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Guest blog: Hope, Fear and the Extinction Rebellion

By Josh Ettinger on January 23, 2019

“This is our darkest hour,” writes the Extinction Rebellion, a new climate change campaign that blocked five London bridges in an act of civil disobedience. “We are facing an unprecedented global emergency.”

The Extinction Rebellion’s communications strive to evoke fear as a catalyst for action. Their messaging is catastrophic and urgent. They focus mostly on climate change impacts rather than solutions. Their website is bedecked in skulls and hourglasses.

If you are wondering whether a ‘doom and gloom’ communications strategy is the best approach for engaging public audiences, then you are not alone. The “hope vs. fear debate” is one of the most hotly debated topics among the climate change communication community.

However, the debate is far from new. Psychologists have examined “fear appeals” for decades. For example, researchers have tested various messaging strategies to stop people from smoking cigarettes. Anti-smoking messages can attempt to generate fear by emphasising the negative consequences if one does not stop smoking (e.g., health risks). Alternatively, an anti-smoking message can try to inspire behaviour change by demonstrating the positive outcomes if one does stop smoking (e.g., improved physical fitness).

Likewise, climate communicators can pitch mitigation and adaptation as measures to prevent looming harm or to build a more prosperous society (or both). Messages can also express differing levels of optimism or pessimism about future prospects and potential solutions.

So what does the science have to say on the hope vs. fear debate?

At first glance, the literature provides mixed messages. Some studies find that fear-evoking communications on climate change can backfire, causing individuals to turn away from distressing information or feel that nothing can be done about the problem. Other studies suggest that hopeful climate change communications can reduce motivations to respond to the problem if it is perceived as less of a threat.

Part of the issue here is that both sides of the debate can neglect to consider the complex dynamics between emotions, communications and how different individuals engage with climate change. In other words, we shouldn’t assume that everyone responds in the same ways to the same information. Our prior beliefs about climate change, political views, cultural norms, etc. can all influence how we respond to messages.

Last summer, for my MSc dissertation at the University of Oxford, I explored how people’s prior beliefs and political views can shape their responses to hopeful vs. fearful climate change messages. I first produced videos with different emotional narratives about climate change (including a doom and gloom video and hopeful video). I used images from Climate Visuals, a photo library of powerful climate images created by Climate Outreach. I then randomly assigned the videos to several hundred Americans through a survey, collecting data on their climate change beliefs, political views and other demographic characteristics. Finally, after they watched their assigned video, they were asked about their risk perceptions, likelihood of behaviour change and likelihood of environmental advocacy in response to climate change.

One of the key findings was that people’s prior beliefs about climate change and political views shaped their emotional response to the videos. For instance, increased skepticism of climate change was correlated with decreased feelings of fear in response to the videos. Republican participants also felt less fear on average than Democrats (Independents were in between). There were no reported differences across all the videos in terms of behaviour and advocacy.

These results – which demonstrate that individual characteristics can shape our emotional responses to information but not necessarily change our behaviour – provide further evidence that there may not be a clear-cut answer to the hope vs. fear debate, at least if it is presented as a binary choice between one or the other. Furthermore, in focusing so much on hope or fear, we might be neglecting other important emotions (like anger and sadness) and alternate ways of communicating climate change (such as through comedy). It may turn out that other message facets (for example, Climate Outreach’s Climate Visuals principles) are as important as the emotional narrative.

The outcomes of the Extinction Rebellion are yet to be seen, but their messaging approach seems to have successfully mobilised an impressive number of supporters. It is also worth noting that climate change messages are almost never 100% doom or 100% optimistic. The Extinction Rebellion, by virtue of taking radical action, relies on the premise that there is still time to avert catastrophe. Nevertheless, my findings suggest that while the Extinction Rebellion may generate strong emotional responses among individuals who already care about climate change, their messages are unlikely to have as strong an emotional impact on individuals not already engaged on climate change – especially those who are sceptical, or those who lean to the right of the political spectrum.

Maybe this is a rather obvious conclusion: different people respond… well, differently. Yet we must not lose sight of this point. Asking whether hope or fear is always “better” is probably not the right question. Climate change communicators should instead ask themselves what emotions are most appropriate for a particular campaign and consider how diverse audiences might respond.

This is a guest blog by Josh Ettinger, a graduate of the MSc in Environmental Change and Management course at the University of Oxford. You can follow him @joshettinger

One response to Guest blog: Hope, Fear and the Extinction Rebellion

  1. Steven R Smith says: says:

    Thanks Josh, very interesting blog, raising important issues. I would be very interested to read your MSc dissertation. Part of my PhD research is this question and topic, though the experimental conditions are broader, comparing positive/optimistic vs negative/shaming narratives and a combination of the two. The question of targeted/narrowcasting vs broadcasted is also hotly debated, with strong arguments for both. My take on the historical and experimental evidence is that successful social movements do need to have some unifying core narrative that can appeal across ideological divides, but which can also be interpreted favourably within these constituencies. Hope to be able to discuss in more detail with you and the Climate Outreach team soon.

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