how to talk to climate change deniers

Last week on The Commons, we talked about all the reasons people disagree with scientists on climate change. This disagreement is a big problem because it prevents us from making sound decisions and taking action. And by us I mean individuals, of course, but also our society. Our elected officials and corporations make decisions based on what they think we want, and if don’t bother with science, neither will they.

So the next step is to figure out how to talk to the “other side” in order to bring them around. Before we begin, let’s get a few things out of the way up front.

First, the answer is not more facts. Grist has an amazing series on How to Talk to Climate Change Skeptics. It details factual responses to every denier’s flawed logic. NASA, Skeptical Science, and Scientific American are awesome resources, too. But using facts to change people’s minds doesn’t seem like it’s going to work. And it hasn’t worked. It’s not about the facts. It’s not about winning arguments. It’s about psychology, identity, ideology. Facts can actually be counter-productive when they cause people to double-down on their logic and close-off to open discussion.

Second, the people that deny science are not idiots. Our tendencies to deny facts are wired into our DNA. We’re all prone to them in some way or another. Perhaps we’re aligned with scientists on some things, and totally unscientific on other things. That’s how our brains work.

So what is the right way to approach this? Well, I think it starts with empathy.

Put yourself in their shoes

Any conversation must begin with an acknowledgement of our shared humanity and the willingness to meet the other human where they are. Or else things are going to break down. The goal isn’t to win an argument— the goal is to open someone’s mind and create an environment of safe discussion.

We need to step into their shoes and see the world from their perspective. We need to get on their team. Only then can we see which biases are getting in the way and causing unscientific beliefs.

Find common ground

Once we see things from others’ perspective, we can see what they care about that overlaps with the climate struggle.

Reframe the issue, and meet people where they are. Many of my conservative friends are deeply suspicious of climate change, and they hate carbon taxes and cap and trade. They’re not interested in adapting to a supposedly hypothetical future. Fair enough. Everyone is entitled to an opinion.

But these same friends embrace ideas like U.S. energy independence, reducing foreign oil imports, promoting economic growth, protecting our families from harm and improving the U.S. balance of trade. And many of these same friends, while skeptical about climate change, see the wisdom in protecting rain forests and the world’s biodiversity.

—Jonathan Foley, executive director at the California Academy of Sciences, on becoming a climate pragmatist

Connect that common ground to the facts

Only now is it okay to expose faulty logic and provide information. But provide that truth from their perspective. How will climate change affect them, their family, their business, their hobbies?

“I will talk about wildfires in Tennessee that are affecting Americans’ lives this winter. I will talk about the drought in California, which is the worst in 1,200 years. I’ll talk about the changes to habitat for hunters, fishermen, and farmers. These people’s lives are being affected by climate change. And when you can bring the impacts to their lives, it’s a much more compelling case to be made.”

John Abraham

And since our susceptibility to cognitive biases helped us get into this mess, I think it makes sense to weave in some “weapons of influence“:

  • Scarcity bias: We place higher value on things that we might lose. What are they likely to lose from changes to the climate, species loss, etc?
  • Social proof: We like to fit in. What are others like them thinking and doing about climate change? (social proof)
  • Consistency bias: We like to remain consistent. What are ways that caring about the environment and future generations overlaps with their currents actions.

Offer a solution

Social studies have shown that if we present people with any problem, even one they agree is real, but we don’t also present a practical solution, they feel disenfranchised and the problem looks insurmountable. Our only defense mechanism in the face of this is to deny and ignore.

Since you’re still standing in their shoes, and you’ve connected on common ground, you’re in a perfect position to tie one of the many viable solutions to climate change to their worldview.

Guess what? Many of the things that help reduce the threats of climate change can also be good for our economy and national security, and vice versa. Many of the changes proposed to adapt to climate change are readily justifiable as approaches to shelter our wealth and well-being against the erratic forces of nature such as Hurricane Katrina and the recent floods in Australia. Why not work to boost innovation, the economy, disaster preparedness and national security, and be pleasantly surprised when greenhouse gas emissions and vulnerability to climate change go down, too? Why not approach the debate from another direction, and be happy that we find allies instead of adversaries?

—Jonathan Foley