Do doomsday scenarios discourage people from acting on climate change?

Green Science Image Gallery A 2010 Conservation International paper pointed out that regions near those flooded by a rise in sea levels would likely see mass deforestation after people headed to the hills. See more green science pictures.
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In 2010, the scholarly journal Conservation Letters published a paper created by non-profit environmental organization Conservation International. In it, the authors warn of the detrimental effect that humans may have on the environment after catastrophic climate change takes place. One-fifth of the world's forests are within 50 kilometers (about 31 miles) of heavy human populations that will be flooded if sea levels rise one foot (0.3 meters) due to climate change [source: Sustainable Business]. When this rise in sea levels take place, humans will be forced to migrate to higher ground and will likely plunder these forests for firewood.

Humans working today to counteract the effects of climate change may have a similarly deleterious effect on the ecosystems around the globe. Dams constructed for use in generating clean and green hydroelectric power, for example, can adversely affect areas submerged by lakes created by the dams.


There are a couple of ways that the picture painted by the Conservation International study can be viewed. Chiefly, it can be taken as a wise and shrewd look at the big picture, a smart warning that we humans must carefully plan our reaction to climate change. It can also be taken as evidence that no matter what we do, we're virtually destined to irrevocably bring on climate change. In the latter case, a reader may wonder what point there is to taking any action to fighting climate change if we're just going to screw up the planet anyway. This is inherent danger that groups concerned with climate change face when trying raise awareness about the phenomenon.

A Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences poll of 1,372 scientists found that 97 percent agree that man-made climate change is real [source: Rice]. The study even went so far as to investigate the three percent of dissenters and concluded that their opinions were the result of below-average expertise. There is also awareness that if human activity is contributing to climate change, lessened human activity can also mitigate it.

But between the researchers with evidence supporting climate change and the public whose actions can reverse its effects is the media. Here is where some feel a disconnect. Specifically, some critics feel the media is doling out doomsday scenarios that may actually discourage action on climate change. We'll explore the charge on the next page.

The prospect of desertification is daunting enough. When coupled with alarmist language, it could create a sense of distance between the reader and the problem.
The prospect of desertification is daunting enough. When coupled with alarmist language, it could create a sense of distance between the reader and the problem.
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Despite the overwhelming consensus among scientists that anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change is real, the public has remained relatively unmoved. According to a 2010 Gallup poll, 48 percent of Americans said they believed that the seriousness of global warming is "generally exaggerated," a 17-percent increase since 1997 [source: Newport]. And at least one study has concluded that trend can be partly explained by what they call alarmism [sources: Ereaut and Segnit].

That 2006 study, conducted by the British think tank Institute for Public Policy Research, was based on a review of more than 600 news articles and advertising clips published in the U.K. The authors found that they could broadly classify the tone of these articles within three general categories: alarmism, non-pragmatic optimism and pragmatic optimism. The first, alarmism, the authors concluded, is the most damaging method of disseminating information on climate change -- and it was also the most common device used in the articles the authors surveyed.

The authors found that alarmist language used in these articles, terms like "civilizational collapse," "point of no return," "global chaos" and "tipping point" suddenly accelerate the severity of the issue for the reader, which may lead to a sense of helplessness. By creating this sense of enormity, the authors concluded, alarmism also creates a sense of distance from the problem.

The authors didn't prove direct causation between alarmist reporting and a lack of response by the general public toward taking large measures against climate change. Yet, researchers in other fields have come to similar conclusions -- that messages to the public can be counterproductive when crafted badly.

A 2010 study from Northwestern University, for example, found that a Canadian public service announcement campaign that targeted binge drinking had the opposite of its intended effect. The study found that when already experiencing a sense of guilt and shame, students exposed to the PSAs that used tactics like guilt or shame were more likely to binge drink within two weeks of viewing them [source: Popovich]. Similarly, another study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in 2009 found that warnings on cigarette packs that explicitly link smoking to death and disease with messages like, "Smoking can kill you" increase smoking among some people [source: Jacobs].

That 2009 study was conducted through the lens of Terror Management Theory, which may provide an answer to why alarmist messages of climate change could be counterproductive.

One Terror Management Theory study suggests that the old, death-neutral smoking warnings may prove more effective than those that point out smoking can lead to premature death.
One Terror Management Theory study suggests that the old, death-neutral smoking warnings may prove more effective than those that point out smoking can lead to premature death.
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In the 2009 study of health warnings on cigarette packages, the people who were more likely to report wanting to smoke after being shown death-related messages about smoking were the ones who tied their self-esteem to their smoking habits. In a prior exercise, the participants had filled out a questionnaire that correlated their self-esteem to smoking.

These findings support the field of psychology called Terror Management Theory (TMT). This field, created in the 1980s by psychologists at the University of Missouri, is based on the work of anthropologist Ernest Becker, author of the seminal work "Denial of Death." Becker concluded that because humans are aware of the impending demise of all living things, including ourselves, we construct culture and its trappings to distract us from becoming obsessed with our inevitable death. In Becker's view, everything from politics to televised sports to celebrity to war is created by humans in an unconscious effort to create meaning in life.

Terror Management Theory transfers Becker's anthropological ideas into the field of psychology and standardizes them. Under TMT, humans cling to the cultures they identify with most to stave off their preoccupation with death. When faced with the reminder of one's demise, a person combats the attendant terror by clinging more strongly to that culture or group that constitutes the person's identity, a process called distal defense [sources: Cox and Ardnt, Greenberg, et al]. In other cases, a proximal defense is triggered, and a person will downplay the seriousness of any threat to his or her mortality [source: Greenberg, et al]. This may be the mechanism at work with climate change messages.

The reminders of mortality associated with alarmist climate change messages can trigger proximal defenses. When these defenses are triggered, even those who agree that climate change is real would move to diminish the potential danger of climate change; those who disagree would likely disagree even more strongly [source: Dickinson].

If Terror Management Theory explains how counterproductive alarmism can be when it comes to climate change, then the media should avoid the threat of death, chaos and destruction in favor of a more pragmatic approach. Unfortunately, we see reminders of our impending death in the media every day, provoking alarmist responses. Almost as soon as the pragmatic approach adopted the compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL) as the symbol of how every individual can make a real, collective contribution toward fighting climate change, news reports emerged warning of the physical dangers posed by the mercury found in CFLs.

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  • Dickinson, Janis. "Janis Dickinson: Immortality ideologies and climate change." People and Place. July 14, 2009.
  • Ereaut, Gill and Segnit, Nat. "Warm words: How are we telling the climate story and can we tell it better?" Institute for Public Policy Research. August 2006.
  • Greenberg, Jeff, et al. "Proximal and distal defenses in response to reminders of one's mortality: evidence of a temporal sequence." Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. May 1, 2010.
  • Jacobs, Tom. "Warning: Ominous messages on cigarette packs may be counterproductive." Miller-McCune. November 10, 2010.
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