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"Fear Won't Do It": Promoting Positive Engagement With Climate Change Through Visual and Iconic Representations

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Fear-inducing representations of climate change are widely employed in the public domain. However, there is a lack of clarity in the literature about the impacts that fearful messages in climate change communications have on people's senses of engagement with the issue and associated implications for public engagement strategies. Some literature suggests that using fearful representations of climate change may be counterproductive. The authors explore this assertion in the context of two empirical studies that investigated the role of visual, and iconic, representations of climate change for public engagement respectively. Results demonstrate that although such representations have much potential for attracting people's attention to climate change, fear is generally an ineffective tool for motivating genuine personal engagement. Nonthreatening imagery and icons that link to individuals' everyday emotions and concerns in the context of this macro-environmental issue tend to be the most engaging. Recommendations for constructively engaging individuals with climate change are given.
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Science Communication
DOI: 10.1177/1075547008329201
2009;
2009; 30; 355 originally published online Jan 7,Science Communication
Saffron O'Neill and Sophie Nicholson-Cole
Change Through Visual and Iconic Representations
"Fear Won't Do It": Promoting Positive Engagement With Climate
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Science Communication
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March 2009 355-379
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355
Authors’ Note: The imagery study was funded by a studentship from the Economic and Social
Research Council. The icon study was funded by a research studentship from the School of
Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia. Thanks to Mike Hulme and James Screen
for comments on an earlier draft of the article. The views expressed are the authors’ alone and
not necessarily those of the organizations with which the authors are affiliated.
“Fear Won’t Do It”
Promoting Positive Engagement
With Climate Change Through
Visual and Iconic Representations
Saffron O’Neill
Sophie Nicholson-Cole
Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research,
University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK
Fear-inducing representations of climate change are widely employed in the
public domain. However, there is a lack of clarity in the literature about the
impacts that fearful messages in climate change communications have on
people’s senses of engagement with the issue and associated implications for
public engagement strategies. Some literature suggests that using fearful
representations of climate change may be counterproductive. The authors
explore this assertion in the context of two empirical studies that investigated
the role of visual, and iconic, representations of climate change for public
engagement respectively. Results demonstrate that although such
representations have much potential for attracting people’s attention to climate
change, fear is generally an ineffective tool for motivating genuine personal
engagement. Nonthreatening imagery and icons that link to individuals’
everyday emotions and concerns in the context of this macro-environmental
issue tend to be the most engaging. Recommendations for constructively
engaging individuals with climate change are given.
Keywords: public engagement; climate change; visual representations;
icons; fear; saliency; efficacy
Climate Change and Individual Decarbonization
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2007) stated in
its most recent report that warming of the climate system is “unequivocal.
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356 Science Communication
Impacts of climate change are projected to be many and varied, ranging
from changes in ecosystems (e.g., Leemans & Eickhout, 2004), to impacts
on human systems such as water resources (Arnell, 1999), to potential
forced human migrations (e.g., Barnett & Adger, 2003), to widespread acid-
ification of the oceans (e.g., Caldeira & Wickett, 2003), to insurance and
reinsurance difficulties (e.g., Munich Re, 2004). These impacts are often
forecast as a smooth, linear progression. However, Lenton et al. (2008)
highlight that this may not be the case, illustrating the concept that the
Earth’s system may pass “tipping points” in the Earth system.
Both mitigation and adaptation are needed to appropriately manage the
challenge of climate change. Global efforts have so far tended to concen-
trate on the mitigation of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The first
legally binding national commitment to GHG emissions reduction was
through the Kyoto Protocol, adopted in 1997 and entered into force in 2005.
In this article, we focus on the U.K. context. The United Kingdom is
attempting to show leadership on climate change beyond that of these inter-
national processes through the formation of the new Department of Energy
and Climate Change (DECC) and the drafting of a Climate Change Bill.
The bill states a reduction in GHG emissions target of at least 80% by 2050
against a 1990 baseline (DECC, 2008). Lorenzoni, Nicholson-Cole, and
Whitmarsh (2007) note that an assumption underlying the bill’s substantial
GHG emissions target is a need for widespread social change. This will
include significant levels of action in terms of organizational and behavioral
change, for example, in industry as well as by individual citizens, high-
lighting a need for widespread public engagement with climate change.
In this article, we adopt the definition of engagement used by Lorenzoni
et al. (2007): a state of connection comprising the three codependent spheres
of cognition, affect, and behavior. On one hand, individuals can be engaged
as citizens responsible both for influencing policy through elections in a
democratic society and for driving consumption patterns and trends through
their purchasing power. On a more pragmatic note, engaging through indi-
vidual decarbonization activities and lifestyle changes directly is imperative,
as domestic emissions through car use, heating, lighting, and appliance use
represent around a third of the total U.K. emissions (Department for
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs [DEFRA], 2005). Emissions cuts rep-
resent a significant challenge to the present practices and habits of society
(e.g., everything from patterns of consumption to established infrastructural
arrangements, building regulations, design standards, etc.).
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Public Engagement With Climate Change
The U.K. public is increasingly recognizing climate change as a reality.
For example, a survey by DEFRA (2007a) found 99% of people surveyed
recognized the term climate change. DEFRA claims that within the United
Kingdom, being “green” is now seen as a social norm rather than an alter-
native way of life. Thus far, strategies by the government for reducing indi-
viduals’ emissions have steered away from regulation and instead focused
on encouraging voluntary uptake of decarbonization behaviors and prac-
tices. A myriad of U.K. agents beside the government also urge individuals
to cut their carbon dioxide emissions and to change their behavior in rela-
tion to climate change (e.g., DEFRA, 2007b; Marks and Spencer PLC,
2007; Rising Tide, 2007).
Yet recognition of the language of climate and even recognizing climate
change as a risk issue arguably represent a fairly superficial engagement.
Risk research indicates that the public rank climate change as lower prior-
ity than other risk issues such as genetically modified foods or nuclear
power (e.g., Poortinga & Pidgeon, 2003). Without prompting, over a third
of the U.K. public state crime, health, economic concerns, and education as
issues the government should deal with, with just 1% stating the same about
climate change or global warming (DEFRA, 2007a). Other risk issues such
as these are more immediate and pressing on a daily basis, with climate
change being a much less tangible issue of concern. Lorenzoni et al. (2007)
illustrate this and a host of other barriers that are preventing people from
engaging with climate change in ways that go beyond the tokenistic.
The most significant channel of information that the general public
receives about climate change is the mass media, which arguably has a
great influence on people’s perceptions of the issue (Carvalho & Burgess,
2005; Trumbo & Shanahan, 2000). Contemporary forms of mass commu-
nication are saturated with images and stories that have the potential to
influence people’s perceptions. These help to communicate and simplify
information, making messages memorable, condensing complex informa-
tion, communicating concepts instantly, and providing a basis for personal
thoughts and social interactions that contribute to people’s memories,
awareness, and opinions about particular issues (e.g., Farr, 1993; Graber,
1990). Examining different approaches to stimulating public engagement
can help to inform how future climate change communications can be
designed to encourage voluntary domestic decarbonization (in travel,
leisure, and household activities) and the policy acceptance needed if
society is to substantially reduce its GHG emissions.
O’Neill, Nicholson-Cole / Positive Engagement With Climate Change 357
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Why Fear Appeals?
Fear appeals in climate change are prevalent in the public domain, with
the language of alarmism appearing in many guises. For example, the U.K.
government talks of “dangerous climate change” (e.g., the Conference on
Dangerous Climate Change, Exeter, United Kingdom, February 2005), the
media of a “climate of fear” (e.g., Bonnici, 2007), and NGOs of “climate
chaos” (Stop Climate Chaos, a U.K. coalition for action on climate change).
Even children’s storybooks have appeared with climate disaster narratives
(e.g., Sedgwick, 2001). Fear also is also strongly apparent in the kinds of
imagery used in association with climate change more broadly. The U.K.
Green Party (Wootton, 2005) used an image of a catastrophically flooded
and drowned “British Isle [sic]” to campaign in the 2005 national elections.
Images of polar bears stranded on ice floes have become iconic of climate
change (O’Neill, 2008), and those depicting human struggle are evident in
the famine and water shortages depicted in the climate campaign literature
of charity Christian Aid (2008). Ereaut and Segnit (2006) state that the
alarmist climate repertoire is characterized by an inflated or extreme lexi-
con, with an urgent tone: It is a terrible, immense, and apocalyptic problem,
beyond human control. They find alarmist climate messages employ narra-
tives of doom, death, judgment, and heaven and hell.
But why is fear so prevalent in climate change communications? It does
not often stem from the science of climate change. The mediation of fear
messages is illustrated in Hulme (2007). Hulme conducted a study into the
coverage of the IPCC Working Group I report in 10 major U.K. national
newspapers. Only one newspaper did not run a story on the IPCC report.
The other nine all ran articles introducing the adjectives catastrophic,
shocking, terrifying, or devastating. Yet none of these words were present
in the original IPCC document.
Weingart, Engels, and Pansegray (2000) offer some explanation that
newsworthiness increases if identifiable events can be linked to a threat to
human life, and in order to do this levels of alarm are often magnified
(Joffe, 1999). Accordingly, some authors report that climate change is most
commonly communicated in the media in the context of dramatic climate-
related events (e.g., Carvalho & Burgess, 2005). Much other literature also
cites that characteristics including interestingness, unexpectedness, credi-
bility, personal relevance, exaggeration, realism, sensationalism, and shock
are particularly successful for attracting attention (Deacon, Pickering,
Golding, & Murdock, 1999; Emsley, 2001; Trumbo & Shanahan, 2000).
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It certainly appears that fear is employed as a communications tool that
will break through the routine of everyday life and catch the viewer’s atten-
tion. Whether this is an effective method for communicating climate
change, however, is discussed forthwith.
There is little literature dedicated to the impact of fear-inducing represen-
tations of climate change on people’s senses of engagement with the issue.
The literature that does exist suggests that using fearful representations of
climate change may be counterproductive (e.g., Moser & Dilling, 2004), but
this has not been tested empirically. In this article we aim to explore and clar-
ify this assertion in the context of visual and iconic representations of climate
change and their impacts on public engagement. Icons are used in this con-
text to refer to tangible entities that will be affected by climate change. They
are more than simply an image, narrative, or probability describing the entity
that is being represented (e.g., an image of a swimming polar bear is not an
icon; it is the polar bear entity itself that is the icon). We present a synthesis
of the results from two empirical pieces of research investigating the role of
different types of visual and iconic representations in engaging individuals
with climate change, specifically extracting the results pertaining to the use
and role of fear in climate communication approaches. Although both pro-
jects were carried out in the United Kingdom, the key messages and policy
recommendations have relevance for all with an interest in engaging individ-
uals with the issue of climate change.
Background and Theoretical Rationale
Here, we introduce some of the literature that specifically examines the
use of fear appeals both in the context of climate change and more broadly.
We start by giving a definition of the components of a “fear appeal” in
answer to the call from Witte (1992) for a literature that better defines such
phenomena.
Defining a Fear Appeal
Witte (1992) states that there are three parts to a fear appeal. The first is
the existence of a threat. A threat is an external stimulus variable that exists,
whether the individual knows it or not. Within threat recognition, there are
a further two variables: the severity of that threat to the individual (“this risk
is very dangerous”) and the individual’s susceptibility to the threat (“this
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danger will affect you because...”). The second part of the appeal is the
emotion of fear itself: a recognition of the sense of impending danger posed
and the consequent emotion of pain or uneasiness caused. It is noted that
the threat appeal needs to be recognized by the individual if this fear emo-
tion is to be invoked. The last part of the appeal involves the perceived effi-
cacy in response to the fear felt by the individual. Again, two different
variables exist: the perceived response efficacy (“Does the response to the
threat adequately prevent it?”) and the perceived self-efficacy of the indi-
vidual (“Can I carry out that response?”). In common with much of the risk
and communications literature, we use the term fear appeal here to refer to
the threat stimulus and whole cognitive and affective risk processing
response: the persuasive communication attempt designed to arouse fear in
order to promote precautionary motivation and self-protective action
(Ruiter, Abraham, & Kok, 2001).
Fear in Theory
There is much literature examining the impact of fear appeals, especially
from the health- and marketing-related disciplines. However, there is little
that concentrates on fear appeals in relation to environmental issues. This is
an important distinction. Macro-environmental issues such as climate
change are “wicked issues”—defined by Lorenzoni, Jones, and Turnpenny
(2006) as “virtually intractable matters characterized by uncertainty over
consequences, diverse and multiple engaged interests, conflicting knowl-
edge claims, and high stakes” (p. 65). Unlike marketing or health-based
approaches that connect on a personal, tangible level, climate change rep-
resents a greater communications challenge as it is temporally and spatially
remote from the individual.
Evidence on the effectiveness of fear appeals in the literature appears
inconclusive, with relationships observed from a simple linear association
between fear and effectiveness to more involved models and theories such as
the curvilinear model, parallel processing model, extended parallel process-
ing model, expectancy value model, and protection motivation theory (for a
full review, see Hastings, Stead, & Webb, 2004; Ruiter et al., 2001; Witte,
1992). The quantity and somewhat contradictory nature of these theoretical
models demonstrate the disparity in research findings investigating the effec-
tiveness of fear appeals. Hastings et al. (2004) question the value of these
models based on laboratory experiments where much of the data are obtained
using psychology or marketing students as participants when related to a real
world, sophisticated, and cluttered communications environment. Only a few
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studies have evaluated fear-based communications in real-world interven-
tions. These few studies have shown that fear-arousing approaches usually
have both weaker effects and unintended reactions when used in a real-world
setting (Hastings et al., 2004). A consistent message that does arise from the
fear appeals literature appears to be that both an individual’s perceived sense
of action effectiveness and the individual’s perceived sense of self-efficacy
are imperative for a fear appeal to be successful. This theme is discussed
further in the results and discussion sections of this article.
Difficulties of Sustaining Fear in the Long Term
The laboratory studies reviewed by Hastings et al. (2004) often tell noth-
ing of the long-term effectiveness of fear campaigns or about exposure to
repeated fearful messages. There is also little literature examining longitu-
dinal attitudes toward climate change and decarbonization-oriented behav-
ior change. For example, Lowe et al. (2006) report that fear-inducing
appeals are unlikely to have long-lasting impacts. Lowe et al. carried out a
pre/post-test survey before and after watching the climate change disaster
movie The Day After Tomorrow (Emmerich, 2004), with survey themes fol-
lowed up a month later with focus groups. They found that although the
majority of participants (67%) in the post-test agreed that “everybody has
to do something” about climate change, this sense of urgency had substan-
tially diminished by the time the focus groups took place.
The “wicked” nature of climate change (Lorenzoni et al., 2006) makes
it, for many people, an impersonal and distant issue. This factor makes cli-
mate-related fear appeals very difficult to sustain in the long term. For
example, research indicates that individuals are likely to feel that danger-
ous climate change will not affect them for some considerable years, if at
all (Lowe et al., 2006; O’Neill, 2008). This presents certain communication
difficulties where engagement is concerned because of the perception that
climate change is an issue for the far future. Research shows that individu-
als have difficulty visualizing future periods; Tonn, Hemrick, and Conrad
(2006), for example, found that individuals had difficulty imagining beyond
15 to 20 years into the future. Drottz-Sjöberg (2006) also found that indi-
viduals find it difficult to imagine the future, with an imagination limit gen-
erally of around 50 years. Similarly, Lorenzoni et al. (2007) found
individuals considered scenarios describing the 2050s to be so far into the
future as to be almost completely hypothetical.
Many individuals also exhibit unrealistic optimism (Weinstein, 1980) in
their ability to avoid climate risks compared to others, with Leiserowitz
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(2007), Lowe et al. (2006), and O’Neill (2008) finding that individuals gen-
erally considered climate change “less serious” and “less dangerous” to
themselves than to other people. An additional difficulty posed by climate
change is that it is not possible, in a deterministic sense, to attribute partic-
ular events to anthropogenic climatic change. Attributing increasing anthro-
pogenic GHG emissions to particular weather events is unusual and limited
to risk statements of statistical likelihood (e.g., see the case of the 2003
European summer heat wave event in Stott, Stone, & Allen, 2004). Therefore,
the constant use of fear appeals may act to decrease issue salience and
increase individual feelings of invulnerability, if the narratives of disaster
and destruction do not ring true or are not “proven” within an imaginable
period.
Individuals May Become Desensitized to Fear Appeals
A further consequence of long-term reliance on fear appeals, as stated
by Hastings et al. (2004), is that it is possible that a law of diminishing
returns may exist. If this exists, fear approaches need to be made more
intense as time goes by because of repeated exposure to threatening infor-
mation in order to produce the same impact on individuals.
Linville and Fischer’s (1991) “finite pool of worry” effect is also worthy
of note here. This theory states that increased concern for one risk may
decrease concern for other risks, as if individuals only have a certain capac-
ity for worry. So it could be posited that communicating particularly fear-
ful messages about certain climatic phenomena (e.g., dramatically rising
sea levels because of ice sheet melt) might desensitize individuals to be
concerned about other potentially more salient concerns (e.g., the consider-
ation of local impacts such as city heat waves), impacts that they could act
on constructively.
Fear May Damage Trust in the Communicating Organization
Every day, most individuals are faced with a barrage of multimedia mes-
sages about all types of issues and are often sophisticated in their interpre-
tation of those; receivers do not blindly trust every piece of information they
receive. Individuals are increasingly aware of the power of the media and
often skeptical or questioning of communications approaches (Hastings et al.,
2004). In an age of marketing and spin, issues of trust have come to the fore
in the arena of climate change communication, and thus the repeated use of
fear approaches may be damaging for the source organization. Trust in a
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communication source is a prerequisite for effective risk communication
(Poortinga & Pidgeon, 2003). Organizations and individuals have to work
hard to maintain public trust: Poortinga and Pidgeon (2003) found U.K.
individuals more likely to trust environmental organizations and scientists
working for environmental groups or universities to tell the truth about cli-
mate change, but participants were somewhat ambivalent about trusting
local authorities, the national government, or the European Union. However,
even NGOs (which have relied heavily on fear appeals in the past for com-
municating climate change) should not assume they have carte blanche for
launching fear appeals (Ballinger, cited in BBC News Online, 2000). An ill-
considered fear approach may damage (or further damage) the reputation of
the communicating organization and the ability of that organization to
attempt further engagement approaches. This is key when considering the
need for sustained and consistent messages to communicate climate risks
(Futerra, 2005).
Fear Messages May Produce Unintended Reactions
The continued use of fear messages can lead to one of two psychologi-
cal functions. The first is to control the external danger, the second to con-
trol the internal fear (Moser & Dilling, 2004). If the external danger—in
this case, the impacts of climate change—cannot be controlled (or is not
perceived to be controllable), then individuals will attempt to control the
internal fear. These internal fear controls, such as issue denial and apathy,
can represent barriers to meaningful engagement. Lorenzoni et al. (2007)
divide the barriers to engagement with climate change, into two types, indi-
vidual-level and social-level barriers. Of particular consequence for this
discussion of fear appeals are the barriers acting individually to inhibit
engagement with climate change. These include uncertainty and skepti-
cism, an externalization of responsibility and blame or stating other issues
as more immediate and pressing, and fatalism or a “drop in the ocean” feel-
ing. All are maladaptations; that is, they lead to an individual controlling his
or her internal fear by no longer interacting with the climate change issue,
but the action does not decrease the individual’s exposure to climate risk.
Repeated exposure to fearful representations of climate change may
indeed even provoke a counterintuitive reaction, for example, causing the
message to become laughable. Ereaut and Segnit (2006, pp. 14-15) recog-
nized this in their report investigating public climate discourses in the United
Kingdom. They named one of the apparent public discourses as “settler-
dom.” The settlerdom discourse rejects and mocks an alarmist discourse.
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Those invoking the settlerdom discourse do so by invoking a feeling of
common sense in their audience, not through expert discourse or debate.
The authors find the discourse is constructed in terms of the “sane major-
ity” against the “doom mongers” or the “global warming brigade. Also
mentioned by Ereaut and Segnit is a small but potentially important dis-
course defined as “British comic nihilism,” or “bugger it and open another
bottle.” The discourse was characterized by a whimsical and unserious
nature and a happy refusal to engage in the debate. Both of these discourses
may represent unintended consequences of repeated exposure to communi-
cations approaches depending on threat and fear.
Fear Is a Good Communicator—For Other People
A further limitation of laboratory studies is that in such a laboratory sit-
uation, an individual may state that a particular fear approach should be
very motivating to the target audience. On closer inspection however, it
transpires that the individuals involved understand with some sophistication
what the approach is trying to achieve but are not themselves personally
moved (Hastings et al., 2004). This again demonstrates the barriers, at both
individual and social levels (Lorenzoni et al., 2007), individuals perceive
when they are confronted with climate fear appeals.
We consider here, paraphrasing Monahan (1995; in Hastings et al.,
2004), that the question of whether fear appeals should be used when com-
municating climate change should be posed differently. Instead of “should
fear be used?” would it be more useful to ask, “is a fear appeal the most
appropriate and effective method for engaging individuals with climate
change?” We now examine this proposition.
Method
This article presents the integrated findings from two empirical, multi-
method studies, both carried out by researchers at the University of East
Anglia. Both studies underwent ethical scrutiny by senior colleagues before
participant recruitment. The studies explored the influence of visual and
iconic representations of climate change on people’s senses of engagement
with the issue. As Lorenzoni et al. (2007) note, the use of largely qualitative
methods in both studies reported here complements recent large-scale quan-
titative U.K. survey research by allowing participants the space to freely artic-
ulate their personal interpretations of climate change, leading to a rich and
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exploratory data source. It was not the central aim of either study to investi-
gate the use of fear as a climate change communications tool. This article
arose from a realization of the synergies that existed in the studies investigat-
ing public engagement with climate change and the critical role that fear mes-
saging may play in engaging (or not) the public with climate change. When
viewed together, results from both studies provide key evidence of the impact
of using fear as a communication technique on people’s perceptions of cli-
mate change. Table 1 displays the methods used in the two studies.
Visual Representations Study (VisionS)
This study was carried out in Norwich, United Kingdom, between 2000
and 2004. It investigated the relationship between visual representations of
climate change and people’s perceptions of the issue, paying particular
attention to their senses of climate change being a personally important
issue (its salience) and their senses of being able to do something about it
(efficacy). In this research, visual representations are taken to include two
dimensions: (a) “external” images of climate change that circulate in the
public domain and (b) individuals’ mental imagery of climate change, in
other words their imaginations of climate change (often linked to the visual
representations to which they are exposed). The study involved the same
participants (n = 30) throughout three stages of research. The study began
with semistructured interviews, which informed a Q-methodology study,
and concluded with three focus groups. The sample comprised 10 people
from three diverse groups: young mothers from a deprived area, young pro-
fessionals between the ages of 26 and 35, and high school students. The
sample was not intended to be representative of the wider population
because of the small-scale nature of the study. The intention was to avoid
selecting a wholly middle-class sample and to present a range of sociode-
mographic backgrounds, lifestyle choices, social groupings, ages, life stages,
and outlooks on the future (e.g., Mason, 1996).
O’Neill, Nicholson-Cole / Positive Engagement With Climate Change 365
Table 1
The Methods Used in the Two Studies
Method
Study Focus Groups Q-Method Semistructured Interviews Survey
Imagery study (VisionS) X X X
Icon study (IconS) X X
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The semistructured interviews explored participants’ perceptions of
climate change in relation to the mental imagery that they associated with the
issue and their engagement with climate change in terms of their senses of
personal salience and efficacy. The questions were based on an exploration of
the three key themes of the imagery study: climate change imagery, personal
salience, and personal efficacy. Initially, participants were asked to explore how
they conceptualized the future, before considering the role climate change may
play in this future. Questions were then introduced to elicit the imagery that
people have in their minds about climate change. This was followed by
questions exploring participants’ opinions on the causes and impacts of
climate change, including investigating individual behavioral and emotional
responses to the issue. Further methodological details are available in
Nicholson-Cole (2004).
Q-methodology is a technique for eliciting, evaluating, and comparing
human subjectivity; it offers the means to identify shared attitude structures and
perspectives among individuals regarding a certain problem. The Q-method
part of this research was based on two image sorting tasks aimed to elicit
shared attitude structures concerning (a) the perceived salience and (b) the
personal efficacy dimensions of climate change (for more information about
Q-methodology, see McKeown & Thomas, 1988; Robbins & Krueger, 2000).
Q-methodology is typically carried out using attitude statements, but some
research has employed visual images, as in this study (e.g., Fairweather &
Swaffield, 2001). Thirty-two full color postcard-sized images were used in
the Q-sorting tasks (see Box 1 for a descriptive list).
The task asked participants to twice sort the images into a grid with
two extremes; first according to how personally important or unimportant
the images made climate change seem; and second according to how able
or unable the images made them feel to do anything about climate change.
In both cases, participants were asked to place the pictures that they felt
least strongly about or pictures that they did not find relevant to the ques-
tion in the middle of the grid. The pictures were selected from the public
domain based on a selection system to generate a good representation of
different aspects of the climate change issue, or the full “concourse” on
climate change (e.g., different kinds of impacts and responses at different
scales and in the United Kingdom and abroad). This drew on four key
sources: the types of imagery revealed in the interview data, six expert
interviews, an international review of the climate change scientific litera-
ture (IPCC, 2001), and the imagery employed in environmental NGO
campaign material online.
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Finally, three focus groups built on the prior findings and enabled par-
ticipants to discuss and elaborate on them in a social context. The focus
groups consolidated the previous results, enabling further interpretation of
the qualitative data as well as building on the findings to develop recom-
mendations for the most effective ways of using visual representations to
stimulate public engagement (both the importance of climate change and
people’s feelings of being able to do something about it).
Iconic Representations Study (IconS)
This study was designed to explore issues of climate change representa-
tion in such a way that it allowed individuals to engage with the issue
through their personal perceptions and values. The study was developed
through the concept of climate icons, defined as “tangible entities which will
be impacted by climate change, which the viewer considers worthy of respect,
and to which the viewer can relate to and feel empathy for.” The research
reported here was the first part of a larger mixed qualitative-quantitative
study (the subsequent stages of the research analyzed climate impacts on
the selected icons and then evaluated individuals’ cognitive and affective
engagement; see O’Neill, 2008). Here, we concentrate on results from the
O’Neill, Nicholson-Cole / Positive Engagement With Climate Change 367
Box 1
The 32 Climate Change Images Used in the Q Investigation
Industrial smoke stacks House with solar panels
Crowded street café Crops being irrigated
Cartoon ‘No ice this winter’ Starving children in a famine
Airplane in flight Tram in urban setting
Turning down a domestic thermostat Dried-up riverbed with dead fish
George Bush making a speech People on rainy high street
Petrol station Cyclist
Crowded beach Biting mosquito
Coal fired power station and pylon Women at a standpipe in the 1950’s
Dead tree in a desert Breaking ice sheet
Environmental refugees Field of sunflowers in UK
Flooded suburban house Building sea defenses
Fitting a low-energy light bulb Polar bear jumping across gap in ice
Wind turbines Stormy coastal scene at a quay with
crashing waves
Forest fire Flooded houses and people in Bangladesh
House falling off a cliff Graph of recorded and projected temperature
rise to 2100
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initial icon investigation stage. This investigation was undertaken between
2005 and 2006.
Because the icon study sought to investigate commonalities and differences
in icon selection, a culturally and spatially diverse audience was selected,
which featured participants from a range of sociodemographic backgrounds,
social groupings, ages, and nationalities. Two different methodologies helped
to reach these diverse participant groups. Focus groups (n = 27) were carried
out with local parents of high school–age children and with fellows from the
Leadership for Environment and Development network. An online survey (n = 63)
followed the same question protocol as the focus groups with members of the
www.ClimatePrediction.net forum, an online community. Both the focus group
and online survey protocols explored how climate change was communicated
and how this affected participants’ feelings, understanding, and behavior.
Participants were then introduced to the concept of climate icons as defined
above. Participants were asked what they thought would make an engaging icon,
before naming their own personal climate icon and explaining their reasoning
for selecting that icon.
Results and Analysis
The findings of the studies were rich and qualitative in their nature, reveal-
ing much information about the nature of people’s perceptions of climate
change and how these relate to the representations of climate change to which
they are exposed. Results presented here are those that specifically relate to
the ways in which fear-arousing images interact with people’s sense of cli-
mate change being personally salient and their senses of personal efficacy.
The abbreviations VisionS (Visual representations Study) and IconS (Iconic
representations Study) are used to identify the sources of quotes.
Climate Change Can Induce Fearful Emotions
Both studies first investigated individuals’ conceptualizations of climate
change. Regardless of their factual knowledge, most participants were able to
describe a broad range of imaginations and mental visions. Much of this con-
cerned large-scale impacts of climate change; for example, melting glaciers
and icebergs, visions of the sea level rising and inundating coastal regions or
countries, intense heat and droughts (e.g., extreme heat waves and drought
leading to starvation in Africa), landscape changes, impacts on human health
(e.g., malaria, water and food shortages), disastrous weather extremes,
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human migration, animal extinctions, and so on. The majority of outlooks on
future climate were negative and bleak, with many reflecting a degree of
uncertainty as to what climate change might mean for the United Kingdom
and participants’ localities. Only three participants imagined that there might
be positive outcomes of climate change (e.g., milder winters with less harsh
conditions, more café culture, new and more exotic crops being grown in the
United Kingdom). Many specifically talked about feeling fearful, depressed,
scared, or distressed at the thought of climate change.
In both studies, some individuals expressed particularly apocalyptic
visions of the end of the world (e.g., it will be like Armageddon, chaos,
craters, doom, we will not be able cope, it will run away with us), and some
described visual imagery that was extremely vivid and fantastical:
Things like the earth crumbling. A white mist and it’s all coming down.
That’s how I think about it. It just keeps crumbling and then it’s all hot, very
hot. (VisionS)
I reckon it’ll be like mass hysteria or something, like Armageddon. (VisionS)
Like . . . humankind collapse. (IconS)
It just seems all kind of out of control. The whole world does. I mean, if you
think about it too much, it’s rather scary. How’s it all going to end up? I don’t
know if I’ll want to be around. (VisionS)
Fear-Inducing Representation
Provoke Unintended Reactions
Both sets of results indicated that fearful messages can enhance feelings
that climate change is a distant issue in both time and space. Outcomes of
both the icon and imagery studies indicate that meaningful engagement
approaches must involve some degree of connection with “the everyday,” in
both spatial and temporal terms:
I think if we use er, some icon more related with our human life, or with mega
city life, it could be useful, to, to communicate the problem. Something that
everyday affects the, the life of most people in the world. (IconS)
I think of things like icebergs, and glaciers shrinking and snow disappearing
and things like that. Big things. Because I can only really think of it in big
terms because I don’t really know how things are going to change on a
smaller scale, or how it will affect people. (VisionS)
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And also, I find it’s very difficult that it’s not us that’s gonna be affected, or
our children gonna be affected, it’s gonna be far in the future. People only
think as far ahead as their lifetime—and that’s very difficult for us to take
action. (IconS)
In the imagery study, while climate change was seen by participants as
a generally important issue, it was not something that participants tended to
consider personally salient. This was apparently for a whole host of reasons,
most predominantly the perceived distance and remoteness of climate change
from one’s everyday experience. The majority of participants noted that if cli-
mate change were to begin having adverse local and personal impacts, it would
become more personally concerning.
An additional issue in relation to a sense of “otherness” (other people,
other places) in relation to climate change arises in the results from the
online survey participants in the icon study. Because of the lack of interac-
tivity of the online survey, it was not as successful a methodology as the
icon focus groups for obtaining participants’ personal climate icons, as
some participants distanced themselves from the definition of climate icons
as entities that were personally engaging and thus suggested icons for oth-
ers rather than stating their own personal icons. However, this shortcoming
did provide some intriguing results that give weight to the “fear is a good
communicator—for other people” literature reviewed earlier. In attempting
to provide a good “communications tool” rather than an icon that was per-
sonally salient, a number of the online survey participants suggested cli-
mate icons that they considered a good communications tool for “other
people.” Interestingly, these icons were often fantastical or fear inducing, in
contrast to the focus group participants:
Something conveying the full threat, i.e., death of world, human extinction.
(IconS)
Participants in the focus groups disagreed strongly with using fear as a
communications tool, instead, as previously discussed, citing examples of
icons that engaged with people’s everyday life as key for inducing a sense
of saliency.
In addition to distancing the viewer from the issue, fear-inducing com-
munication approaches were found to enhance a sense of fatalism and thus
act to encourage disengagement with climate change rather than positive
engagement. Participants in both studies generally felt that humans are
largely causing climate change and that something should be done about it
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“before it’s too late. Although the majority noted that there are things that
people can do to reduce the causes of climate change however, many tended
to note that their conceptions of climate change as a global and to some
extent distant and future issue made individual actions akin to “a drop in the
ocean,” unlikely to make any significant contribution in relation to the scale
of the problem.
Obviously, from a personal point of view you can walk, use the car less and
things like that, and recycle stuff.... But on a more sort of wider scale
then, I don’t think that the individual has got enough power to do a lot.
(VisionS)
People feel like they can’t do anything. And to be honest, it’s not going to
really have a massive effect anyway. (VisionS)
Although hoping that climate change would not affect them, three
participants in the imagery study specifically noted that thinking about
climate change made them feel so scared and depressed that they purpose-
fully did not think about it. Fear appeals may act to increase this response,
leading to denial of the problem and disengagement with the whole issue in
an attempt to avoid the discomfort of contending with it.
Fear Appeal Imagery and Its Impact
on Issue Salience and Efficacy
The Q-methodology results from the imagery study provide a clear
insight into the use of fearful, emotive, or dramatic imagery and its impact
on people’s engagement with climate change, specifically their personal
senses of issue salience and self-efficacy.
The Q-method output was in the form of sets of factors (e.g., McKeown
& Thomas, 1988) that represented the most significant emerging points of
view held by participants in relation to the pictures. The interpretation of
the Q-sort factors, or viewpoints, was aided by reasoning provided by par-
ticipants for their image rankings. In addition, the focus groups explored
participants’ reasoning behind their Q-sorts. The results were consistent
across the whole sample, with no marked differences between groups or
even clusters of individuals representing certain viewpoints.
Most strikingly, in the salience Q-sorts, the only two significant view-
points that appeared in the data indicated that images concerning major
impacts of climate change, often involving dramatic visions or human or
O’Neill, Nicholson-Cole / Positive Engagement With Climate Change 371
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animal suffering at both local and global scales, made climate change seem
most important to them. Participants noted that this was because of the dras-
tic and emotive nature of some of the images, their indication of the possi-
bly catastrophic consequences for some places in the world, the scientific
evidence of temperature change being so dramatic, and the immediate reso-
nance of one locally relevant flooding image. In both cases, the images that
made participants feel most strongly that climate change was unimportant
were those depicting aspects of climate change that participants noted as
being positive (e.g., sunflower crops, street café), skeptical viewpoints (e.g.,
George W. Bush), scenes considered ambiguous or unrelated to climate
change (e.g., tram), and those thought to be uninspiring to look at (e.g., crop
irrigation). Table 2 presents the images ranked as making climate change
seem most important and most unimportant for the two viewpoints that
emerged from the data.
In terms of efficacy, the results were also very consistent with two
emerging attitudinal factors. Both of these had the same top six images
which made participants feel most able to do something about climate
372 Science Communication
Table 2
Strongly Ranked Images for Salience Factors and Viewpoints
Viewpoint or Factor 1 Viewpoint or Factor 2
Images making climate change
seem most personally important
Starving children, famine +++ Industrial smoke stacks
Dried up lake with dead fish +++ Starving children, famine
Flood in Bangladesh ++ Wind turbines
Graph showing temperature ++ Dried up lake with dead fish
rise
Flooded house ++ Petrol station
Melting ice ++ Power station
Images making climate change
seem most personally
unimportant
Rainy high street – – Tram
Airplane – – Rainy high street
George Bush – – Irrigation
Sunflower field UK – – Sunflower field UK
Tram – – – Beach
Café – – – Café
Note: + and – indicate strength of importance. The bold text indicates images that appear in
both viewpoints extracted from the analysis.
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change. These were all indicative of things that individuals could do given
various degrees of resources. The images that made participants feel most
unable to do anything about climate change tended to be depictions of the
most dramatic impacts of climate change, the causes of climate change,
political unwillingness to act on climate change, and the scientific evi-
dence (Table 3).
These results demonstrate that the very images that made participants
have the greatest sense of climate change being important were also dis-
empowering at a personal level. These images were said to drive feelings of
helplessness, remoteness, and lack of control. Equally, the images making
participants feel most able to do something about climate change did not
hook their interest in the issue and were more likely to make people feel
that climate change was unimportant (though not extremely). Table 4 illus-
trates this key finding.
These results demonstrate that climate change images can evoke power-
ful feelings of issue salience, but these do not necessarily make participants
feel able to do anything about it; in fact, it may do the reverse. When pre-
sented with the results of the Q-sorts, the majority of participants were
O’Neill, Nicholson-Cole / Positive Engagement With Climate Change 373
Table 3
Strongly Ranked Images for Efficacy Factors and Viewpoints
Viewpoint 1 Viewpoint 2
Images making participants feel most able
to do something about climate change
Thermostat +++ Fitting low energy light bulb
Fitting low energy light bulb +++ Thermostat
Cyclist ++ Cyclist
House with solar panels ++ House with solar panels
Wind turbines ++ Wind turbines
Tram ++ Tram
Images making participants feel most
unable to do anything about climate
change
George Bush – – Flooded house
Storm at coast – – Polar bear
Refugees – – Dried up lake with dead fish
Starving children, famine – – Industrial smoke stacks
Industrial smoke stacks – – – Beach
Flood in Bangladesh – – – Graph showing temperature rise
Note: + and – indicate strength of feeling able or unable. The bold text indicates images that
appear in both viewpoints extracted from the analysis.
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initially surprised at the findings. Nevertheless, they agreed with the results
and reiterated that some of the images in the sample did make climate
change seem a concerning issue but at the same time made them feel pow-
erless and overwhelmed. They explained that these included images that had
a human suffering component, which illustrated massive scale impacts of
climate change, and those that made them feel scared, depressed, or emo-
tional. Participants noted that often these images were so remote from their
own experience that they were easily forgotten after their initial impact.
Participants in all groups agreed that the images that stimulated the
greatest feelings of personal efficacy were those clearly showing what
people can do personally. This was because they helped to make specific
actions clear and to seem accessible and easy to sustain. All groups made it
clear that local impact images are necessary in order to communicate a
local relevance, and action images were necessary to make people feel
empowered to make a difference. They also insisted that a global context
should be included, to make the seriousness of the issue resonant, though
this should be done carefully so as to avoid making people feel afraid or
overwhelmed and totally helpless.
Engaging More Meaningfully
Fearful representations of climate change appear to be memorable and
may initially attract individuals’ attention. However, they can also act to
374 Science Communication
Table 4
Six Images Making Participants Feel Strongly or Very Strongly
That Climate Change Is Important and Unable or Very
Unable to Do Anything About It
Images Making Climate Change Images Making Participants Feel Most
Seem Most Important Unable to Do Anything About Climate Change
Starving children, famine (both Starving children, famine (F1)
factors)
Dried up lake with dead fish (both Dried up lake with dead fish (F2)
factors)
Industrial smoke stacks (F2) Industrial smoke stacks (both factors)
Flood in Bangladesh (F1) Flood in Bangladesh (F1)
Graph showing temperature rise (F1) Graph showing temperature rise (F2) Flooded
house (F2)
Flooded house (F1) Dried up lake with dead fish (F2)
Note: The bold text indicates images that appear in both viewpoints extracted from the
analysis.
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distance and disempower individuals in terms of their sense of personal
engagement with the issue. These results strongly suggest that the use of
fear-inducing or dramatic representations of climate change can be coun-
terproductive when public engagement is a concern. That is not to say that
many kinds of visual or iconic representations cannot engage people pro-
ductively. The results show that there are types of visual imagery, icons, and
combinations of messages that can be engaging and can specifically help to
make climate change a personally salient issue for people and one that they
feel able to do something about.
Discussion
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 dis-
engage individuals from climate change, tending to render them feeling
helpless and overwhelmed when they try to comprehend their own relation-
ship with the issue. These types of representations have a common presence
in the mass media and wider public domain. In light of the results presented
in this article, this is a worrying finding, particularly if voluntary reductions in
GHG emissions through individual and household behavior change are crit-
ical if Western nations are to reach their decarbonization targets.
Although shocking, catastrophic, and large-scale representations of the
impacts of climate change may well act as an initial hook for people’s atten-
tion and concern, they clearly do not motivate a sense of personal engage-
ment with the issue and indeed may act to trigger barriers to engagement
such as denial and others described by Lorenzoni et al. (2007). The results
demonstrate that communications approaches that take account of individu-
als’ personal points of reference (e.g., based on an understanding and appre-
ciation of their values, attitudes, beliefs, local environment, and experiences)
are more likely to meaningfully engage individuals with climate change.
This was tested here in relation to nonexpert icons and locally relevant cli-
mate change imagery. More broadly, communication strategies must be in
touch with the other concerns and pressures on everyday life that people
experience. Such approaches can act to decrease barriers to engagement; for
example, because the icons selected by nonexperts are often local or regional
places that individuals care about and empathize with, such approaches are
less likely to induce feelings of invulnerability than, say, a fear appeal
O’Neill, Nicholson-Cole / Positive Engagement With Climate Change 375
by Monina Escalada on October 9, 2009 http://scx.sagepub.comDownloaded from
featuring a distant location (for a discussion of the role of affect-influencing
engagement with spatially distant icons, see O’Neill, 2008). These are not
necessarily new suggestions (e.g., Farr, 1993; Futerra, 2005; Myers &
Macnaghten, 1998), but this study provides empirical evidence as to why
fear may be an inappropriate tool for climate change communication.
These findings echo those of other researchers (Lorenzoni et al., 2007;
Moser & Dilling, 2004) who have touched on this issue of whether the use of
fear or shock-provoking messages are likely to engage people with climate
change. The results presented here certainly demonstrate that on a stand-
alone basis fear, shock, or sensationalism may promote verbal expressions
and general feelings of concern but that they overwhelmingly have a “neg-
ative” impact on active engagement with climate change. That is, unless
they are set in a context within which individuals are situated and to which
individuals can relate, they tend to disempower and distance people from
climate change. This is akin to the assertion made by Myers and
Macnaghten (1998) that depicting crisis does not sit comfortably with the
suggestion of individual action. The findings presented suggest that dra-
matic representations must be partnered with those that enable a person to
establish a sense of connection with the causes and consequences of climate
change in a positive manner—so that they can see the relevance of climate
change for their locality and life and see that there are ways in which they
(and others) can positively respond.
This begs the question, should sensational messages and appeals to fear
be used to try and engage members of the public with climate change? They
certainly have a place, given their power to hook audiences and their atten-
tion. However, they must at least be used selectively, with caution, and in
combination with other kinds of representations in order to avoid causing
denial, apathy, avoidance, and negative associations that may come as a
result of coping with any unpleasant feelings evoked (Nicholson-Cole,
2005). DEFRA (2007b) highlights this point in relation to behavioral
change, arguing that it is not worth scaring people into taking action, par-
ticularly if they do not know that their actions can make a difference. If fear
appeals are to be used, the viewers must have feasible coping responses
(e.g., high self-efficacy and the ability to respond behaviorally) in order that
barriers to engagement are not encountered.
At present, although the objectives and intentions of various communi-
cation examples that appear to have the aim of bolstering public engagement
with climate change may be genuine, many risk resulting in generating
rather tokenistic and general concern that operates at arm’s length from the
individual. Future research attention in this field must concentrate on how
376 Science Communication
by Monina Escalada on October 9, 2009 http://scx.sagepub.comDownloaded from
a much deeper personal concern and lifestyle engagement with climate
change can be encouraged through different methods and strategies of
communication.
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Saffron O’Neill is a tutor at the University of East Anglia, and a research fellow with the
Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. Her research interests are centered on an inter-
disciplinary approach linking the social sciences with the physical climate sciences, primarily
focusing on public engagement approaches.
Sophie Nicholson-Cole is a senior research associate in the Tyndall Centre for Climate
Change Research at the University of East Anglia, United Kingdom. Her research interests
include public perceptions and communication of climate change and more recently adapta-
tion to climate change in the context of coastal management.
O’Neill, Nicholson-Cole / Positive Engagement With Climate Change 379
by Monina Escalada on October 9, 2009 http://scx.sagepub.comDownloaded from
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