The Scarier You Make Global Warming Sound, the Fewer People Believe It

Roland Emmerich take note: Armageddon scenarios only turn people into climate change deniers.

Despite the mounting evidence that humans are changing the planet's climate in destructive ways, skepticism about the issue has risen from 31 percent in 1997 to 48 percent this year. What's going on?

According to new research out of the psychology department at the University of California at Berkeley, people might be getting more incredulous precisely because warnings about climate change in the media are getting scarier. The researchers tested 97 students. Here's how it worked:

Participants read a news article about global warming. The article started out with factual data provided by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change. But while half the participants received articles that ended with warnings about the apocalyptic consequences of global warming, the other half read ones that concluded with positive messages focused on potential solutions to global warming, such as technological innovations that could reduce carbon emissions.

Results showed that those who read the positive messages were more open to believing in the existence of global warming and had more faith in science’s ability to solve the problem.


There were a few other variations, but the basic result was this: People—especially those who came in thinking the world is fair—were more likely to deny the existence of global warming if their exposure to the evidence was accompanied by scary doomsday speculation.

On the one hand, this might seem like an irrational, head-in-the-sand sort of reaction. Is it just that people can't handle the truth? Is the reality just too difficult to confront?

Maybe not. After all, apocalypses don't happen very often, so it's fair to question the credibility of a source that says one's right around the corner. This is especially true if you think the messenger has an agenda. When politicians or media products try to manipulate you with fear, whether it be Dick Cheney or The Day After Tomorrow, it's good to reserve some skepticism.

I think the lesson for people who write about climate change is to be fair. Don't take liberties in describing what's likely to happen. Don't try to make things sound scarier than they are. Don't try to manipulate people. Present the facts, be honest about what you—and the scientists—don't know, and respect the American bullshit detector.

Screenshot via (left) Wikimedia Commons (right)

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