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Why Being Fearful Can Spark Climate Action

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Why Being Fearful Can Spark Climate Action

By Margaret Klein Salamon

Last Week, David Wallace-Wells wrote a cover story for of New York Magazine, The Uninhabitable Earth, on some of the worst-case scenarios that the climate crisis could cause by the end of this century. It describes killer heat waves, crippling agricultural failures, devastated economies, plagues, resource wars and more. It has been read more than two million times.


The article has caused a major controversy in the climate community, in part because of some factual errors in the piece—though by and large the piece is an accurate portrayal of worst-case climate catastrophe scenarios. But by far the most significant criticism the piece received was that it was too frightening.

"Importantly, fear does not motivate, and appealing to it is often counter-productive as it tends to distance people from the problem, leading them to disengage, doubt and even dismiss it," wrote Michael Mann, Susan Joy Hassol and Tom Toles at the Washington Post.

Erich Holthaus tweeted about the consequences of the piece:

"A widely-read piece like this that is not suitably grounded in fact may provoke unnecessary panic and anxiety among readers."

"And that has real-world consequences. My twitter feed has been filled w people who, after reading DWW's piece, have felt deep anxiety."

"There are people who say they are now considering not having kids, partly because of this. People are losing sleep, reevaluating their lives."

While I think both Mann and Holthaus are brilliant scientists who identified some factual problems in the article, I strongly disagree with their statements about the role of emotions—namely, fear—in climate communications and politics. I am also skeptical of whether climate scientists should be treated as national arbiters of psychological or political questions, in general. I would like to offer my thoughts as a clinical psychologist, and as the founder and director of The Climate Mobilization.

Affect tolerance—the ability to tolerate a wide range of feelings in oneself and others—is a critical psychological skill. On the other hand, affect phobia—the fear of certain feelings in oneself or others—is a major psychological problem, as it causes people to rely heavily on psychological defenses.

Much of the climate movement seems to suffer from affect phobia, which is probably not surprising given that scientific culture aspires to be purely rational, free of emotional influence. Further, the feelings involved in processing the climate crisis—fear, grief, anger, guilt and helplessness—can be overwhelming. But that doesn't mean we should try to avoid "making" people feel such things. Experiencing them is a normal, healthy, necessary part of coming to terms with the climate crisis. I agree with David Roberts that it is OK, indeed imperative, to tell the whole, frightening story. As I argued in a 2015 essay, The Transformative Power of Climate Truth, it's the job of those of us trying to protect humanity and restore a safe climate to tell the truth about the climate crisis and help people process and channel their own feelings—not to preemptively try to manage and constrain those feelings.

Holthaus writes of people feeling deep anxiety, losing sleep, re-considering their lives due to the article ... but this is actually a good thing. Those people are coming out of the trance of denial and starting to confront the reality of our existential emergency. I hope that every single American, every single human experiences such a crisis of conscience. It is the first step to taking substantial action. Our job is not to protect people from the truth or the feelings that accompany it—it's to protect them from the climate crisis.

I know many of you have been losing sleep and reconsidering your lives in light of the climate crisis for years. We at The Climate Mobilization sure have. The Climate Mobilization exists to make it possible for people to turn that fear into intense dedication and focused action towards a restoring a safe climate.

In my paper, Leading the Public into Emergency Mode—a New Strategy for the Climate Movement, I argue that intense, but not paralyzing, fear combined with maximum hope can actually lead people and groups into a state of peak performance. We can rise to the challenge of our time and dedicate ourselves to become heroic messengers and change-makers.

I do agree with the critique, made by Alex Steffen among others, that dire discussions of the climate crisis should be accompanied with a discussion of solutions. But these solutions have to be up to the task of saving civilization and the natural world. As we know, the only solution that offers effective protection is a maximal intensity effort, grounded in justice, that brings the U.S. to carbon negative in 10 years or less and begins to remove all the excess carbon from the atmosphere. That's the magic combination for motivating people: telling the truth about the scale of the crisis and the solution.

In Los Angeles, our ally City Councilmember Paul Koretz is advocating a WWII-scale mobilization of Los Angeles to make it carbon neutral by 2025. He understands and talks about the horrific dangers of the climate crisis and is calling for heroic action to counter them. Local activists and community groups are inspired by his challenge.

Columnist Joe Romm noted, we aren't doomed—we are choosing to be doomed by failing to respond adequately to the emergency, which would of course entail initiating a WWII-scale response to the climate emergency. Our Victory Plan lays out what policies would look like that, if implemented, would actually protect billions of people and millions of species from decimation. They include:

1. An immediate ban on new fossil fuel infrastructure and a scheduled shut down of all fossil fuels in 10 years;

2. Massive government investment in renewables;

3. Overhauling our agricultural system to make it a huge carbon sink;

4. Fair-shares rationing to reduce demand;

5. A federally-financed job guarantee to eliminate unemployment

6. A 100 percent marginal tax on income above $500,000.

Gradualist half measures, such as a gradually phased-in carbon tax or cap-and-trade system, that seem "politically realistic" but have no hope of actually restoring a safe climate, are not adequate to channel people's fear into productive action.

We know what is physically and morally necessary. It's our job—as members of the climate emergency movement—to make that politically possible. This will not be easy, emotionally or otherwise. It will take heroic levels of dedication from ordinary people. We hope you join us.

Margaret Klein Salamon, PhD is co-founder and director of Climate Mobilization. Reposted with permission from our media associate Common Dreams.

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The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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