What else, besides fear, might galvanize the nascent climate movement?

Earlier this year, in a widely read essay, University of Minnesota scientist Jon Foley advised that it was time to “stop bashing people over the head with climate science.” He didn’t say that the science should be ignored, only that other means of persuasion should be tried, given how polarized the climate debate has become.

Some scholars, noting the toxic politics and lack of policy progress, have recently suggested talking less about climate change and more about the need for clean energy innovation. Others favor “reframing” the climate issue altogether (making it about public health, for example). Proponents of these alternative approaches define them as “pragmatic” and intended to broaden the base of support for policies that would ultimately benefit the climate.

However, in a recent series of posts, Grist blogger David Roberts pleads for keeping climate change a central focus of the public dialogue. He argues that, “what drives social change and shifts in politics is not broad-based support but intensity” among a critical mass. Here’s his prescription for a game-changing climate narrative:

Any effective political communications strategy needs three things: a victim, a villain, and hope. First, you have to convince the audience that they face a real, pressing danger. Then you identify the people and institutions behind the threat. Then you show how the villain(s) can be defeated and security restored.

The idea is to produce a sense of threat or unease — a cognitive and emotional itch that needs to be scratched — and simultaneously scratch it by offering a sense of hope, efficacy, and shared purpose.

One concern is that this message on climate change (as communicated by mass media) is stuck at the “real, pressing danger” stage, otherwise known as the “tragic narrative.” Additionally, a body of social science literature suggests the unrelenting gloom and doom theme of that narrative may be counterproductive. For example, in a 2009 paper titled “Fear Won’t Do It,” authors Saffron O’Neill and Sophie Nicholson-Cole, of the UK’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, describe results from two of their own studies:

This research has shown that dramatic, sensational, fearful, shocking, and other climate change representations of a similar ilk can successfully capture people’s attention to the issue of climate change and drive a general sense of the importance of the issue. However, they are also likely to distance or disengage individuals from climate change, tending to render them feeling helpless and overwhelmed when they try to comprehend their own relationship with the issue.

The two researchers conclude that gains made in the initial, attention-getting stage are undermined by long-term reliance on fear-induced messages, which risks desensitizing people. At that point, the authors write, “fear approaches need to be made more intense as time goes by because of repeated exposure to threatening information in order to produce the same impact on individuals.” The end result seems obvious: the “tragic narrative” loses its power and appeal.

Roberts acknowledges that even a forceful, fear-based message must include hopeful solution-oriented information that can empower the intensely committed. Additionally, he’s “absolutely in support of pluralism (a variety of messages, strategies, and policies) and opportunism (taking whatever gains become available).” But he insists that “pushing climate danger” be the tip of the sword in the communications battle:

Knocking people out of their tunnel-vision daily lives and into civic or political action — a necessary precondition for any action that’s not to the liking of status quo elites — requires more than hope for a better future; it also requires fear of losing what is now possessed.

Some scholars argue that any science-centric prodding is also going to require a better understanding of the cultural values at loggerheads in the climate debate. To that end, more attention needs to be paid to the worldviews that filter what’s being communicated about climate science, Yale University’s Dan Kahan and his colleagues write in a recent working paper. They warn:

A strategy that focuses only on improving transmission of sound scientific information, it should be clear, is highly unlikely to achieve this objective. The principal reason people disagree about climate change science is not that it has been communicated to them in forms they cannot understand. Rather, it is that positions on climate change convey values — communal concern versus individual self-reliance; prudent self-abnegation versus the heroic pursuit of reward; humility versus ingenuity; harmony with nature versus mastery over it — that divide them along cultural lines.

Given such divisions, is it possible for the nascent climate movement to articulate a shared set of values that can unite disparate worldviews? If so, would a larger conversation framed around notions of sustainability, as opposed to increasingly louder warnings of catastrophic climate change, better serve as that bridge?

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.