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.