The news hit me like debris from a global warming hurricane. According to scientists, the level of carbon dioxide, the biggest culprit in climate change, reached an atmospheric concentration not seen on the earth for millions of years. This milestone means that human efforts to curb climate change are falling short, and the potentially negative consequences of climate change are increasingly likely.

How does this fearful news affect you? Does it motivate you to reduce your carbon footprint? Demand that your government rabidly pursue the reduction of carbon emissions? Set your hair on fire in solidarity with the earth? I hope this news motivates action, but as a social psychologist that studies persuasion, I know it may not.

While fear is a powerful persuader and can motivate action, this is only true when we believe the threat is credible and that our action will effectively alleviate the threat. This is one reason why this news depresses me. I am concerned that many people will take it to mean that their actions are futile. And when we don’t believe our actions will make a difference we don’t even try, for where there is no self-efficacy, there is no action.

This also goes for all those Americans who say that it doesn’t make a difference what we do since China isn’t taking action. And it goes for all those Americans who believe that the problem requires government action but are so jaded about our government and partisan gridlock, that they doubt pressure on our elected representatives will make any difference.

I am also concerned that some people will respond defensively to the news because it is too threatening (when fear is too great, this is a common coping strategy). Some will reduce the threat by insisting that the credibility of the source is suspect. “Scientists disagree!” they will proclaim. Or, “This is part of a liberal agenda, not to be taken seriously!” Others will simply shut the whole thing out of their minds in a defensive denial made easier by limited media coverage.

As a social psychologist, I also know that for fear to motivate, it must be personally threatening. Many who were personally touched by Superstorm Sandy are now on board the climate change train, but many people haven’t personally experienced the negative consequences of climate change. They do not know (or believe) that extreme weather, heat-related illnesses, respiratory allergies, water-borne and insect carried diseases, staple food shortages, and drought, will affect them and their loved ones. By the time the personal threat becomes great enough for enough of us to act, it may be too late.

To me, this news speaks so loudly my ears are ringing. We cannot afford to dilly-dally. We need to be like a pro-environmental Goldilocks and experience this level of fear as “just right.” Just scary enough to motivate action but not so scary that it leads to helplessness, denial, and inaction.


N. De Hoog, W. Stroebe, & J.B.F. De Wit (2007). The impact of vulnerability to and severity of a health risk on processing and acceptance of fear-arousing communications: A meta-analysis. Review of General Psychology, 11, 258-285.

J. Gillis (May 11, 2013). Heat-Trapping Gas Passes Milestone, Raising Fears.

Retrieved on May 5, 2013.

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