Against a Fear-Based Politics

April 28, 2008 |

by Michael Shellenberger

In most of the talks we give about global warming, we lay out the social science research about the connection between fear and conservatism. We describe why fear-based appeals on global warming (read: "An Inconvenient Truth") often backfire. And we argue that progressives must find a way to build a bridge for the public from fear to hope.

Inevitably, somebody afterwards protests, "But fear works so well for conservatives!"

To which we reply: exactly. Fear works well for conservatives.

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Environmental leaders and insiders have known since 2000 that fear-based presentations of global warming backfire. It was then that CNN founder and environmental funder, Ted Turner, funded the Frameworks Institute to do research into how to "frame" global warming. Frameworks did focus groups, and hired cognitive scientists -- guys who analyze how we reason about the world -- to study how voters think about global warming disasters. They showed scary footage of hurricanes, floods, tornadoes and other myriad apocalyptic images, and then asked people what they thought. Here's what the cognitive scientists concluded:

- "The layering on of dire consequences, then, reinforces that this problem is too big to address."

- "The likely response for the public is adaptation to Mother Nature."

- "Instead of supporting increased CAFE [fuel economy] standards, for example, they are likely to buy an SUV to help them through the erratic weather to come..."

We usually get a laugh out of the last bullet point. But Frameworks was simply reporting what actually happened in a focus group: people openly started wondering whether they should get bigger cars.

Fear of Sacrifice

We are often asked, "Why do you guys have to criticize Al Gore?" The reason we do is because "An Inconvenient Truth" put people in a state of fear. And even worse: it never brought them back out of it.

True, the film raised the hopes of somewhere around the 10 percent of voters who are strong environmentalists. But that was almost certainly because they thought the movie would have an effect on the larger public, which it didn't. A Gallup poll released on Earth Day showed that the percentage of Americans who say they "worry a great deal" about global warming was 35 percent in 1988 and 37 percent in 2008.

Another problem with "An Inconvenient Truth" is that it reinforced the sense that action on global warming will require sacrificing our way of life. "The truth about the climate crisis," Gore said in the film, "is an inconvenient one that means we are going to have to change the way we live our lives."

The irony is that there is mounting evidence that fear of sacrifice is partly responsible for driving nearly one-third of Americans to deny global warming's seriousness, or the role humans play in causing it. With fear, it seems, we sometimes get the worst of both worlds: survivor-types and denier-types.

What to do?

But, of course, we can't avoid fear. The question should thus not be how to avoid fear but rather what to do with it. How do we turn fear into intelligence, courage, and empowerment rather than stupidity, paranoia, and cowardice?

Fear is, in the words of Gavin DeBecker, the security expert, "a gift." Fear can inspire us to intelligence, but it can also reduce us to stupidity. It's not fear that's the problem but what we do with it. At best, fear can trigger a heightened state of awareness and careful action -- even courage. At its worst, fear can make you paranoid (yes: been there) and violent (no: thankfully). The key is conscious awareness of our fear so that we can gain control over it.

The idea that we shouldn't scare people often strikes our audiences as counterproductive. Don't we need people to get more rather than less scared of global warming, terrorism, or the denial of health care?

Maybe we do -- but only if we can do something positive that is as powerful as their fear.

Can we tell a story about global warming (or terrorism or health care or China or the economy) that begins by acknowledging how safe, secure, healthy, and rich we are, before we describe the threat?

Global warming is the issue I know best. Our research and personal experience teaches me that it's vitally important to sandwich fear inside two other powerful feelings: gratitude and power:

A. Gratitude: we are better prepared than ever before to deal with the massive technological changes we need to make to deal with global warming.
B. Fear: Climate change is really damn scary.
C. Power: we humans have overcome starvation, disease, and war -- we can overcome global warming

This approach may not work with everything. But a view to overcoming fear, rather than wallowing in it, or simply proposing technical fixes to the threat, could create a more expansive and generous politics.


Larry: You are certainly right that the left uses fear as much as the right -- and that's the problem. As progressives, we're trying to call both sides to propose positive visions that are as compelling as their respective dystopias.

Michael: Fear of climate change has been a motivator for the roughly 10 percent or so of the public that is strongly concerned about global warming. But fear-based appeals move the rest of public toward hopelessness or denial. That's not just our view, that's the consensus view of the cognitive scientists and opinion researchers who have looked at the question. The challenge is not fear vs. no fear, it's taking the fear and bridging to a positive view of the future.

By Michael Shellenberger on 2008 05 06

You guys need to be careful about using the "fear-based" politics meme. The problem is not fear but the use of fear to intimidate people and keep them from taking action on important issues. Fear of climate change is a motivator to take action. If fear is not paired with opportunities to take action, then it has the effect of leading to paralysis.

So I think you are opposing the stirring up of fears without offering any solutions or hope. But without the fear, people will not take many forward looking actions.

By Michael Hoexter on 2008 05 03

Your words are being emitted into a strong wind, here, and are immediately being blown right back into your face. Like you show, both sides use fear as an entraining tactic and strategy, definitely not just 'conservatives'. Drama queens -- it seems a very apt term for nearly all of us in the US.

Another (non-Gore) example of environmental drama-queenism: We are, along with a number of other companies, conducting uranium exploration in the Grand Canyon area of northern Arizona, and have recently met with a very well-coordinated environmentalist campaign to shut down our work, a campaign that is based entirely on unfounded and unexamined fears. The major groups involved -- The Environmental Working Group, the Grand Canyon Trust, the Center for Biological Diversity [reminds me of a college education department that was once called 'The Center for Excellence in Education' -- which was anything but], and the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club, have all consciously and spuriously inflamed the anxieties of each of the Native American Tribes in the northern Arizona area, those of the Coconino Board of Supervisors, and those of the Arizona governor's office, about the nature and effects of the uranium exploration work now being conducted in the region.

You speak of backfiring fear campaigns: If we are all so unlucky as to have this particular environmental campaign succeed in its aims, it will result in the major source of nuclear fuel in the US (the specific assessment of the USGS) being at least temporarily put out of bounds to mining production. Further, reliance on, and utilization of, the fear/affective heuristic (Al Gore's words, not mine) in this case would also have the effect of reducing employment levels in Coconino and Mohave Counties of Arizona (and in Kane County of Utah). Organizational use of this form of 'reason' has already needlessly increased the level of stress already impinging on all people living in the area [try being a reservation Indian or underpaid tourist industry worker to appreciate the significance of stress levels on physical and mental health]. All of this orchestrated movement on the part of the environmental groups named has been to give, in effect, just the appearance of protecting the Grand Canyon, a natural feature not at all threatened in any way by uranium exploration or mining.

Not only is your 'side' of things just as bad as the 'conservatives' customarily condemned for using fear tactics, it is usually worse in that it smugly (and mistakenly) represents itself as knowing better than others what is best for everyone else.


By Larry Turner on 2008 05 01