Alarm is polarizing, concern is universal

It’s hard to watch Jennifer-Lawrence-as-Doctor-Kate-Dibiasky’s public breakdown in the face of total planetary collapse without a chaotic mixture of both total sympathy and rage — and yet just a smidgen of relief that someone else sees it too: the total absurdity of pretending everything is going to be fine, when it absolutely isn’t.

Like her, most of us are so utterly alarmed by the trajectory of climate inaction that we want to violently shake anyone who isn’t equally alarmed, as if that would somehow wake them up to this crisis.

But is our alarm really getting everyone else alarmed?

What we’re finding…

Last summer, while extreme weather was making headlines everyday, we took advantage of its temporary salience to help connect the dots: it’s all a consequence of climate change; it’s all one emergency.

Though this message was highly effective with progressives, it not only failed to get more people onboard, it caused backlash among those who weren’t already bought into the issue.

Alarm is polarizing

The data say…

Even when the message itself isn’t about extreme weather, imagery of violent storms and destructive wildfires seem counterproductive.

The following 15-second spots had nearly the exact same copy: “90% of Americans agree that it’s fair to pay for what you pollute. It’s time to put a price on pollution.”

The results from an RCT showed that:

  • Visuals of smog and smokestacks created the highest lift in support for government action
  • Storms and wildfires hardly lifted, largely due to declining support from conservative-leaning audiences

Climate Messaging

That’s interesting…

The word “alarm” originates from the Italian battle cry all’arme!, literally meaning “to arms!” or “to your weapons!” But waging a war is hard when there isn’t a common enemy, when the narrative about the antagonist isn’t cohesive or agreed upon.

Prior research has highlighted the limited effect of using fear as a motivating factor. From our partners at the Climate Advocacy Lab, referencing Robert Ruiter’s research:

“…the media often uses fear to attract attention to the issue, but … the effectiveness of using fear to engage the public is limited, and [these] strategies can often backfire.”

The tightrope we need to walk is effectively increasing concern. Interestingly, the common association of concern with “anxiety” and “worry” are recent use cases. The etymological roots of “concern” lies in the Latin word cernere: to sift or to distinguish, later evolving to concernere, meaning “to be relevant to.”

This is why content featuring Science Moms talking about their children or talking to other moms about climate does so well: they increase worry through relevance.

What to do about it…

  • Reframe the issue as a pollution problem; it’s relevant for everyone.
  • Fight wealthy-, corporate-, mega-polluters, not climate change.

We should still educate the public about the catastrophic consequences of climate change, and there are smart, effective ways to do that.

But we need to take more advantage of the fact that anti-pollutionism continually proves to be one of the most persuasive and unifying frames that generate support.

One more thing…

Backlash from fear-mongering appears to be primarily an American phenomenon, playing out along partisan lines. In other countries, such as Germany and the UK, alarmism — for example, declaring a Code Red, a state of emergency — appears to be an effective tactic.

Just goes to show how much more foundational work needs to be laid before sounding the alarm actually gets people ready for a fight.

Before we sign off, we wanted to send our prayers and sympathies to the families affected by the Marshall Fires in Colorado over the last several weeks, especially to the scientists who have dedicated their lives to climate research. The stakes are only getting higher, making us more determined than ever to mobilize hundreds of millions to finally take big and bold action.

Until next time,
John and Jessica