While researching a feature for TIME.com recently, I had the chance to sift through TIME's decades of environment coverage. I came to two conclusions: First, we were writing stories about virtually the same subjects 40 years ago as we do now. (Air pollution, endangered species, the polluted oceans, dwindling natural resources.) Second, our coverage of climate change has been really scary by which I mean, we've emphasized the catastrophic threats of global warming in dire language. That reached a height in 2006, when we titled our cover story on climate change, crowned with a photo of a lonely polar bear on an ice floe, "Be Worried. Be Very Worried." And since it was published, I've seen that cover image pop up in countless PowerPoint presentations on climate change, always used to underscore just how catastrophic warming would be.
I was part of the team that put that issue together, and I know why we used the language we did. Scientists were telling us that global warming really had the potential to wreck the future of the planet, and we wanted to get that message across to readers even if it meant scaring the hell out of them.
But if a new study is to be believed, we might have been making the situation worse, not better. According to forthcoming research by the Berkeley psychologists Robb Willer and Matthew Feinberg, when people are shown scientific evidence or news stories on climate change that emphasize the most negative aspects of warming extinguished species, melting ice caps, serial natural disasters they are actually more likely to dismiss or deny what they're seeing. Far from scaring people into taking action on climate change, such messages seem to scare them straight into denial.
Here's how the study worked. Willer and Feinberg tested participants' belief in global warming, and then their belief in what's called the just-world theory, which holds that life is generally fair and predictable. The subjects were then randomly assigned to read one of two newspaper-style articles. Both pieces were identical through the first four paragraphs, providing basic scientific information about climate change, but they differed in their conclusions, with one article detailing the possibly apocalyptic consequences of climate change, and the other ending with a more upbeat message about potential solutions to global warming.
Willer and Feinberg found that participants given the doomsday articles came out more skeptical of climate change, while those who read the bright-side pieces came out less skeptical. The increase in skepticism was especially acute among subjects who'd scored high on the just-world scale, perhaps because the worst victims of global warming the poor of the developing world, future generations, blameless polar bears are the ones least responsible for it. Such unjust things couldn't possibly occur, and so the predictions can't be true. The results, Willer and Feinberg wrote, "demonstrate how dire messages warning of the severity of global warming and its presumed dangers can backfire ... by contradicting individuals' deeply held beliefs that the world is fundamentally just."
Now a climate scientist armed with data might argue that worldviews should be trumped by facts. But there's no denying that climate skepticism is on the rise: a new report from the Pew Research Center found that the percentage of Americans who believe there is solid evidence that the earth is warming because of human activity has fallen from 50% in 2006 to 34%. The numbers are even lower for conservatives just 16% of Republicans surveyed believe in manmade global warming, compared with 53% of Democrats.
Poor messaging isn't the only possible cause for the increase in denial: politicians mostly on the right have aggressively pushed the climate-change-is-a-hoax trope. The Climategate controversy of a year ago certainly might have played a role, too, though the steady decline in belief began well before those hacked e-mails were published. Still, the fact remains that if the point of the frightening images in global-warming documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth was to push audiences to act on climate change, they've been a failure theoretically and practically.
Some environmental advocates want to double down on the current communication strategy. A group of prominent climate scientists published a letter in Science this week arguing for an initiative that will "actively and effectively share information about climate-change risk and potential solutions with the public." It's good to have scientists out and engaged with the public; but if the messaging doesn't change, neither will the results. What may be needed instead is what the science-media expert Matthew Nisbet calls a "postpartisan plan" for climate-change communication, one that ratchets down the catastrophe and focuses on the immediate benefits that energy action can have for Americans.
For many environmentalists, convinced that we truly are facing an existential threat, that might seem like surrender. The writer and activist Bill McKibben has a saying: "You can't negotiate with the planet." That's true but you have to negotiate with the public. Scaring them out of their wits will produce little beyond fear. Increasingly, the war over climate change won't just be fought in scientific journals and international summits, but also between our ears.