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No need to sugar-coat negative news

Environmental barometer: studies have shown a massive plunge in the number of flying insects over recent decades, but how can scientists best get across the seriousness of the situation? (File photograph)

Some scientists think that humans can’t handle the truth about the damage they are doing to the environment — that findings must be sugar-coated lest people lose the hope needed to act.

They should listen to psychologists and stop holding back.

Earlier this year, the journalist David Wallace-Wells examined some of the more extreme possible consequences of climate change, including collapsing food supplies, perpetual war and extreme heat making cities uninhabitable. Climate sceptics were predictably outraged, but some scientists also criticised the article for scaring people.

“The most motivating emotions,” they claimed, “are worry, interest and hope.” Fear, they argued, tends to make people disengage and dismiss the issue.

Is that true? Not really. In a recent paper, the psychologist Daniel Chapman and co-authors argue that this oversimplifies how emotions influence our actions. They aren’t like buttons that can be pushed to trigger a certain behaviour. Rather, they act in a subtle way, tagging information in our memory with emotive tones, or influencing how we might seek out further information.

As a result, any simple recipe for emotional persuasion — say, being negative or positive — is unlikely to have the desired effect.

Finding a way to communicate is crucial, because the situation is in many ways dire. Researchers in Germany, for example, recently reported that flying insect populations in some 63 protected nature zones had declined by 75 per cent over the past few decades, with no obvious cause in weather or other conditions.

If, as ecologists expect, this reflects changes in the insect population more broadly, then a large component of the biosphere on which we depend could be collapsing before our eyes.

Although the cause isn’t certain, it appears likely to be a combination of widespread pesticide use and loss of wild areas. One ecologist interpreted the finding as evidence we’re “on the path to ecological Armageddon”. Arguably, this is not overstatement, as some 80 per cent of wild plants depend on insects for pollination, and 60 per cent of birds rely on them for food. So how to get the message across?

In an interview, Chapman said it would be a big mistake to downplay frightening issues just because the public might not like to hear about them.

What’s important is to provide other information that can help readers relate the news to their own lives, and to identify practical avenues by which they might respond. People tend to care more about issues that have repercussions locally, both in time and geography. So if such potential repercussions exist, communications should emphasise them.

To US readers, for example, ecological Armageddon sounds far off, as do insects in Germany.

Yet the findings suggest that states such as California, Iowa or Nebraska could face similar declines in insect populations, with severe consequences for agriculture. In addition, people need some feeling of agency: strategic changes in agricultural policy and practice, for instance, could help the insects recover.

Chapman mentioned one final thing, perhaps the most important: authenticity. People want to be treated with respect and given balanced information, and they’ll turn away if they feel they’re being sold something.

Granted, balance won’t necessarily change the minds of the most ideologically fixated readers, but they’re in the minority. “A much larger portion of the public,” Chapman said, “is either disinterested, unaware or inundated with too much other information.”

These people can handle frightening news, no softening needed, if offered some help in seeing how it might touch their lives and what they can do about it.

Mark Buchanan, a physicist and science writer, is the author of the book Forecast: What Physics, Meteorology and the Natural Sciences Can Teach Us About Economics