Even though it's very easy to show images of drowning polar bears, threat-based messaging activates the very values which undermine progress on climate change. By portraying humanity's vulnerability, advocacy groups are far more likely to grab their audience's attention.
But in doing so, they reinforce a set of values - "extrinsic values" which encourage self-interest and undermine values like empathy and generosity. Without these values, the climate movement may grab people's attention, but it will fail to motivate action.
Building a new narrative based on hope, inclusivity and opportunity might provide an antidote to the paralysis that threat-based messaging can induce.
We’ve tended to assume that people are more selfish than they really are. Surveys across 60 countries show that most people consistently hold concern for others, tolerance, kindness and thinking for themselves to be more important than wealth, image and power(7). But those whose voices are loudest belong to a small minority with the opposite set of values. And often, idiotically, we have sought to appease them. This is a form of lying – to ourselves and other people. I don’t know anyone who became an environmentalist because she or he was worried about ecological impacts on their bank balance. Almost everyone I know in this field is motivated by something completely different: the love and wonder and enchantment that nature inspires. Yet, perhaps because we fear we will not be taken seriously, we scarcely mention them. We hide our passions behind columns of figures, and if sometimes we come across as insincere there’s a reason for it. Sure, we need the numbers and the rigour and the science, but we should stop pretending that these came first.