Give fear a chance

Photo by Thomas Ehling

Telling people how to live their lives isn’t always popular, which is why many environmentalists prefer carrot to stick.

We aren’t going to fix this by telling people they are doing the wrong things.

Chris Stark, Chief Executive of the UK Committee on Climate Change

Instead, they want to elicit change by highlighting the benefits: cycling is better for your health than driving, second-hand is cheaper than new, air quality improves with reduced aviation, etc.

The biggest problem I have with this approach is that it only reaches those for whom the negative impacts of the climate crisis – and therefore the positive benefits of lifestyle change – are already immediate and significant. For those still buffered from the worst by relative wealth (ie. those disproportionately responsible for the problem), both the negatives and positives are – for the moment, at least – still too remote to be considered worth prioritising, let alone to motivate change.

Who’s going to cycle in the rain when they can drive to the gym? Who needs a charity shop when they already hit the stores last weekend in New York? Will a cheerfully positive reminder that a little less air pollution would be a good thing encourage the average Brit to holiday in the UK rather than fly the family to Florida? Clearly not, with the aviation industry continuing to grow.

Trying to put a positive spin on the need to have less when, for so long, we’ve been used to always asking for more, seems doomed to failure. Until the fires and floods reach our own doorsteps, any ‘positive’ action will only seem a restriction, asking us to give up a very real present pleasure for some nebulous future benefit.

Interestingly, this ‘positives only’ approach seems directly at odds with the marketing industry which, as ECB President Christine Lagarde reminded us at Davos 2020, works on the basis that we’re all motivated by either greed, sex or fear. We know where greed has got us and, with no disrespect to David Attenborough, the destruction of our planet is never going to be sexy. So maybe it’s time to try fear? After all, to inform yourself about the climate crisis is to arm yourself with more than enough reasons to be afraid:

Critics of a fear-based approach say it risks rabbit-in-headlights paralysis. But not when presented alongside a solution and so coupled with hope. Take Greta Thunberg’s favourite analogy: if your house is on fire and there’s no way out, you may well freeze in terror. But the moment you catch sight of an open door, you act.

Climate scientists tell us over and over that we already have the solutions. What we clearly still lack is the widespread motivation to prioritise the necessary action. So maybe it’s time to harness that fear. Many scientists have already admitted their own terror, but only when the rest of us are similarly informed will we all start panicking appropriately. And only then will we start acting appropriately, and demand that our leaders act, imposing policies that last well beyond each election-cycle and that, with every consumer decision, nudge us into making the right choice – for our future selves and not just our immediate gratification.

Our remaining carbon budget to avoid a 1.5ºC or even 2ºC rise is rapidly dwindling. Until I can get the embed code to work and so save you the bother, I urge you to click through to this Carbon Clock, select the 1.5º scenario in the top right, and see just how long we’ve got left.

Meanwhile emissions are not even levelling off; they’re continuing to rise. For all our good intentions, we’re not doing enough. The carrot of ‘positives’ is leading us towards a precipice.

This is not about stirring fear to manipulate: emotions are not levers to be pulled for a desired effect. But a Panglossian contortion of truth that focuses only on positives is itself a manipulation. It cannot be that all the ‘rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society’ will immediately feel beneficial for all of us. At the same time, if we don’t make those changes, we face a terrifying future. Surely we’re mature enough to hear that from our leaders. And hopefully we’ll then be afraid enough to act.

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