How To Talk To A Climate Science Denier, If You Must

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Unexpectedly, the Washington Post has some pretty good advice on how to talk to a climate science denier. I say unexpectedly because the WashPost probably has more columnists who are deniers and confusionists than any news outlet not owned by Rupert Murdoch, from George Will to Charles Krauthammer and now the Volokh Conspiracy.

The headline — “How to convince your friends to believe in climate change. It’s not as hard as you think” — is bit misleading. Its focus is mostly on persuading deniers, which is mostly a lost cause — and thus a generally unproductive use of time. Also, if you have multiple “friends” who are deniers, then statistically speaking, you’re a lot more likely to be a denier or at least agnostic yourself than an environmentalist interested in persuading folks about climate change.

Also we don’t need people “to believe in climate change,” we just need them to accept science. And therein lies the rub. The Post says:

But if you’re serious about the environment and want others to share your passion, don’t be intimidated by the potential mockery or resistance. There’s an extensive body of research on how to persuade those who view science with suspicion — it’s called the science of science communication. Much of the work centers on climate change.

Well, there’s an extensive body of research on how to persuade people — some of which I discuss in my book, “Language Intelligence: Lessons on persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Lady Gaga.” I’m not certain that the body of research on persuading the anti-science crowd is “extensive.” Science communication is about communicating science to everybody. And other than the Tea Party crowd, most everybody has some faith in science. They go to doctors, after all, and fly in airplanes. Back to the piece:

Stephan Lewandowsky, who studies this issue at the University of Bristol, offers four arguments that have been shown to appeal to the sort of person who rejects the idea of climate change.

Lewandowsky is definitely worth listening to. We reprinted here the must-read “Debunking Handbook” he co-authored with John Cook of Skeptical Science.

I asked Lewandowsky what he thought about this article. He thinks it’s a “good piece” on the whole, and I’ll relate some specific comments of his below. First, let’s power through his arguments.

First, frame it as a risk-management issue. We aren’t really a society of believers and deniers on climate change; our opinions exist on a spectrum. Maybe you’re 90 percent sure that climate change is real, while your neighbor sets the probability at just 20 percent. A disagreement over numbers is easier to discuss than a fundamentally different set of worldviews. Even if there’s only a 20 percent chance of rising sea levels, intensifying storm systems and crop failure, we ought to take steps to mitigate the risk. After all, your house probably won’t burn down or flood, but you still have homeowners insurance.

Certainly people are highly risk-averse in their own lives. We own fire insurance even though it isn’t really cost-effective in part because we want to avoid a catastrophic loss. And, of course, one reason we purchase health insurance is that we know that one serious illness could otherwise wipe us out financially.

The only problem with this version of the analogy is that you buy homeowners insurance to pay off in case of a catastrophe. But the reason to cut carbon pollution sharply is to reduce the chances of that catastrophe happening in the first place and to reduce the severity any climate catastrophe that might come.

A better analogy might be our military budget (see below), much of which is built around preventing/mitigating low probability, high-cost conflicts — why else would we have spent trillions of dollars in the past several decades on nuclear weapons (and, prior to 1990, on defending against a Soviet tank invasion of Europe)?

Climate action isn’t so much about risk management as it is risk reduction. And one can usefully discuss the value of risk reduction with anyone, not just deniers.

Next, talk about nuclear power. “People who are suspicious of hippies and Al Gore accept nuclear as a possible solution,” Lewandowsky says. Even if you’re personally opposed to nuclear power, this is a handy way to open climate-change rejectionists to the idea of managing the risks. From there, you can expand the discussion into other business opportunities that would arise from managing climate change, like hydrogen-powered cars or possibly solar arrays.

Well, there is nothing wrong with talking about nuclear power. We do it all the time here, mostly to explain that — as crucial it is that we pursue all forms of low carbon energy — nuclear power remains staggeringly expensive. Still, I have little doubt that when the world gets truly desperate to slash carbon pollution, probably sometime in the 2020s, we will build some nukes, and maybe a lot — assuming nuclear power can ever get off of its “negative learning curve.”

I’m not certain the nuclear power argument works on non-skeptics, though. I think there are far more people in the persuadable middle of the climate debate — people who also strongly support renewables and energy efficiency — than there are people on the right who might realistically be moved by pro-nuke affirmations. Also, forget hydrogen-powered cars as a climate solution.

Illness terrifies people of all stripes, so it sometimes helps to emphasize the links between climate change and disease. “Mosquitoes now live at higher altitudes and spread farther from the tropics than they used to,” Lewandowsky says, “and diseases like malaria and dengue are migrating from the equator.” Nobody likes malaria, even if they’re not so bothered about the possible extinction of polar bears.

Certainly the health consequences of climate change are huge and deserving of more attention (see, for instance, The Lancet’s landmark Health Commission: “Climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century”).

I think the most important framing in this respect is that global warming is harming us right here, right now — not in faraway places a long time from now. The health consequences and human impacts of the devastating storm surge of Superstorm Sandy were enormous. The same goes for the terrible droughts and heat waves and deluges that climate change is already worsening.

If all else fails, bring up the Pentagon. People who reject climate–change science often find the views of the Department of Defense persuasive, and the Pentagon is extremely concerned about climate change.

“Large areas of the world will be submerged,” Lewandowsky explains, “and residents of Bangladesh and Pacific island nations won’t drown silently: They will migrate. Refugees sow the seeds for conflict.” The Pentagon is already considering the need to shift resources from traditional combat to humanitarian operations to address these scenarios.

The security argument is certainly a strong one — and intimately related to the risk reduction message.

Lewandowsky wrote me that the piece “accentuated” his views “slightly” — for instance, “I don’t think ‘large’ areas of the world will be submerged—the relatively small areas that are candidates for submersion are bad enough.”

I’d also add that I believe Dust-Bowlification will impact more people both directly where it happens and indirectly through higher food prices than sea level rise. And that will create massive refugees. As I wrote in my Nature article on “The Next Dust Bowl“: “Human adaptation to prolonged, extreme drought is difficult or impossible. Historically, the primary adaptation to dust-bowlification has been abandonment; the very word ‘desert’ comes from the Latin desertum for ‘an abandoned place.'”

I take issue with one earlier part of the Washington Post’s argument:

“There is a socially constructed silence around climate change,” says George Marshall, founder of the Climate Outreach and Information Network and author of the forthcoming book “Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change”….

“Speak openly of your personal ownership of your convictions,” he notes. “Say, ‘This is what’s important to me, and this is why.’ Don’t get caught up in the scientific discussion. You’re not a scientist, and evidence doesn’t persuade people who reject climate change. What carries power is your personal conviction as a friend, colleague or neighbor.”

While you don’t want to get caught up in an extended scientific discussion, I see no evidence that your personal belief — “I feel strongly that climate change is happening and humans are to blame” — is a winning argument with a denier. There is evidence that some science does move people, especially the “97 percent consensus in the peer-reviewed literature that humans are causing global warming” documented in a 2013 study.

I asked Lewandowsky about this argument, and he wrote me:

Now, concerning the bit about talking to your neighbors, just stating your belief isn’t a winner. Underscoring the consensus is, as we know from my work and that of others (including some replications by [George Mason University’s Ed] Maibach and his group that are forthcoming). I think we agree on that.

Now, there is some work on the role of fundamental moral values which suggests that maybe one can convince neighbors by highlighting the reasons underlying one’s convictions. I think values are important and they determine people’s attitudes towards climate change, so if one highlights compatible values with one’s neighbours while stating the convictions…. Maybe… that might work.

In addition, there is strong evidence that if a group of people hold the same opinion, then others are more likely to fall in line. This seems self-evident but the strength of the effect is stronger than most people think. There are very few rugged individualists out there.

So what’s my position on George’s suggestions? I suppose there is never any harm talking to your neighbours, even about polarizing issues. To avoid further polarization, it may help to highlight common values before stating one’s convictions. Or use some of the frames I mentioned when they interviewed me. Or better yet, hammer home the consensus and remind people that even inconvenient truths are truths.

I certainly agree that the moral argument is a winner (as I discuss here). It may not persuade the hard-core deniers in the Tea Party, but it is the one that ultimately holds sway with the most people.

I’m not certain one should spend a lot of time trying to persuade deniers. Changing someone’s mind is difficult at best, especially when it is grounded in an ideology that largely rejects science and “experts.”

If you are trying to persuade someone who has doubts about the science, you better know the best “One-Liners Rebutting Denier Talking Points,” since you can be sure you’re going to hear “the climate is always changing” or “global warming has stopped.” While you may not persuade them with these one liners, be certain that if you don’t know them, they will just go away with their erroneous beliefs solidified.