Is it time to scare people?

The evidence is mounting and the news is sobering: global warming is continuing unabated, and, in fact speeding up. Two recent reports by the World Bank and the National Research Council confirm what many scientists and citizens already know—that even if drastic energy conservation measures were enacted today we are headed towards a two degrees Celsius increase in global average temperature. In Copenhagen in 2009, the international community established this level of increases as a crisis point.

Shock value may be our best strategy for real change in efforts to motivate personal action, behavioral and political, against global warming.

But so what? So what if the average global temperature increases by two measly degrees Celsius? Why is this such a crisis? Well, here’s just some of what we can expect:

  • Water supplies will diminish, especially in key river basins, decreasing crop production and significantly increasing the risk of famine.
  • Famine will increase the number of refugees migrating away from draught areas.
  • Movement and concentrations of refugees in urban areas or unsanitary settlement, will spur the spread of pandemic diseases.
  • Already poor, unstable countries will become ever more desperate and restless, as they contend with dwindling water, prolonged draughts, or influxes or exoduses of refugee migrant populations.
  • With artic ice melt, sea water levels will continue to rise, increasing the severity of sea storms, typhoons, and coastal flooding, and distressing coastal communities and displacing millions of residents in this country and around the world.
  • Warmer temperature means more water evaporation and, eventually, heavier rain fall and flooding.  This past year, the US has spent more on flood and disaster relief than on education.
  • Tens of thousands species extinctions per year as populations are unable to adapt to rapidly changing ecological conditions.

Global warming graphic The next big question is: How do we make people care? And more to the point, how do we make people care enough to dramatically change their behavior – to consume less energy, drive and travel less, use less water, etc. Moreover, this is a global collective action problem, and structural change is needed to address it – energy infrastructures, transportation systems, incentives/subsidies for high emissions activities, externalization of the ecological costs of our behaviors, and an obsession with economic expansion and increased consumption. What we need, then, is both changes in individual behavior and policy action—e.g. increased production of renewable energies, decreased use of fossil fuels, stronger emission standards, stricter accountability for building energy use, and much more— and we need this in the face of powerful lobbying efforts from the gas, oil and coal industries. How could this be accomplished?

A possible answer may come from the anti-tobacco/anti-smoking efforts of the past quarter century.  Here too was a problem that had enormous costs to society – in terms of personal health and health costs for all.  Even today, health care costs are approximately $2,000 more each year for smokers than for non-smokers.

The tobacco industry also had powerful lobbyists that successfully blocked anti-smoking policies and legal action. Yet the public campaign launched against smoking has been one of the most successful social marketing efforts of its kind, leading to a dramatic reduction in tobacco use in this country – from 33.3% of adults 18 years or older in 1980 to 18.9% in 2011; from 27.5% of teens in 1991 to 18.1% in 2011. [1]

The key strategy for motivating smokers to change behavior: fear. The ads show graphic depictions of real people struggling with paralysis, lung removal and amputations as a result of smoking.  We all my recall the ad showing a  man or woman, who—as a result of smoking related throat cancer—has lost their teeth, hair or larynx, and now has a hole in their throat.

Is it time for a similar ad campaign that graphically illustrates the real, personal results of global warming? Might we have a TV spot that shows displaced American families living in shelters and motels because of severe flooding or coastal storms? Or water shortages that lead to physical confrontations, drought or sickness?

Shock value may be our best strategy for real change in efforts to motivate personal action, behavioral and political, against global warming.

[1] Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

Jake Murray has served as the director of Aspire since February 2009. Prior to joining Aspire, he served for four years as a child and youth planner for the City of Cambridge, overseeing strategic planning, quality improvement, and program development for early education, out-of-school-time, and youth development services. He also served for five years as a director of community partnerships for the Harvard Children’s Initiative, leading a range of collaborative efforts to improve education outcomes in Boston and Cambridge. His research interests include professional learning models, new teacher development, and school-community partnerships.


Definitely food for thought.

Posted @ Tuesday, July 02, 2013 1:50 PM by Signe