ArticlePDF Available
“… apart from when there is suffer-
ing from unexpected heat or cold,
flood or drought, it is always hard
to give climate change the appro-
priate urgency.
—Sir Crispin Tickell
Just as Sir Crispin Tickell, cli-
mate change expert and chancellor
of the University of Kent, Canter-
bury, predicted, climate change
recently had a brief “revival” in the
mainstream press as Hurricane Ivan
was working its way toward a
storm-ridden Florida in mid-
September 2004 (see the illustra-
tion on page 34). Yet, looking at
U.S. public opinion more generally,
it is safe to say that climate change
does not register as an urgent con-
cern. Despite plenty of weather-
related suffering, Americans are
otherwise preoccupied.
This is not to say that the U.S.
public does not care or is blindly
and unknowingly tumbling toward
the future. Surveys suggest that the
public now generally knows that cli-
mate change is real, and vast num-
bers are concerned enough to sup-
port action.
Numerous writers have
described climate change as one of
humanitys greatest challenges.
Since 1990, the overall conclusions
by the Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change (IPCC) have
grown more confident about our
scientific understanding of the
problem. IPCC assessments are
increasingly urgent in conveying
the immense magnitude of potential
impacts and emissions reductions
needed if these consequences are to
be avoided.
Other scientists have
issued highly publicized warnings
and increasingly speak out in public
b y S u s a n n e C . M o s e r a n d L i s a D i l l i n g
UR GE N T f r o m t h e
L a t in w o r d
urgens, present
pa rtic iple o f
urgere, to
press h a rd ; c o m pelling ;
o f pressing im po rta nc e;
a req u est f o rc ef u lly a nd
ea rnestly m a d e; req u iring
pro m pt a ttentio n o r a c tio n;
a m a tter ta k ing prec ed enc e
o v er o th ers.
This article was published in the December 2004 issue of Environment, volume 46,
no. 10, pages 3246. ©2004, Heldref Publications. This
article was part of a special Beyond Kyoto
issue. For copies of the entire special
issue, e-mail Customer Service at
34 EN V IR O N M EN T DEC EM B ER 2 0 0 4
forums about the need for action.
are even some encouraging, small
beginnings in various sectors of civic
society, among industry actors, in U.S.
local and state governments, and
latelyin Congress.
But have those communicating cli-
mate change to the public and to deci-
sionmakers set in motion a sufficiently
strong momentum that policy and social
changes will now take their due course?
Without denying the criticality of
numerous other problems (such as
poverty reduction and the AIDS pan-
demic), there is arguably an insufficient
sense of urgency about climate change.
Three major factors have kept the issue
on the back burner: the enormous time
lags in the climate and our social sys-
tems, the fact that climate change has
remained largely hidden so far from
developed countries and the power
elites within them, and the overshadow-
ing of global warming by other prob-
lems. Meanwhile, the gulf between the
actions needed and the actions taken
widens below the radar of public or
political awareness.
The public to date has paid relative-
ly little attention to climate change,
and those trying to create a greater
sense of urgency have used some
unsuccessful strategies. However,
alternatives to improve the communi-
cation of this global problem do exist.
Rather than advocating a particular
course of action to mitigate or adapt to
climate change, the focus here is on
how to increase public understanding
of, and civic engagement with, the
issue. More effective communication
of climate changes urgencywhich
derives from the uncertainty in poten-
tial climatic changes and the signifi-
cant risks involved in some of them
can help bring about this highly de-
sirable engagement.
T h e R o o ts o f In a tte n tio n
a n d In a c tio n
In attempting to engage the U.S. pub-
lic in a national dialogue on climate
change, the scientific community has
encountered many hurdles that have yet
to be surmounted. The most important
of these include the creeping nature of
climate change, its complexity and
uncertainty, system lags, human percep-
tion limits, and communication failures
on the part of scientists.
The Creeping Nature
o f Clim ate Change
Global warming is a creeping
environmental problem.
Such haz-
ards are long-term and slow-onset,
cumulative processes that ultimately
can result in crises or disasters. The
day-to-day changes one might notice
are small, if noticeable at all. Over
time, these small incremental changes
add up to major problems, as in the
case of the ecological disaster in the
Aral Sea basin.
Creeping environ-
mental problems are particularly diffi-
cult to prevent or remedy, as the very
nature of the problem combined with
the nature of human behavior and
societal decisionmaking work against
early detection and action. Once
creeping environmental problems are
identified and determined to be seri-
ous enough to act upon, it may be too
late to reverse the damage.
Co m plex ity and U nc ertainty
The nature of climate change as a
highly complex and global elusive haz-
ard makes it difficult to pinpoint,
understand, and managemuch less
explain succinctly.
Scientists are only
gradually unraveling these complexi-
ties; thus, scientific certainty has
grown only incrementally. The com-
plexities and any unknowns therein, of
course, are of greatest interest to scien-
tists. Whether driven purely by curios-
ity, instrumental reasons, or a desire to
protect themselves against attack from
peers or adversaries, scientists fre-
quently emphasize the complexities
and uncertainties in academic and pub-
lic communications.
For lay people, however, these com-
plexities are hard to comprehend and
mostly uninteresting or esoteric. To
reduce the complexity of this problem
to a digestible size, listeners follow
typical human learning patterns: They
try to understand global warming
Hurricane Ivanthe ninth-named tropical storm of the 2004 hurricane seasonspawned
a brief resurgence of interest in global warming.
through preexisting, simplifying men-
tal models. Typically, these models do
not adequately capture the complex
relationships between causes and
impacts of and solutions for climate
change. Important for communicators
to understand, however, is that in the
absence of an adequate mental model,
lay listeners will make up or seek their
own framework to help them make
sense of the issue.
System Lags and Lack of Immediacy
The time lags between release of the
emissions of heat-trapping gases and
subsequent impacts on the climate
mean that the connection between
actions today and their effects on the
climate is difficult to perceive (see Fig-
ure 1 below). Carbon dioxide in the
atmosphere today has accumulated over
centuries, with only a fraction being
reabsorbed by oceans and land during
that time.
The warming we already
experience and will witness in our life-
times is therefore a result of fossil-fuel
use over the past few centuries. Future
generations will experience even
greater impacts as a result of our and
past generations’ emissions. Moreover,
there is inertia in our social systems
(for example, population dynamics,
technology development and market
penetration, the stickiness” of politi-
cal and other institutions, and cultural
beliefs and values). While inertia lends
necessary stability to a system, these
time lags can become impediments to
creating change that would allow us to
prevent a creeping environmental prob-
lem from becoming a crisis.
societies and ecosystems may be com-
mitted to damaging levels of climate
change before the issue ever becomes
an immediate, daily experience and
stimulant of action.
In addition to the temporal distance
between cause and effect, there is also a
geographic separation. At present, peo-
ple who live in the major source regions
for emissions are geographically sepa-
rated from people who live in regions
that are already experiencing or are
expected to face the most severe
impacts from global warming.
geographic mismatch is aggravated by a
political-economic separation in space
between relatively unaffected decision-
makers with substantial power and
those most negatively affected by cli-
mate change and decisions made else-
This is a classic problem of
inequities in the distribution of benefits
and costs well identified in the environ-
mental justice literature and may help
explain why the global warming prob-
lem lacks immediacy to some of the
world’s most powerful policymakers.
Finally, there is a disparity in the
magnitude of the cause and that of the
potential effect. Any one of us is only a
small contributor to a problem that is
now taking on global proportions.
Many have yet to believe that humans
2000 2100 2200 2300
2000 2100 2200 2300
2000 2100 2200 2300
(billion tons of carbon per year)
concentration (parts per million) Temperature (˚C)
Constant CO
emissions at year 2000 level
Emissions path to stabilize CO
concentration at 550 parts per million
F ig u re 1 . The challeng e of stab iliz ing em issions v ersu s concentrations of CO
NOTE: The figure illustrates the implications of the long residence time of carbon dioxide (CO
) in the atmosphere for potential
emissions reduction scenarios. Instantly stabilizing annual emissions at 2000 levels (red line) would still result in steep increases in
atmospheric carbon concentrations and global average temperatures rising for hundreds of years. On the other hand, radical
reductions in annual emissions over the next 50 years would be required if we aimed to stabilize CO
concentrations (blue line). The
resulting temperature increase would be steep over the twenty-first century but would then level off. In either case, CO
would reach levels far higher than at present or at any time over the last 740,000 years. (See L. Augustin et al., “Eight Glacial Cycles
from an Antarctic Ice Core,Nature, 10 June 2004, 62328.)
SOURCE: Global Change Research Information Office, Figure 5.3, in Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Third Assessment
Report: Synthesis Report
(Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
have the power to affect a system as
big as the globe. Even when lay people
accept human causation, they can
maintain a perception that their indi-
vidual actions do not matter a typical
commons problem.
Human Perception Limits
and Priorities
For good evolutionary reason, most
humans have a limited attention span to
devote to nonimmediate problems.
Combined with the difficult character of
climate change, it is no surprise that
global warming does not rank highly on
most individuals lists of concerns.
While more than 90 percent of Ameri-
cans have now heard of global warming
and believe it is an important issue, a
much smaller percentage is actually per-
sonally concerned about it.
warming does not even fall within the
top 10 priority issues when compared
with employment, the economy, crime,
and other such concerns.
For many
people, global warming falls into the
category of environmental issues, thus
automatically assuming a lower priority
relative to more immediate socioeco-
nomic problems.
Classic time management literature
also tells us that humans spend most of
their time on issues or demands per-
ceived as urgent, such as responding to
telephone calls or e-mail, whether they
are important or not.
The same litera-
ture would advise more time be spent on
important tasks, especially those that are
urgently important. Inattention to global
warming can thus be seen as yet another
example of this classic time manage-
ment problem.
Communication F ailures
It may be too simplistic to attribute
the lack of urgency merely to the nature
of the climate problem and that of
human beings. Those of us communicat-
ing the issue to the public and to policy-
makers have not done so as effectively
as we might have wished. An important
hurdle, of course, is the media, which
tends to portray the climate change issue
as one of large uncertainty, filled with
competing claims and intense debate
within the scientific community.
common practice of giving equal time to
unequal sides is highly misleading.
Balancing the scientific consensus
with the voices of a comparatively tiny
number of contrarians overstates the
actual degree of disagreement. This rein-
forces the publics perception of uncer-
tainty and adds to confusion.
We have also failed to create a solid
public understanding of the causes of
anthropogenic climate change and
hence of the potential solutions.
Without such an understanding, indi-
viduals are left with overwhelming,
frightening images of potentially disas-
trous impacts, no clear sense of how to
avert this potentially dark future, and
therefore no way to direct urgency
toward remedial action.
As mentioned above, people try to
absorb new information through preex-
isting frames of reference. Frames are
cognitive tools to order information.
They intimately affect peoples under-
standing, perceptions, and reactions to
For example, if climate
change is reported on TV accompanied
by images of weather disasters, the
weather frame may be triggered. On
the coattails of the common conflation of
weather with climate, climate change
becomes synonymous with and erro-
neously restricted to a change in the
weather. Moreover, weather and disas-
ters are generally understood as natural
phenomena not controlled by humans
but instead as acts of God. This frame
suggests that climate change can neither
be caused nor solved by humans.
example illustrates the paramount impor-
tance of choosing metaphors and other
cues carefully (see the box on page 37).
Failing to do so leaves the audience with
inappropriate mental models to make
sense of new information, understand
causal mechanisms, and identify relevant
solutions. Consequently, the issue can
easily be dismissed as non-urgent.
Finally, climate change has not and
will not be communicated to the public
Many have yet to
b elieve that humans
have the pow er
to affect a system
as b ig as the glob e.
by a single or uniform voice. There are
well-organized groups with advocacy
agendas for and against taking action on
climate change, which successfully
polarize the debate
(see the box on
page 38). The result of such partisan and
polarized debate is that the mainstream
American public gets turned off not
just from the debate but from the issue
and its urgency itself.
In sum, the American public does not
perceive global warming as urgent. The
majority does not yet accept global
warming as an issue that must be taken
on as a priority alongside terrorism and
crime, escalating health care costs, a
decaying education system, and so on.
The perception of global warming is that
it is uncertain, controversial, far off in
the future, and out of the publics hands.
Against this discouraging state of
affairs, what possibilities exist for mov-
ing this issue to the front burner ?
Playing with Fire: Fear, Guilt,
and Other Threats as
If a red light blinks on in a cockpit,
should the pilot ignore it until it speaks
in an unexcited tone? . . . Is there any
way to say [it] sweetly? Patiently? If
one did, would anyone pay attention?
Donella Meadows
The conundrum so well expressed
by the late Donella Meadows in one of
her biweekly
Global Citizen columns
is one that concerned scientists and
other communicators face daily. If sci-
entific findings about serious environ-
mental risks presented sweetly and
patiently (not to speak of their dense,
obscure, and jargon-heavy technical
cousins) cannot capture public or polit-
ical audiences, then what can? What
would move someone to act?
There seems to be an increasing
impulse among many to make global
warming more scary and thereby more
Senior scientists and editors of
flagship science journals deplore the
inattention given to climate change, step
outside familiar roles to pen editorials in
mainstream magazines and newspapers,
and on and off the record suggest that a
useful catastrophe or two and other
fear-provoking measures (such as terror
alert systems for the state of the climate)
are needed to motivate adequate policy
Similarly, policy advisors
and politicians compare the seriousness
of climate change to that of currently
more resonant fears, such as weapons of
mass destruction, terrorism, and war.
But can such appeals to fear generate a
sustained and constructive engagement
with the issue of climate change?
The answer is usually not:
From an
evolutionary perspective, the three most
Since the U.S. Pentagon released its 2003
commissioned report on low-probability,
high-consequence climate events and the
movie The Day After Tomorrow began
making headlines earlier this year, abrupt
climate change has become a salient facet
of public discussions about global warm-
This hard-to-perceive, abstract prob-
lem seems to have finally acquired a
newsworthy, attention-grabbing per-
sona fast, dramatic, potentially visible,
and clearly more dangerous than slow
climate change. To explain it, some
experts on abrupt climate change speak
about the climate having a switch,
which when pushed hard enough gets
flipped and causes the entire climate sys-
tem to suddenly shift into a new state of
Compared to the more
gradual climate changes over centuries,
this abrupt shift occurs over the course of
only years to decades.
The switch metaphor immediately
caught on in the press due to its simple,
commonplace, and mechanistic connota-
tions. Whether unconsciously or purpose-
fully chosen, however, it might backfire:
If the climate has a switch that can be
flipped one way, it could also be flipped
back again. It is then not a far reach for
the public to conclude that climate
change may be reversible on relevant
timescales. People might assume, With
better scientific understanding, experts
might figure out how to manipulate that
switch while the rest of us dont have to
worry about reducing emissions. Reso-
nant with the deeply held, Western cul-
tural beliefs about controlling nature and
already-circulating geoengineering
schemes, abrupt change scientists have
given the public a simplifying frame that
makes a difficult phenomenon under-
standable and controls its fears about this
unpredictable possibility. It fails, howev-
er, to challenge most peoples simplistic
cause-and-effect notions of complex sys-
tem changes, to educate properly, and to
motivate people to take action.
Quite to
the contrary, the switch may well allow
listeners to switch off their attention and
any sense of urgency that the specter and
spectacle of abrupt climate change
briefly evoked.
1. A. A. Leiserowitz, Before and After The Day
After Tomorrow
: A U.S. Study of Climate Change
Risk Perception,
Environment, November 2004,
2239; P. Schwartz and D. Randall,
An Abrupt Cli-
mate Change Scenario and Its Implications for Unit-
ed States National Security
, report prepared for the
Pentagon, 2003,
Abrupt_Climate_Change_Scenario.pdf (accessed 31
August 2004), and
ClimateChange2003.pdf (accessed 13 October 2004).
2. Two recent examples include an hour-long
show entitled Climate of Uncertainty, broadcast
by American Radio Works on 17 August 2004,
climate/index.html (accessed 18 August 2004);
and a special feature by The Weather Channel on
the evening before
The Day After Tomorrow was
released in U.S. cinemas.
3. National Research Council Ocean Studies
Board, Polar Research Board, and Board on Atmos-
pheric Sciences and Climate,
Abrupt Climate
Change: Inevitable Surprises
(Washington, DC:
National Academy Press, 2002).
4. R. J. Bord, R. E. OConnor, and A. Fisher,
In What Sense Does the Public Need to Understand
Global Climate Change?
Public Understanding of
9 (2000): 20518; and J. D. Sterman and L.
B. Sweeney, Cloudy Skies: Assessing Public
Understanding of Global Warming, System Dynam-
ics Review
18 (2002),
www/cloudy_skies.html (accessed 24 September
common responses to danger (associat-
ed with a healthy internal experience of
fear and/or pain) are fight, flight, or
freeze. The psychological function of
these responses is to control either the
external danger or the internal fear.
These responses prove useful adapta-
tions if they increase ones ability to
cope with the dangerous situation and
ultimately if they ensure personal and
species survival. To the extent that these
reactions only control the fear or pain
without reducing the danger, psycholo-
gists consider these responses maladap-
The goal of effective risk commu-
Since climate change first entered public
and media consciousness in the late 1980s,
the voices of the extreme have been part of
the mix. Against a backdrop of significant
scientific uncertainty, alarmists could stake
out a catastrophic future, while climate
skeptics could deny or downplay the
problem. The resulting polarization under-
mined attempts at getting across a message
of urgency founded on scientific under-
standing and precaution. The tactics of
both extreme camps have been widely
described and examined.
Each side can
find plenty of ammunition in the so-
called scientific facts. Meanwhile, the pub-
lic is more confused than ever, and a grow-
ing problem remains unaddressed.
While mainstream science today comes
down far closer on the side of those ring-
ing the alarm bells, it also contributes to
and suffers from this polarized situation:
The problem is less the politicization of
science as it is the scientization of poli-
Clear value conflicts, better overtly
addressed as such, are instead carried out
behind the cover of scientific fact and
Scientists many with little
skill or training in speaking to public
audiences, the media, or policymakers; a
notorious lack of strategic sensibility; and
an almost naive belief in the notion that
the disagreements at hand could be
resolved through rational exchange among
reasonable people try to tame alarmists
on the one hand and constructively engage
with contrarians on the other, only to give
both undue attention and public standing.
Science clearly provides an important ser-
vice in setting the record straight and dis-
proving false claims, yet it can do more,
and better.
First, becoming intimately familiar with
contrarian/alarmist tactics will help to rec-
ognize them more rapidly. Rather than just
refuting the substance of false claims,
exposing those strategies to the public
may also be effective. It would help dilute
the tactics power and educate audiences
about them. The audience and media still
get entertainment value out of the
exchange, but the voice of reason will ring
more true.
Moreover, the value of science is far
greater for solving problems than arming
value conflicts. Instead of engaging in
such covert conflicts, exposing them as
value conflicts and forcing extremists to
lay their values openly on the table will
not end the debate but take science out of
the equation. Conflict resolution is better
equipped than modeling and analytical
tools to resolve value conflicts.
Third, scientific progress is propelled by
curiosity and healthy skepticism. Converse-
ly, scientific progress is hindered by a cot-
tage industry of engagement with climate
skeptics, few of which have scientific cre-
dentials or a true interest in the scientific
process. Calling provocateurs by their true
names naysayers, doomsayers, contrarians,
ideologues and marginalizing them by
doing so is one important element of deter-
mining the terms of the debate. Disengaging
from them more often and getting ones own
message across is more powerful.
Finally, scientists and advocates for pre-
cautionary action have been consistently
on the defensive in public statements and
debates: Contrarians come in first to frame
the debate and scientists, and policy advo-
cates then feel compelled to contradict
false claims or overstatements. Yet the
power is not in the response however
clever and effective. The power is in fram-
ing the conversation. This requires
courage, strategic thinking, and effective
communications training. Being well pre-
pared and one step ahead of the voices of
the extreme is essential in a debate that
will not be won any time soon and in
fact is likely to heat up further.
In sum, scientists may be better advised
to stop trying to convince the extremists
on both sides with rational arguments and
instead to convince the larger audience of
a more reasonable approach.
1. Common contrarian tactics tried and honed in
previous anti-environmental and anti-consumer safety
campaigns go through a well-known sequence: deny-
ing the problem, downplaying its severity, predicting
economic ruin, and relying on human adaptive capacity
and ingenuity. All along the way, the proponents of
these views exploit scientific uncertainties, use selec-
tive decontextualized scientific findings, call on flawed
pseudo-scientific studies, and bank on the ignorance of
the general public to support their views, while pepper-
ing their public statements with derogatory name-
calling and portrayals of scientists and politicians.
Sadly, alarmists use a similar set of tactics. For more
on alarmists, see S. Boehmer-Christiansen, Global
Climate Protection Policy: The Limits of Scientific
Advice, Parts 1 and 2,
Global Environmental
Change 4 (1994): 14059, 185200; A. Ross, Is Glob-
al Culture Warming Up? Social Text 28 (1991): 330;
and P. J. Taylor and F. H. Buttel, How Do We Know
We Have Global Environmental Problems? Geoforum
23 (1992): 40516. For more on contrarians, see G. E.
Brown, Jr., Environmental Science Under Siege in the
U.S. Congress, Environment, March 1997, 1220,
2931; A. M. McCright and R. E. Dunlap, Challeng-
ing Global Warming as a Social Problem: An Analysis
of the Conservative Movements Counter-Claims,
Social Problems 47 (2000): 499522; C. E. Miller and
P. N. Edwards, eds.,
Changing the Atmosphere: Expert
Knowledge and Environmental Governance (Cam-
bridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001); D. L. Levy and D.
Egan, A Neo-Gramscian Approach to Corporate Polit-
ical Strategy: Conflict and Accommodation in the Cli-
mate Change Negotiations,
Journal of Management
Studies 40 (2003): 80329; S. Beder, Corporate
Hijacking of the Greenhouse Debate, The Ecologist
29 (1999): 11922; R. Gelbspan, The Heat Is On: The
Climate Crisis, the Cover-Up, the Prescription (Boul-
der, CO: Perseus Books, 1997); R. Gelbspan, The Boil-
ing Point: How Politicians, Big Oil And Coal, Journal-
ists, and Activists Have Fueled A Climate Crisis And
What We Can Do To Avert Disaster
(Boulder, CO:
Perseus Books, 2004); and S. Opotow and L. Weiss,
Denial and the Process of Moral Exclusion in Envi-
ronmental Conflict,
Journal of Social Issues 56
(2000): 47590.
2. J. T. Houghton et al., eds.,
Climate Change 2001:
The Scientific Basis, Contribution of Working Group I
to the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmen-
tal Panel on Climate Change (Cambridge, UK: Cam-
bridge University Press, 2001).
3. D. Sarewitz, How Science Makes Environmental
Controversies Worse,
Environmental Science & Policy
7 (2004): 385403.
4. This was also a clear finding in the early days of
risk communication studies; see, for example, S. Krim-
sky and A. Plough,
Environmental Hazards: Communi-
cating Risks as a Social Process (Dover, MA: Auburn
House Publishing Co., 1988).
nication is precisely to support proper
adaptive behavior.
Perhaps the leading maladaptation to
the threats associated with overwhelm-
ing, ill-understood problems especial-
ly ones in which we all are complicit
is psychic numbing or apathy.
Communicators might be tempted to
break through disinterest, indifference,
and apathy by using fear as a motivating
force. But even if they succeed in get-
ting attention, the strategy might still
fail if it triggers denial or repression of
a problem perceived as overwhelming.
Repression of emotions such as fear,
pain, guilt, or despair requires and con-
tributes to commonly observed cultur-
al ailments including passivity on
potentially relevant issues.
repressive mechanisms may even be
consciously sanctioned if dire predic-
tions do not (immediately) materialize,
thus giving a listener official permission
to turn attention away from recurring
alarming news.
Other maladaptive responses to fear
and frustration can include anger and
violence toward the environment and
others, as well as counterproductive
behaviors that may in fact increase ones
objective risk to external danger.
vey studies have found, for example,
that one common response to informa-
tion about the threats of climate change
is a desire to buy a big sports utility
vehicle (SUV) as a means of protecting
against an unpleasant or unpredictable
Unfortunately, of course,
SUVs at current low levels of fuel-
efficiency exacerbate the climate prob-
lem. This reaction was captured comi-
cally in a cartoon published after the
release of
The Day After Tomorrow (see
the illustration on page 40).
Risk communication and psycholog-
ical studies add weight to the cautious
use of fear appeals. Empirical studies
show, for example, that fear may
change attitudes and verbal expres-
sions of concern but not necessarily
active engagement with the issue or
actual behavior.
Perceived self-
efficacy in responding to a threat,
expected response costs, and intention
have been found to be the strongest
predictors of concurrent or future
Finally, if threat informa-
tion is unspecific, uncertain, perceived
as manipulative, or if it comes from
sources that the recipients do not trust,
it may not even evoke fear but resent-
ment, dismissal, or nothing at all on
the radar screens of attention.
Guilt the emotional response to
some self-perceived shortfall with
respect to ones own standards of con-
duct is another potentially powerful
motivator of individual or social
response. People who feel guilty want
to make amends or feel a moral respon-
sibility to behave differently.
search suggests that explicit guilt
appeals can indeed evoke such feel-
ings; however, because they also can
bring about resentment or annoyance
with overt manipulation, these appeals
do not necessarily persuade or induce
behavior change.
Milder appeals to
guilt may be less persuasive and thus
less motivational than overt tech-
niques. To the extent that guilt chal-
lenges ones sense of personal integri-
ty, it can initiate the search for
self-affirmation. Responses to guilt
thus aim primarily at maintaining ones
sense of a moral self, and they may or
may not also involve behavior that
ends or rectifies the guilt-invoking
Put differently, guilt appeals
are unreliable as motivators of socially
or environmentally benign responses.
In summary, to the extent that climate
information appeals to fear and pro-
duces Chicken Littles or appeals to
guilt and produces resentment, climate
change communicators are likely to fail
to engage and empower individuals to
make personal behavior changes or
motivate their support for public policy
changes. Fear and guilt can serve a
motivating function but require several
supportive conditions to lead to desir-
able responses.
Thus, given the highly
complex and uncertain outcomes of
such appeals and the limited ability to
control the audiences emotional
response to information, using positive
motivations and forms of communica-
Seven proposed
strategies together
can greatly enhance
wider public
for the seriousness
of the climate
change problem
and build
momentum for
social and policy
tion may prove more successful in en-
gaging social actors.
Imp roving the Communication
of Climate Change
Seven proposed strategies follow
directly from the pitfalls described
above and build on research on com-
munication, information processing,
and emotional and cognitive responses
to risk information. None alone will
do the trick, but together they can
greatly enhance wider public apprecia-
tion for the seriousness of the problem
and build momentum for social and
policy change.
Abide by Basic Communication Rules
The first rule of good communication
is to ask who the audience is. Impor-
tantly, we should ask ourselves, Who
needs to understand climate change
at this time? Who is in the best position
to set in motion the most critical so-
changes to bring about significant
emission reductions? Who are the like-
ly early adopters, and who sits on the
Mindfulness of the audience
further implies an attempt to under-
stand what interests and concerns lis-
teners have and what mental models
prevail among them. It is still critical to
choose mental models that clearly link
cause, effect, and solutions.
In addi-
tion, applying the lessons learned from
risk communications and economic
research will help in choosing the
appropriate action frame: Highly
certain-to-succeed, preventive actions
are best induced by a frame that sug-
gests benefits (gain frame), while riski-
er choices (where success is less cer-
tain) can be used in the context of
avoidance of losses (loss frame).
Picking the right messenger to maxi-
mize credibility and legitimacy with
the audience (see below) is critical.
Equally important is to carefully
choose the communication channel
(such as newspapers, TV, or person-to-
person exchange among family, neigh-
bors, and friends). If the purpose is to
spread information widely, mass com-
munication channels are viable options.
If the purpose is to persuade and solic-
it commitments to take a specific
action, more direct and personalized
channels are needed.
Address the E motional and Temporal
Components of “ Urgency”
Fear as a motivation to create greater
urgency should be used with significant
caution and only if one also plans to
give his or her audiences a sense of
response-ability to deal with the
problem. In other words, to increase the
likelihood that threatening information
leads not to denial and apathy but to
action, a focus in tone and content
on empowerment should be the highest
priority. Highlighting the effectiveness
of recommended actions, addressing
concerns over costs, and bolstering peo-
ples sense of self-efficacy all contribute
to a can-do attitude. It is helpful in
this context to share examples of suc-
cess and to reward early action through
visibility and public acknowledgment.
It is also important to give specific
instructions on what to do and to give
cues that will prompt people to remem-
ber and take the intended action. To bet-
ter address the time dimension of
urgency, communicators need to better
explain the implications of delaying
action or not taking action at all in as
concrete and tangible ways as possible.
(A comparison to paying into pension
plans, for example, may serve as apt
metaphor.) This will help lower the
reward for inaction.
Increase the Persuasiveness
of the M essage
To garner greater attention, there are
ways to increase the persuasiveness of
the climate change message without
appealing to fear. Maybe the most
important option, and one often quite
uncomfortable for scientists, is to lead
with the strongest argument that is,
with the greatest scientific certainty
and confidence.
If the first order of
business is to reach the audience, it is
in the first few minutes (sometimes
moments) of that communication that
listeners must be convinced it is worth
After the release of The Day After Tomorrow, many cartoonists used the films most
compelling images and American symbols to comment on other American love affairs.
their time to pay attention. Vivid,
understandable, believable, interesting,
and personally meaningful openings
are critical. Reordering content so that
the most important information is told
upfront ensures that the take-home
messages are given during the time of
greatest attention. Repeating those
messages ensures greater retention.
Appealing to reason and to most peo-
ples desire to be seen as reasonable by
others are the cognitive siblings that
will meet a well-argued point. By the
same token, it is important to avoid
pitching climate change as a purely
environmental or worse as a parti-
san issue.
Use Trusted Messengers:
B roadening the C ircle
Convincing arguments are best
received if they come from highly cred-
ible and legitimate sources. Credibility
and legitimacy are not innate qualities
but ones attributed to information and
to speakers by the audience in specific
Communicators can consid-
er bringing together experts on various
aspects of climate change for public
presentations or referring to colleagues
with the pertinent expertise when
speaking to the media: An economist
will carry more weight than a climate
scientist in speaking to the options,
costs, and feasibility of certain solu-
tions, and a social scientist will be
more believable than a technology
expert on human impacts. Bringing all
of these voices to bear makes for the
most convincing case.
The deeper question, however, is
whether scientists are always the best
messengers, even on a complex issue
like climate change. Pioneering indus-
try leaders will be more legitimate to
industry audiences; a religious leader
more legitimate as carrier of the moral
argument. Even more creatively, can
we employ the skills of artists, story-
tellers, and musicians to popularize a
dry scientific matter as ultimate-
ly a deeply human affair? Consider
also that, for example, an African
American speaker will tend to have
greater legitimacy with an African
American audience than a non-African
American speaker would.
Use O p p ortunities W ell
Some opportunities to bring attention
to climate change open up without any-
ones specific intention; others can be
actively created. The most common
problem in the past was that communi-
cators failed to see them coming, did
not make good use of them, or missed
them altogether. While none of us can
always foresee opportunities, we can
increase our expectation that they will
Some will feel inclined to do
more than expect them. Examples
include establishing oneself as an
expert resource to reporters through
careful relationship-building; standing
ready to publicly comment on climatic
disasters without overstepping scientif-
ic credibility (the idea of a rapid
response team); foreseeing and pre-
paring for newsworthy events, such as
atmospheric carbon dioxide concentra-
tions soon reaching 400 parts per mil-
lion. Such opportunities become teach-
able moments only if the events are
linked in meaningful ways to peoples
lives and concerns.
Tap into Individual and C ultural
Strengths and V alues
An eclectic set of research points to
another resource that climate change
communicators can tap into. Peoples
motivation and willingness to engage
with an issue and act on its behalf is not
purely instrumental (by using energy-
efficient appliances, I can save mon-
ey ). If a problem and the actions peo-
ple can take to help solve it are framed
in ways that resonate with cultural val-
ues and beliefs, people are more likely
to take the action than if they are not.
For example, Americans deeply res-
onate with notions of competitiveness,
leadership, ingenuity, and innovation.
There are equally deeply held beliefs
If a problem
and the actions
people can take
to help solve it
are framed
in ways that
resonate with
cultural values
and beliefs,
people are more
likely to take
the action
than if they
are not.
and moral values about fairness, team
play, stewardship, and responsibility for
the welfare of others (children, kin,
neighbors, and other species).
sages should begin by appealing to
these higher values to prime the audi-
ences receptivity. Such messages also
counter common defensive responses
(exceptionalism it won t happen
here ; traditionalism weve always
done it this way; transference
experts will fix it ; and the uncertainty
escape we don t know enough to
act ).
Furthermore and maybe even
more importantly when messages
speak to an individuals identity (and to
the desire to express that identity to rel-
evant cohorts), that individual appears
to be more willing to take on seemingly
inconvenient or costly efforts to con-
tribute to a problems solution.
first Toyota Prius buyers while sup-
ported by tax deductions may have
agreed to the additional expense of a
new hybrid vehicle not just to reduce
personal emissions or save on gas but at
least in part also because they like feel-
ing and being seen as environmentalists
and early adopters. British Petroleum
not only invested in emissions reduc-
tions and alternative energy technolo-
gies to save money and diversify its
portfolio but broke with the anti-Kyoto
Global Climate Coalition and went out
of its way to remake its public image
(Beyond Petroleum ).
Unite and Conquer
The final strategy pertains to climate
change communication and other
efforts to build growing support for the
immense task of reorganizing a society
currently built on unsustainable prac-
tices and principles. The unite and
conquer strategy is the antidote to
divisive tactics and isolationism of
individuals and issues. For example,
the Intergovernmental Panel on Cli-
mate Change rests its conclusions not
on a single temperature record or piece
of evidence, but on a collective pic-
ture of a warming world.
If a single
type or instance of climate change
impacts does not convey the magnitude
of the problem, then the public and
policymakers must be aided in seeing
the patterns of change. For example,
one species migrating to higher lati-
tudes or elevations in response to
warming may be a locally caused phe-
nomenon; hundreds of species doing so
all in response to the same environ-
mental driver is more convincing evi-
dence. Or, while any one extreme
storm event cannot be causally linked
to global warming, a global pattern of
increasing severity of extreme events is
consistent with theory and global cli-
mate model predictions.
Another way to counter issue com-
partmentalization is to unite around the
human activities that both emit heat-
trapping gases and cause other problems
(the collateral damage of human activ-
ities). For example, urban sprawl results
in increases in vehicle miles traveled
(higher emissions), traffic congestion,
and landscape fragmentation; power
generation emits greenhouse gases and
air pollutants; reliance on fossil fuels
imported from politically unstable
regions decreases energy security; and
the loss of forest carbon sinks also
reduces recreational spaces. Conse-
quently, solutions for the climate prob-
lem are also solutions for other problems
(the collateral benefits of the same
solutions for multiple problems). In fact,
most local, state, and private-sector mit-
igation efforts in the United States to
date mention climate change only in
passing or as a secondary justification,
instead arguing for solutions to more
immediate problems (such as air pollu-
tion) or highlighting immediately felt
and highly resonant benefits (such as
saving energy and money).
Climate change is also likely to aggra-
vate existing problems, including
species loss, the urban heat island effect,
degradation of air quality, and higher
incidence of respiratory illnesses. Thus
many actions taken to mitigate climate
change will also help abate others, an
argument increasingly made in favor of
viewing mitigation and adaptation
actions as complementary and synergis-
Changing one
light bulb will not
make a difference,
but the cumulative
impact of every
A merican household
changing one
light bulb is
surprisingly large.
tic activities, rather than as trade-offs.
While few examples exist where the
leading or sole justification for emis-
sion-reducing actions was climate
change, typically this combination of
justifications has worked better for
many early adopters.
Another way to unite and conquer
and counter isolationism applies to
engaging people: If as individuals
we rightly cannot be convinced that
our personal actions will make a differ-
ence in the global context, we must be
made to feel part of a larger collective
that can successfully tackle the prob-
lem. Changing one light bulb will not
make a difference, but the cumulative
impact of every American household
changing one light bulb is surprisingly
large. Building on a long history of
communal achievements and tapping
into a yearning for community and
meaning, the way we speak about cli-
mate change must become the ultimate
expression of our love for land and
neighbor, for life itself.
Recreating and Sustaining
Momentum: Closing Thoughts
Communicating the enormous chal-
lenge and urgency of climate change
does not commence from a nascent,
level playing field. Any improvement
must build on the uneven understand-
ing and judgment of the problem, as
well as the outright failures and limited
successes of the past. This requires
finding ways to engage previously
unconcerned audiences and maybe
even more problematically reengag-
ing audiences turned off by the contro-
versial and confusing discourse on
global warming to date. Dealing with
the legacies of climate change commu-
nication in the past and reframing a
debate where positions are deeply dug
in are crucial challenges. To this end,
perhaps the propositions offered above
will provide some concrete help and
stimulate further creative thinking,
including the necessary social science
research to develop and test alternative
frames, strategies, and approaches. In
particular, it would be desirable for cli-
mate and other physical scientists and
even social scientists previously not
concerned with the discursive side of
climate change to collaborate with
communication experts to help create
an elevated public conversation.
Even less trivial than (re)creating the
public discourse, however, is the chal-
lenge of how to maintain it. Nothing
holds anyones attention at consistently
high levels over long periods of time.
Such an expectation for climate change
would be entirely unrealistic. At the
same time, bringing about the changes
required to achieve greater than 80 per-
cent reductions in heat-trapping gas
emissions requires sustained engage-
ment. Of course, many emission reduc-
tions can be achieved through techno-
logical, policy, and infrastructure
changes such as higher efficiency
standards for cars and appliances, better
building codes, and high-density devel-
opment that reduces the need for indi-
vidual vehicle use that will allow indi-
viduals to act green without actively
having to think about doing so.
But even until and while we bring
about these changes, public and political
attention to climate change will wax and
wane through numerous issue cycles ;
we all will be distracted by competing
demands on our attention.
Maybe even
more discouraging is the empirical
observation that the American public
tends to drop its concern for the environ-
ment when it perceives that there is
someone in charge at the federal level.
During the Reagan and Bush Sr. and Jr.
administrations, public concern over cli-
mate change was and has been higher
than during the Clinton administration.
This suggests a see-saw sense of urgency
and personal responsibility depending on
the prevailing perception of how much
others Congress, an administration,
businesses, or civic groups do for the
environment. Thus, maintaining the
momentum for engaging with climate
change requires connecting the issue
more strongly with those concerns for
which people feel a persistent and per-
sonal responsibility (echoing the notions
of stewardship, personal relevance, and
team-playing mentioned above).
Further, it requires efforts to better
understand and facilitate internalization
of motivations to behave (or produce
goods and services) sustainably. Such
efforts must stand on three pillars:
empathetic understanding of the diffi-
culty or inconvenience that change and
new behaviors involve for a person; the
provision of maximum choice and flexi-
bility over the course of alternative
action; and a meaningful, persuasive
rationale for the required change.
three-legged approach is easily transfer-
able from individuals to organizations,
industries, and political entities.
time this process will help elevate and
internalize social norms, which are
motivating factors themselves.
Finally, if in fact uncontrolled anthro-
pogenic climate change leads to region-
al or even global crises and maybe
irreversible losses and changes then
success in our efforts to mitigate cli-
mate change could be defined by avoid-
ing just that. The absence of something
dreadful, however, is a notoriously bad
motivator to keep going. The occurrence
of nothing different from what we are
familiar and able to deal with now will
be hard to chalk up as success, or
more poignantly as reward for what
may be perceived as inconvenient
behavioral and policy choices. Some
form of patting on our collective
backs, however, is needed to keep moti-
vation high for continuing to participate
in the necessary social changes.
Clearly, then, there is a need to define
positive visions, ones that are far broad-
er than just the hope that we might duck
a potential climate crisis. Believable,
positive, open-ended, problem-solving,
and meaning-giving visions are needed
to offer a lasting motivation to partici-
pate in conversation and partake in com-
munal action.
Developing such cultur-
ally resonant and engaging visions
involves our highest aspirations for the
future and our deepest assumptions
about what is possible.
important thus for communicating the
magnitude of the challenge before us are
not measures of doom but yet-to-be-
developed imaginative, compelling indi-
cators that allow us to assess our
progress toward that better world. For,
as futurist Robert Olsen says (paraphras-
ing historian Frederik Polak), the
future may well be decided by the
images of the future with the greatest
power to capture our imaginations and
draw us to them, becoming self-
fulfilling prophecies.
Susanne C. Moser is a research scientist at the Nation-
al Center for Atmospheric Changes Institute for the
Study of Society and Environment (ISSE) in Boulder,
CO. She is a geographer by training, and her research
foci for the last 10 years have been the human dimen-
sions of global change. Her current research interests
include effective climate change communication and
social change, interactions between scientists and
stakeholders (in particular, decisionmakers), coastal
impacts of climate change and effective adaptation
strategies, and health impacts of climate change. Dur-
ing a post-doctorate at Harvard Universitys Kennedy
School of Government in the Global Environment
Assessment project, Moser became particularly inter-
ested in the science-policy interaction. She also
worked for the H. John Heinz III Center for Science,
Economics and the Environment in Washington, DC,
on a congressionally mandated project on coastal ero-
sion and management. From 19992003, Moser was
staff scientist for climate change for the Union of Con-
cerned Scientists, managing projects on climate
change impacts and working in the trenches of effec-
tive climate change communication and social mobi-
lization for change. She may be reached at smoser Lisa Dilling is a visiting fellow with the
Center for Science and Technology Policy Research,
Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental
Sciences, University of Colorado at Boulder. Her cur-
rent research focuses on the use of science-generated
carbon-cycle information in policy and decisionmak-
ing. More generally, she is interested in the intersec-
tion between science and policy, especially topics
such as the scales of information needed and used, the
institutional barriers to better use of information, and
the decisionmaking process used to set priorities for
research to serve societal needs. Dilling previously
worked as a program manager for a national carbon-
cycle science program at the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration, where she studied the
oceanic carbon cycle. She recently contributed an arti-
cle related to her research to the
Annual Review of
Environmental Resources. She may be contacted via
phone at (303) 735-3678 or via e-mail at ldilling The authors thank Robert Kates
for inviting them to write this article. He and the other
editors of
Environment provided very helpful feed-
back on an earlier draft. In addition, the authors
received valuable feedback from Robert Harriss,
Nancy Cole, Aaron McCright, Susan Watrous, and
Anthony Leiserowitz. More fundamentally, this article
draws on the thoughtful discussions that took place in
June 2004 at a workshop in Boulder, CO (see http:// The
authors are deeply indebted to all participants for their
expertise, wisdom, and inspiration. They will add
depth to the ideas presented here in a forthcoming
anthology on climate change communication and
social change (edited by the authors). The authors
gratefully acknowledge funding for the project from
The MacArthur Foundation, the National Science
Foundation, and the National Center for Atmospheric
Researchs Walter Orr Roberts Institute and Institute
for the Study of Society and Environment (formerly
known as the Environmental and Societal Impacts
Group). The opinions expressed herein, and any per-
sistent faults, remain the authors own.
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Human Choice & Climate Change. What
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J. Ikeme, Equity, Environmental Justice and Sustain-
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Global Environmental Change 13 (2003):
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(Washington, DC: Island Press, 2004).
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What Sense Does the Public Need to Understand Glob-
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Public Understanding of Science
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America on the Environment (Cambridge, MA: MIT
Press, 2003).
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the consistent survey result that a significant majority
of Americans support protecting the environment.
While Americans widely espouse environmental val-
ues, only a small percentage likes to self-identify with
the environmentalist label. Rather, being pro-
environment is now part of good character. Overtly
anti-environmentalist attitudes or actions seem to have
a greater impact on voting choices than now common-
ly held pro-environmental attitudes and values (see W.
Kempton, Will Public Environmental Concern Lead
to Action on Global Warming?
Annual Review of
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Journalist to Do? Challenges and Approaches to
Reporting Scientific Assessment, in S. Hassol and J.
Katzenberger, eds.,
Elements of Change 96: AGCI
Session II: Characterizing and Communicating Scien-
tific Uncertainty
(Aspen, CO: Aspen Global Change
Institute, 1996), 14752; and M. T. Boykoff and J. M.
Boykoff, Balance as Bias: Global Warming and the
US Prestige Press, Global Environmental Change 14
(2004): 12536.
26. Boykoff and Boykoff, ibid.
27. J. Immerwahr,
Waiting for a Signal: Public Atti-
tudes toward Global Warming, the Environment and
Geophysical Research (Washington, DC: American
Geophysical Union, 1999),
soc/attitude_study.pdf (accessed May 1999); and S.
Seacrest, R. Kuzelka, and R. Leonard, Global Climate
Change and Public Perception: The Challenge of
Journal of the American Water Resources
Association 36 (2000): 25363.
28. Such frames get activated through a variety of
clues, including metaphors, images, the messenger,
and other contextual clues. See A. Bostrom, M. G.
Morgan, B. Fischhoff, and D. Read, What Do People
Know About Global Climate Change? 1. Mental Mod-
Risk Analysis 14 (1994): 95970; D. Read et al.,
What Do People Know About Global Climate
Change? 2. Survey Studies of Educated Laypeople,
Risk Analysis 14 (1994): 97182; and M. G. Morgan,
B. Fischhoff, A. Bostrom, and C. Atman, Risk Com-
munication: The Mental Models Approach (New York:
Cambridge University Press, 2001).
29. As another example, global warming came to
public attention only after stratospheric ozone deple-
tion (the ozone hole ) was discovered. Thus, surveys
repeatedly show that people try to understand global
warming as caused by the ozone hole, with the con-
current suggestion that ceasing the use of spray cans
will also solve the global warming problem (see notes
27 and 28 above). See also C. Trumbo, Constructing
Climate Change: Claims and Frames in US News Cov-
erage of an Environmental Issue,
Public Understand-
ing of Science
5 (1995): 26983.
30. G. E. Brown, Jr., Environmental Science Under
Siege in the U.S. Congress,
Environment, March
1997, 1220, 2931; A. M. McCright and R. E. Dun-
lap, Challenging Global Warming as a Social Prob-
lem: An Analysis of the Conservative Movements
Social Problems 47 (2000):
499522; C. E. Miller and P. N. Edwards, eds., Chang-
ing the Atmosphere: Expert Knowledge and Environ-
mental Governance (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press,
2001); and D. L. Levy and D. Egan, A Neo-
Gramscian Approach to Corporate Political Strategy:
Conflict and Accommodation in the Climate Change
Journal of Management Studies 40
(2003): 80329.
31. FrameWorks Institute,
Talking Global Warming
(Summary of Research Findings) (Washington, DC:
FrameWorks Institute, 2001).
32. In her
Global Citizen column, Donella Meadows
describes her reaction to the sweeping accusation not
just made by non- or anti-environmentalists, but also
within the pro-environmental community that every-
one speaking on behalf of the environment is a cata-
strophist and alarmist. See D. Meadows, How Envi-
ronmentalists Ought to Talk,
Global Citizen, Donella
Meadows Archive, 1996,
environmentalistsed (accessed 26 May 2004).
33. Attempts to rename the problem as a climate cri-
sis or climate disruption belong here as well.
34. The call for a few useful catastrophes comes
from Tickell, note 2 above, and is reiterated in S.
Ungar, Social Scares and Global Warming: Beyond
the Rio Convention,
Society and Natural Resources
8 (1995): 44356. Editor-in-Chief of Science, Don-
ald Kennedy, stated in an editorial that he deplored
the lack of attention that climate change is receiving
Science, 11 June 2004, 1565). And H. Jesse Smith,
in an introduction to state of the world papers on
various environmental problems, offers these scien-
tific summaries in the spirit of forewarned is fore-
armed, not the sky is falling. (see Science, 14
November 2003, 1171).
35. Examples include H. Blix, Global Warming as
Big a Threat as WMD,
New Perspectives Quarterly 21
(2004): 3233; G. H. Brundtland, The Test of Our Civ-
ilization, New Perspectives Quarterly 16 (1999): 47;
M. Gorbachev, Pre-empt Global Warming, New Per-
spectives Quarterly 21 (2004): 1719; and D. A. King,
Climate Change Science: Adapt, Mitigate, or
Ignore? Science, 9 January 2004, 17677.
36. Clearly the answer is highly complex. Fear
appeals have shown to be effective at various times
throughout U.S. history. The recent American response
to fear appeals regarding terrorism (associated with a
rally for preemptive war) seemed to have brought the
desired intent (see a discussion of this issue with lin-
guist and framing expert George Lakoff, UC-Berkeley
08/25_lakoff.shtml (accessed 10 August 2004). Further
back in history, Franklin Delanor Roosevelt during the
great depression famously said to the American peo-
ple, Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing
we have to fear is fear itself nameless, unreasoning,
unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to
convert retreat into advance. Acknowledging peoples
legitimate fears, he went on to say, only a foolish opti-
mist can deny the dark realities of the moment and
called for a renewed vision and concrete action plan
(cited in K. Wilson, Global Warming Facing our
truthout, 6 May 2004, http://www.truthout
.org/cgi-bin/artman/exec/view.cgi/9/4388 (accessed
May 10, 2004)). The key to whether or not fear, guilt,
or other threat appeals cause the desired impact in the
audience is the presence or absence of concurrent
enabling conditions originating in the issue context
and/or the audience.
37. R. A. C. Ruiter, B. Verplanken, D. De Cremer,
and G. Kok, Danger and Fear Control in Response to
Fear Appeals: The Role of Need for Cognition,
and Applied Social Psychology 26 (2004): 1324.
38. Etymologically, the term apathy means the
absence of feeling or, more specifically, suffering
(whether due to an inability or a refusal to feel pain).
The term psychic numbing was first introduced by
R. J. Lifton in his book
Death in Life: Survivors of
Hiroshima (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967).
This is not to suggest for we are not aware of any
study providing empirical evidence that climate
change by itself can or has created pervasive apathy.
However, climate change does not exist in isolation.
The cumulative or synergistic effect of numerous over-
whelming environmental, military, economic, and
sociocultural problems on peoples perception and
experience of the world certainly seems to have this
numbing effect. See also the 1999 American Geophys-
ical Unions study that found focus group participants
relating the low prospects for solving the climate prob-
lem to a general moral decay of society (Immerwahr,
note 27 above).
39. J. Macy and M. Y. Brown,
Coming Back to Life:
Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World (Gabrio-
la Island, British Columbia: New Society Publishers,
1998), especially pages 2632.
40. Ibid., pages 3437. For a longer treatment of
these issues, see S. W. Nicholsen,
The Love of Nature
and the End of the World (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press,
2002) especially Chapter 5; J. Greenberg, S. Solomon,
and T. Pyszczynski, Terror Management Theory of
Self-Esteem and Cultural Worldviews: Empirical
Assessments and Conceptual Refinements, in M. P.
Zanna, ed.,
Advances in Experimental Social Psychol-
ogy, Volume 29 (New York: Academic Press, 1997),
61139; and the review by R. A. C. Ruiter, C. Abra-
ham, and G. Kok, Scary Warnings and Rational Pre-
cautions: A Review of the Psychology of Fear
Appeals, Psychology and Health 16 (2001): 61330.
41. K. Dow and S. L. Cutter, Crying Wolf: Repeat
Responses to Hurricane Evacuation Orders,
Management 26 (1998): 23752; and K. McComas
and J. Shanahan, Telling Stories about Global Climate
Change: Measuring the Impact of Narratives on Issue
Communication Research 26 (1999): 3057,
especially pages 5153.
42. For example, after September 11, 2001, many
Americans chose to drive rather than fly, thereby sta-
tistically increasing their risk of accident and death.
For additional examples, see G. M. Gray and D. P.
Ropeik, Dealing with the Dangers of Fear: The Role
of Risk Communication,
Health Affairs 21 (2002):
10616. Anger and violence toward the environment as
a maladaptive response to fear, pain, or despair can
often be spiteful or even have the flavor of revenge
all in the name of reasserting ones power. Littering,
for example, can be an intentional act, and destroying
protected vegetation and even harming animals have
been observed reactions in people who feel powerless
in certain spheres of their lives.
43. FrameWorks Institute, note 31 above. See also S.
Plotkin, Is Bigger Better? Moving Toward a Dispas-
sionate View of SUVs,
Environment, November 2004,
44. More specifically, threat information has a high-
er likelihood of being persuasive, causing persistent
attitude change and eliciting positive responses (such
as danger control and precautionary action) only when
people feel personally vulnerable to the risk; have use-
ful and very specific information about possible pre-
cautionary actions, positively appraise their own abili-
ty to carry out the action, and feel the suggested action
will effectively solve the problem; believe the cost
associated with taking an action is low; view the
reward for not taking the precautionary action low or
unappealing; and tend to consciously and carefully
process threat information (that is, have a need for cog-
nition (central/systematic processing) as opposed to
peripheral, heuristic information processing). See J. R.
Lynn, Effects of Persuasive Appeals in Public Service
Journalism Quarterly 51 (1974):
62230; H. Leventhal, M. A. Safer, and D. M. Panagis,
The Impact of Communications on the Self-Regula-
tion of Health Beliefs, Decisions, and Behavior,
Health Education Quarterly 10 (1983): 329; I. Ajzen,
The Theory of Planned Behavior, Organizational
Behavior and Human Decision 50 (1991): 179211; D.
W. Hine and R. Gifford, Fear Appeals, Individual Dif-
ferences, and Environmental Concern, Journal of
Environmental Education 23 (1991): 3641; A. Ban-
dura, Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control (New
York: Freeman, 1997); R. J. Bator and R. B. Cialdini,
The Application of Persuasion Theory to the Devel-
opment of Effective Proenvironmental Public Service
Journal of Social Issues 56 (2000):
52741, especially pages 53031; R. Osbaldiston and
K. M. Sheldon, Social Dilemmas and Sustainability:
Promoting Peoples Motivation to Cooperate with the
Future, in P. Schmuck and W. P. Schultz, eds., Psy-
chology of Sustainable Development (Amsterdam:
Kluwer, 2002), 3757; and R. A. C. Ruiter, B. Ver-
planken, G. Kok, and M. Q. Wrrij, The Role of Cop-
ing Appraisal in Reactions to Fear Appeals: Do We
Need Threat Information? Journal of Health Psychol-
ogy 8 (2003): 46574. See also Ruiter et al. in notes 37
(fear and danger control) and 40 (scary warnings)
above; and E. Das, J. de Wit and W. Stroebe, Fear
Appeals Motivate Acceptance of Action Recommenda-
tions: Evidence for a Positive Bias in the Processing of
Persuasive Messages,
Personality & Social Psycholo-
gy Bulletin 29 (2003): 65064.
45. S. Milne, P. Sheeran, and S. Orbell, Prediction
and Intervention in Health-Related Behavior: A Meta-
Analytic Review of Protection Motivation Theory,
Journal of Applied Social Psychology 3 (2000):
10643. As many of these insights come from research
on health-related behavior and crime, transfer to
behavior relative to the environment must still be inter-
preted with caution. While numerous studies have been
conducted on the relationship between environmental
concern and behavior, a careful assessment of the
psycho-dynamics underlying this relationship is
46. P. Slovic, Perceived Risk, Trust and Democracy:
A Systems Perspective,
Risk Analysis 13 (1993):
67582; Gray and Ropeik, note 42 above; and Osbald-
iston and Sheldon, note 44 above.
47. D. J. OKeefe, Guilt as a Mechanism of Persua-
sion, in J. P. Dillard and M. Pfau, eds.,
The Persuasion
Handbook: Developments in Theory and Practice
(Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2002),
48. Ibid.
49. Ibid.; R. L. Nabi, Discrete Emotions and Per-
suasion, in Dillard and Pfau, note 47 above, pages
289308; and D. J. O Keefe, Guilt and Social Influ-
ence, in M. E. Roloff, ed.,
Communication Yearbook
23 (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2002),
67101. An example may be someones reaction to the
criticism that they drive an SUV in certain contexts
perceived as a guilt-invoking statement. The almost
invariable resentful reaction to this criticism is fre-
quently followed with various justifications for owning
such a vehicle. For example, people may argue that the
vehicle is required to reach off-road or mountainous
locations, to transport big items, or to protect the chil-
dren thus reaffirming the sense of being a reasonable
person and responsible parent.
50. See A. H. Eagly and P. Kulesa, Attitudes, Atti-
tude Structure and Resistance to Change, in M. H.
Bazerman, D. M. Messick, A. E. Tenbrunsel, and K. A.
Wade-Benzoni, eds.,
Environment, Ethics, and Behav-
ior: The Psychology of Environmental Valuation and
(San Francisco, CA: The New Lexington
Press, 1997), 12253.
51. A few examples to make the point: Women are
consistently found to have a greater concern for the
environment and all things related to their childrens
future than men. Some U.S. states are currently con-
templating taking emissions-reducing actions. Innova-
tion whether in business or policy always has a
52. An alternative mental model based on extensive
testing and focus group research was recently sug-
gested: As we drive our cars and use electricity (human
activity), we burn fossil fuels and emit gases (causal
link) that form a thickening blanket of CO
model). This CO
blanket traps heat around the Earth,
not allowing heat to escape into space (elaboration of
mental model). See FrameWorks Institute, note 31
53. A. J. Rothman and P. Salovey, Shaping Percep-
tions to Motivate Health Behavior: The Role of Mes-
sage Framing,
Psychological Bulletin 121 (1997):
135569; and D. Kahneman and A. Tversky, Choices,
Values, and Frames, American Psychologist 39
(1984): 34150.
54. D. McKenzie-Mohr, Fostering Sustainable
Behavior through Community-Based Social Market-
American Psychologist 55 (2000): 53137.
55. Commonly, scientists prefer to cautiously pre-
cede their statements with acknowledgments of all that
is still uncertain or unknown. Experience and observa-
tions of peoples reactions to statements about scientif-
ic uncertainty show, however, that a first message
about uncertainty gives listeners the permission to dis-
miss or turn attention away from what follows. We do
not suggest that what remains unknown should not be
told. In fact, it is our repeated experience that an
earnest, balanced presentation of the state of our
knowledge is received most openly and given most
serious consideration. We merely suggest a reordering
of the presentation to get and retain attention. It should
go without saying that overstating ones expertise,
much less the truth of the problem or the feasibility of
solutions, undermines not only the speakers credibili-
ty but that of the entire community of seriously con-
cerned individuals.
56. See Bator and Cialdini, note 44 above; and Dil-
lard and Pfau, note 47 above.
57. Partisanship is not only a public turn-off, espe-
cially when it comes to issues that truly concern peo-
ple; it also is an historically incorrect claim in terms of
environmental leadership and, ultimately, a misleading
obstacle to addressing this global problem.
58. R. Mitchell, W. Clark, D. Cash, and F. Alcock,
Global Environmental Assessments: Information,
Institutions and Influence (Cambridge, MA: MIT
Press, forthcoming).
59. E. Vaughan, The Significance of Socioeconom-
ic and Ethnic Diversity for the Risk Communication
Risk Analysis 15 (1995): 16980. We thank
Julian Agyeman, Tufts University, for teaching us the
meaning and importance of PLUs people like us.
60. Clearly, the well-stoked PR machines of climate
contrarians and conservative think tanks vigilantly identi-
fy and define such opportunities for their own purposes.
61. FrameWorks Institute, note 31 above.
62. Osbaldiston and Sheldon, note 44 above.
63. This has been shown in various fields: environ-
mental and social psychologists trying to make sense
of peoples environmentally significant behavior (see
S. Clayton and S. Opotow, eds.,
Identity and the Nat-
ural Environment: The Psychological Significance of
Nature (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), especially
the chapter by W. Kempton and D. C. Holland, Iden-
tity and Sustained Environmental Practice, 31741);
political scientists trying to extend rational choice the-
ory to understand the paradox of public participation in
collective action for example, turn-out for elections
where the cost of participation vastly exceeds its per-
sonal, instrumental benefit (see A. A. Schuessler,
Logic of Expressive Choice (New Haven, CT: Prince-
ton University Press, 2000)); or sociologists studying
social movements and mobilization (see A. Melucci,
Getting Involved: Identity and Mobilization in Social
International Social Movement Research
1 (1988): 32948)).
64. Houghton et al., note 5 above.
65. A review of many of the climate change action
plans developed by U.S. cities participating in the
International Council for Local Environmental Initia-
tives (ICLEI) Cities for Climate Protection (CCP)
campaign shows the tendency to couch climate change
mitigation efforts in terms of reducing other collater-
al damage from human activities, or alternatively
in terms of collateral benefits of addressing some of
the more immediate problems (access action plans via
ICLEI at State climate mit-
igation efforts tend to be framed in similar ways. (For
a comprehensive, frequently updated overview see the
Pew Center for Global Climate Change at http://www,
accessed 23 September 2004). For example, few of the
15 or so U.S. states with renewable energy standards
justify them as climate change mitigation measures but
more frequently as means to increase energy indepen-
dence/security or air quality (for an overview of which
states have renewable energy requirements, see Union
of Concerned Scientists,
Renewable Energy Standards
at Work in the States,
accessed 23 September 2004).
66. See, for example, T. J. Wilbanks et al., Integrat-
ing Mitigation and Adaptation: Possible Responses to
Global Climate Change,
Environment, June 2003,
67. One of these examples was reported to the
authors by David Gershon, executive director of the
Empowerment Institute (http://empowermentinstitute
.net/Default.htm), who conducted a pilot study in a
neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, in which he tested
whether small communities of people could be
engaged in reducing their emissions by arguments
about climate change alone. The campaign, entitled
Low-Carbon Diet How to Lose 5000 Pounds in 30
Days, appears to have been highly successful. A sec-
ond example is the San Francisco Climate Action Plan,
released in September 2004, which leads with a direct
argument about the reality of climate change, the vul-
nerability of the city to climate change impacts, and a
moral argument about doing our part without relying
on the collateral damages or benefits track. See San
Francisco Department of the Environment and San
Francisco Public Utilities Commission, Climate Action
Plan for San Francisco: Local Actions to Reduce
Greenhouse Gas Emissions, 2004, http://temp.sfgov
.org/sfenvironment/aboutus/energy/cap.pdf (accessed
27 September 2004).
68. B. Metz et al., eds.,
Climate Change 2001: Miti-
gation, Contribution of Working Group III to the Third
Assessment Report of the IPCC (Cambridge, UK:
Cambridge University Press, 2001); S. Pacala and R.
Socolow, Stabilization Wedges: Solving the Climate
Problem for the Next 50 Years with Current Technolo-
Science, 13 August 2004, 96872; and R.
Socolow, R. Hotinski, J. B. Greenblatt, and S. Pacala,
Solving the Climate Problem: Technologies Available
to Curb CO
Emissions, Environment, December
2004, 819. This is not to suggest that this transition
will be easy, as the social and political barriers to
scaling-up even available technologies are formidable.
69. A. Downs, Up and Down with Ecology The
Issue-Attention Cycle,
The Public Interest 28
(1972): 3851.
70. A. Mazur and J. Lee, Sounding the Global
Alarm: Environmental Issues in the U.S. National
Social Studies of Science 23 (1993): 681720;
and D. W. Moore, Public Sense of Urgency about
Environment Wanes, The Gallup Poll Monthly 355
(1995): 1720.
71. Osbaldiston and Sheldon, note 44 above.
72. Note 7 above, all authors.
73. R. L. Olson, Sustainability as a Social Vision,
Journal of Social Issues 51 (1995): 1535.
74. Ibid., page 33.
75. Ibid., page 34; Olson is summarizing the classic
work of historian F. Polak,
The Image of the Future
(San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1973).