Why Global Warming Scare Tactics Don’t Work

  • Date: 10/04/14
  • Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, The New York Times

IF you were looking for ways to increase public skepticism about global warming, you could hardly do better than the forthcoming nine-part series on climate change and natural disasters, starting this Sunday on Showtime.

A trailer for “Years of Living Dangerously” is terrifying, replete with images of melting glaciers, raging wildfires and rampaging floods. “I don’t think scary is the right word,” intones one voice. “Dangerous, definitely.”

Showtime’s producers undoubtedly have the best of intentions. There are serious long-term risks associated with rising greenhouse gas emissions, ranging from ocean acidification to sea-level rise to decreasing agricultural output.

But there is every reason to believe that efforts to raise public concern about climate change by linking it to natural disasters will backfire. More than a decade’s worth of research suggests that fear-based appeals about climate change inspire denial, fatalism and polarization.

For instance, Al Gore’s 2006 documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” popularized the idea that today’s natural disasters are increasing in severity and frequency because of human-caused global warming. It also contributed to public backlash and division. Since 2006, the number of Americans telling Gallup that the media was exaggerating global warming grew to 42 percent today from about 34 percent. Meanwhile, the gap between Democrats and Republicans on whether global warming is caused by humans rose to 42 percent last year from 26 percent in 2006, according to the Pew Research Center.

Other factors contributed. Some conservatives and fossil-fuel interests questioned the link between carbon emissions and global warming. And beginning in 2007, as the country was falling into recession, public support for environmental protection declined.

Still, environmental groups have known since 2000 that efforts to link climate change to natural disasters could backfire, after researchers at the Frameworks Institute studied public attitudes for its report “How to Talk About Global Warming.” Messages focused on extreme weather events, they found, made many Americans more likely to view climate change as an act of God — something to be weathered, not prevented.

Full comment