Debate: Who’s Afraid of Climate Change?

Scaremongering seems to be quite rampant in climate change communication these days. Some may argue that this is because the truth is in fact quite scary. While others condemn it as a dirty tactic employed underhandedly by extreme greenies, particularly as it applies to children.

Perhaps Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth started the trend, with debate over its place in schools in the United States. Then last month in the United Kingdom, along came this television advertisement from the Act on CO2 campaign by the Department of Energy and Climate Change, in which a father reads a bedtime story about climate change to his wide-eyed daughter.

Controversy was soon raging and the country’s Advertising Standards Authority is investigating whether there is any basis to accusations of “scaremongering and misleading the public” prompted by the 60-second spot.

Behavioural change is an important part of tackling climate change and psychologists know that fear can be a useful motivator of behavioural change.

However, psychology research shows that most people don’t feel personally threatened by climate change because it is vague, abstract and difficult to visualise. People in many parts of the world may have a tendency to think that it will not be a problem in their lifetime.

This ad may have hit a nerve by making people feel personally vulnerable via their offspring. Some apparently feel very uncomfortable with the notion that our future climate predicament is a time-capsule surprise present from mummy and daddy to the kids and that, due to our inaction, today’s children may not have a viable future.

Are these advertising techniques valid and/or truthful? Are they any worse than the other kind of advertisement that serve you with a host of dreams, hopes and proto-choices (this car or that car, this holiday or that holiday, this house or that house)?

Some would argue that advertising is essentially a tool of disconnection allowing you escape from your problems and giving you the ability to continue along on autopilot in the status quo (see Chapter 13 of Keith Farnish’s book A Matter of Scale). Others may respond, “What’s wrong with that?”

So what do you think? Do you think “scary” is acceptable when talking about climate change and can it be effective? Or is it going too far and therefore counter-productive?

Creative Commons License
Debate 2.0: Who’s Afraid of Climate Change? by Carol Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.



Carol is a journalist with a green heart who believes that presenting information in a positive and accessible manner is essential to activating more people to join the search for equitable and sustainable solutions to global problems. A native of Montreal, Canada, she joined the UNU communications team in 2008 while living in Tokyo and, after relocating to Vancouver, continued to telecommute to Our World as writer/editor through 2015.

Join the Discussion

  • I disagree with the notion that such campaigns can be counter-productive. all the rational arguments and statistics in the world have not precipitated serious and considered behavioural change from the human race. a long term strategy of scaring people into action will probably be a last desperate throw of the dice by those left with the motivation to even bother. if only climate change was a terrorist, we’d have put it to bed by now.

    either way, with most people not even listening in the first place, it seems like nothing short of “make millions/win your dream home by tackling climate change” will work with our current government systems/media and lifestyles. one thing for sure is that the softly softly approach of “ride a bike, it’s cool” has to be matched with scientifically robust information on things like rising sea levels, glacier melt etc. my sense is that water shortages and coastal flooding of corporate and political leaders’ houses will be a better incentive for action down the track.

    unfortunately, there are so many unknown variables about the link between climate change and disasters in the future. this is convenient for the denialistas and status quoists. hear no evil, see know evil, tweet no evil.

  • christopherdoll

    I am continually stunned by the short sightedness of environmental campaigners.
    Scaring people only works for immediately perceived threats like terrorism.

    People can’t stay scared forever and it is ridiculous to expect fear to be a good motivator for such threats because after a while, people get desensitised and complacent and that is totally natural.

    I think Al Gore had it right in the conclusion of his film. You need to make this into something which inspires people to change. It has been commented that Martin Luther King’s speech wouldn’t have been so stiring if he started ‘I have a nightmare…’ and then proceeded to how things would never improve as a means to rally action.

    The whole discourse needs to be shifted to include why we are doing this to include talking about the issue of sustainability. Imagine a world where we aren’t using up a resource endowment accumulated over millions of years but using just what the Earth provides us in a year. Instead of telling people to limit consumption, why not tell them consume efficiently and sustainably. It’s aspirational and appeals to putting systems in place which safeguard the future generations. Then the kid will feel like she is part of the story too (which she is).

    So many environmental issues are presented as do or die and most of them are entirely disconnected from what peoples’ everyday experience. Scaring them is the laziest tool to effect change. People generally like to feel that they are engaged in the decisions they make and are reaching for something better.

    It’s all a matter of presentation, why not inspire people to act to help create something rather than scare them into switching off a light?

  • justinphd

    Global Warming is nothing more than a pseudoscience (see and “Environmental Effect of Increased Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide” published on the “Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons 2007”) orchestrated by the establishment in order to control mankind.

    Studies actually show that the carbon dioxide level in our atmosphere is lower than in any other time in recorded history, seven times lower in fact!

    Carbon dioxide is what plants breathe. Naming it a toxic gas is preposterous and false. The establishment is trying to demonize human being as we exhale carbon dioxide effectively making us harmful to the earth.

    Contrary, increased carbon dioxide actually is beneficial to the planet as plants and trees and vegetation in general all prosper greatly from the increase, directly resulting in greater agricultural yields which would help feed the world’s hungry populations.

    Further more, man made carbon dioxide only makes up about 4% of the carbon dioxide found in the atmosphere. The Oceans are the largest bodies of the gas. Assuming that by controlling man made carbon dioxide would stop or even slow down climate change is a joke!

    Mankind is actually more prone to suffer if we don’t INCREASE the levels of carbon dioxide, because agriculture suffers from lack of one of natures building blocks of life.

  • BrendanBarrett

    Hi Justinphd,Thanks for this comment. Your links are pretty unhelpful but nevermind. What your post cleverly illustrates is how scare-mongering can also be used to stop people looking further into climate change for themeselves. I am impressed. You seem to be using three scare tactics. First, you claim we cannot trust all scientists (or just climate change scientists?) because they make things up. That is a scary proposition. Second, you argue that there is an establishment out there trying to control humankind and the devious plan that they have come up with is to reduce our CO2 emissions. Third, CO2 is good for plants and trees and if we do anything to reduce it and even more importantly if we don’t increase it our agricultural systems will suffer. This is really helpful for the debate because it shows the other side of climate related scare-mongering.

  • schmid91

    Maybe the comparrisson is fare away from the discussion. When I was a child I was scared by horror scenarios what might can happen when it comes to a nuclear attack. Videos have been shown, advertisements and strongly recommendations to the political responsibilities made. The attention of this threat was so immediate and present nobody could even avoid to recognize. People seems to need short term danger to getting aware of there own mortality and the basis of live. In a lack of a global green communication strategy, strong and controversial aspects can rebuild a concept of enemy. But the disarmament talks have to be done individually. In my opinion the danger is present and from time to time shockers help me to redirect my thoughts and remind me on my own duty.

  • Hi Carol

    The link you kindly provided to A Matter Of Scale is out of date, though still works.

    This is the live link:



  • willemschot

    We grew up as children on the messes of the second world war, under the messages about the extreme brutality that caused that messes. Later on we were educated as youngsters on the both sides of the so called iron curtain in the ideas the on the other side should live brutes and that those people, or their government, should threaten the peoples on our side with weapons, much more dangerous than used in the 2nd world war in Europe. These nuclear weapons could destroy all the people of the world in one horrible day. We from our side could do nothing to influence the people of the other side, because those countries did have their own systems and organizations, apart from the countries at our side. The young people that in these days learn some realistic messages about the threatening climate change they may become aware indeed that terrible disasters may occur in the future. The idea that for instance the sea level could rise tens of meters, so that countries as ours, the Netherlands, would disappear totally in the sea is not unrealistic in the light of the data that scientists find out now. These heavy pictures are however much less scary than a war. The threatening of nature and the encounter of the sea for instance as your enemy causes much less anxiety and aggression in people than the threatening of a war caused by other people. Moreover we have many reasons to think that we do have the climate change in our own hands as well as our defense against it, because in doing so we can rely on the help of all the people of the world. That does not exists fully now, because still much uncertainty exists and opportunists still are denying the reality of the problem. However if the first large disasters will come as a direct consequence of the climate change all the people will unite and will get positive inspiration, so that they will have less time and less intention for visits at the psychiatrist.

  • schmid91

    According to the latest message from willemschot to scare the younger generation, it seemed that at the end it isn’t just a dream, it is reality and I was wondering if talking about the issue and showing a website is the really effort. But, the COP15 itself doesn’t shudder to show dramatically scenes this and the coming generation is faced to in appearance of a nightmare.
    The real nightmare is the question, what is coming after COP15? Do we still have the effort to raise our own voice. Do we fall apart and will be less scared because it was only a nightmare and Daddy showed us
    that we are not alone with our bad dreams and can o something against…

  • ClimateLearner

    Scaring children about climate variation is not just counterproductive, it is wrong. It is morally wrong, because adults should seek to protect children from scaremongering. It is intellectually wrong because of two key insights: 1 – the speculation that our CO2 is a major driver of climate is theoretically weak and observationally contradicted, 2 – we have never been stronger at coping with climate variation than we are today, and there is good reason to expect that to improve still further.

    • While I agree with you regarding protection of children, I have to say that your position on CO2 is itself “intellectually wrong” since the science is very well settled on how it impacts the planet’s carbon cycle, as well as on the greenhouse effect. So please do share the evidence you relied on in making your speculation.