845 US citizens selected through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk were asked their opinions about climate change advertisements. Schark found that people with right wing views (and therefore are less likely to support governments who take action on climate change) reacted negatively towards climate change advertisements that included a fear appeal. Given that people with right wing views are precisely the people who need to be convinced, this is an important finding.

He also observed a significant boomerang effect among right-leaning people where they became more entrenched in their views after looking at the fear-based appeal.

These results imply that in fear appeals, well intended messages meant to bolster collective efficacy may backfire, decreasing policy support and increasing political polarization on important issues like climate change. In sum, the experiment provides little support for the use of fear appeals to bolster collective action on climate change, (Scharks 2016, pp. 103-104).

He also found that the appeals also didn’t generate a great deal of fear regardless of a person’s political leaning. This may well be because the effects of climate change are gradual and the worst effects will be felt by future generations of people. Increasing the geographical proximity of the image in the advertisement also did not have a significant persuasive effect on right-leaning people.

This is more evidence of the cultural cognition hypothesis (Kahan & Braman, 2006). It suggests that people often don’t make up their minds about a persuasion attempt based on actual risks, they instead defer to their assumed expectations of their cultural group and identity.

He also identified an important issue about communicating the need for collective action. Unlike in clinical health-related settings any action on climate change will require collective action. This is an important consideration when viewing this problem through the EPPM model because the response efficacy is weak. Just because you change your mind to support a political party that is willing to help prevent climate change there is no guarantee that others will too. This creates the need to satisfy right-leaning people that collective action is possible and that it will solve the problem you’re trying to address.

However, communicating with right-leaning people about collective action is highly likely to frame the issue in a way that is at odds with their individualist worldviews and beliefs.

This quandary is worthy of some research in itself – how do we tell right-leaning people that collective action on climate change is possible, effective and necessary when it is likely to inspire a backfire effect?

It appears to be a classic knight’s fork. And until we find a way around it governments and right-leaning political parties in particular will be reluctant to act.


  • Kahan, D. M. & Braman, D., 2006. Cultural Cognition and Public Policy. Yale Law & Policy Review, Volume 24, pp. 147-170.
  • Scharks, T., 2016. Threatening Messages in Climate Change Communication, Washington, USA: University of Washington.
  • Witte, K., 1994. Fear control and danger control: A test of the extended parallel process model. Communication Monographs, 61(2), 113-134.

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