How to communicate about the environment : through fear or hope?

Some aspects of the current environment are of great concern, especially global warming. How should people who are lucid about this situation – and especially opinion leaders – communicate about this? Most writings to warn about environmental problems are based (or at least seem to rest) on this dual premise: the more informed and frightened citizens are, the more likely they are to act in favor of the environment. These two statements are erroneous.

More information does not lead to more pro-environmental behaviors

The first postulate (information encourages behavior) is what social scientists call the deficit model, according to which there is a gap between the information held by experts and that held by ordinary people. Once properly informed, they will adopt pro-environmental behaviors.

This model is irrelevant.

Even in the field of the environment, numerous studies have shown that there is a gap between values ​​and attitudes on the one hand, and behavior and action on the other hand (attitude-behavior gap or value-action gap of Anglo-Saxon authors). This concerns, for example, green consumption (food, transport, energy, etc.) or the recycling of waste, as shown by several syntheses of the scientific literature.

This phenomenon concerns even the most involved people, as revealed by two studies published in 2017. One, with a particularly significant title “Green on the ground, but not in the air”, shows that if the people most sensitized by the environmental issues are also those that adopt the most environmentally friendly behaviors in their homes, it is not the case for the plane. Indeed, there is no correlation between environmental convictions and the use of aircraft for leisure.

The other study compares the environmental footprint of three groups of individuals: economists, physicians, and conservationists (academics and/or practitioners). The latter has a slightly lower ecological footprint than members of the other two groups in some aspects (less use of airplanes for leisure, less domestic energy consumption and more recycling), but use more aircraft for professional reasons and have more pets (we also know that domestic cats are a major cause of destruction of passerines, several billion killed each year in the world). This study also shows that there is no relationship between the level of environmental knowledge and the degree of ecological footprint.

Communication through hope more effective than communication through fear

The second premise is that the more fear-scarred the information about the destruction of the environment, the more it will incite people to change their behavior. The best-known representative of this communication strategy is the young Greta Thunberg who told the Davos Forum in January 2019: “I do not want you to have hope. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel each day. And then, I want you to act”. In France, this form of argumentation is especially developed by the partisans of the collapse.

This desire to motivate citizens to act out of fear is based on an appreciable perspective, but is also an illusion, in the light of current knowledge.

As climate change is currently the world’s biggest environmental problem, I have tried to list all the empirical studies conducted up to 2018 on the impact of messages, depending on the form adopted (hope or fear). I tried to be as exhaustive as possible, although studies may have escaped me. Here is this report.

5 studies highlight the positive impact of strong fear and/or the negative impact of hope

  • 2001: The more fearful the information about the greenhouse effect, the more people adopt attitudes favorable to the use of energy-efficient light bulbs; and the more numerous they are to order.
  • 2012: Worrying about climate change is correlated with finding information on the subject while having hope is correlated with information avoidance.
  • 2011: After watching a documentary film on global warming (An Inconvenient Truth), audiences are more motivated and more able to act on it. On the other hand, they feel less happy.
  • 2015: people who read a strongly threatening message about climate change than experience a sense of collective effectiveness in fighting it, higher than those who read a message minimizing the threat.
  • 2016: Subjects who read a text with a strong fear express more intentions to engage in pro-environmental behavior than those who read a text giving rise to a weak fear. 4 studies lead to “neutral” results
  • 2001: Moderate messages of fear about CO2-related risks call for information on energy savings and a more favorable attitude towards them.
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