"Fear Won't Do It": Promoting positive engagement with climate change through visual and iconic representations

Saffron J. O'Neill, Sophie Nicholson-Cole

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

917 Citations (Scopus)


Fear-inducing representations of climate change are widely employed in the public domain. However, there is a lack of clarity in the literature about the impacts that fearful messages in climate change communications have on people's senses of engagement with the issue and associated implications for public engagement strategies. Some literature suggests that using fearful representations of climate change may be counterproductive. The authors explore this assertion in the context of two empirical studies that investigated the role of visual, and iconic, representations of climate change for public engagement respectively. Results demonstrate that although such representations have much potential for attracting people's attention to climate change, fear is generally an ineffective tool for motivating genuine personal engagement. Nonthreatening imagery and icons that link to individuals' everyday emotions and concerns in the context of this macro-environmental issue tend to be the most engaging. Recommendations for constructively engaging individuals with climate change are given. 

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)355-379
Number of pages25
JournalScience Communication
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2009


  • public engagement
  • climate change
  • visual representations
  • icons
  • fear
  • saliency
  • efficacy

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