How to convert a climate denier (spoiler alert, stop trying to convert!)

by Christine Carlton

“It is an axiom of science communication that you cannot convince a science denier with facts alone; most science deniers don’t have a deficit of information, but a deficit of trust. And trust has to be built, with patience, respect, empathy and interpersonal connections.” (Lee McIntyre for Nature)

Science denial is nothing new (just ask Galileo). Nor should it even be surprising: as Chris Mooney wrote for Mother Jones, “…our preexisting beliefs, far more than any new facts, can skew our thoughts and even color what we consider our most dispassionate and logical conclusions. This tendency toward so-called ‘motivated reasoning’ helps explain why we find groups so polarized over matters where the evidence is so unequivocal: climate change, vaccines…  and much else. It would seem that expecting people to be convinced by the facts flies in the face of, you know, the facts.”

But in recent years science denial has become both more visible, likely due to social media and the 24-hour news stream, and more dangerous. Even before the pandemic many of our “debates” with family and friends had moved from actual conversations to online platforms. Points were no longer made while sitting across a table from each other but were instead being fired off over social media as reductive memes or harsh one-liners. The physical distancing requirements of COVID-19 only pulled us, quite literally, further apart. As a society we’ve grown uncomfortable with any meaningful interactions with those who disagree with us.

Given the current divisiveness of, well, almost everything in the U.S., it’s often easier to avoid difficult conversations altogether. And there are certainly times when avoidance may be the best policy. But if your default is to always avoid uncomfortable interactions, you may want to reconsider. While the importance of activists working towards changing legislation and local policies can’t be overstated, if we’re not willing to have difficult conversations with loved ones and neighbors, we’re going to continue to have an uphill battle.

Ideally, we’d like these interactions to be civilized dialogues. While expecting no friction is probably unrealistic, shouting and tears are definitely signs that things have gone off the rails. Below are some suggestions and tips to help you prepare for these conversations and perhaps lessen their discomfort.

Before the Conversation

Whether there’s a specific event, such as a holiday gathering, during which you anticipate speaking with a climate skeptic, or you just want to be ready for unexpected conversations, a bit of prep work is recommended.

  • Honestly consider your motivation. Why are you wanting to engage in a discussion about climate with a climate denier? If your goal is to convert, you’re likely setting yourself up to do more harm than good. Think back to a time when an uninvited salesperson rang your bell; more than likely no real conversation took place, and that’s assuming you even answered the door. With that in mind, “May I introduce you to our Savior Greta Thunberg?” is likely not going to be an effective approach. Rather than treating these conversations as an effort to convert or an opportunity to win an argument, consider each interaction as a chance to plant a seed for thought. Big changes in worldview often don’t happen in one conversation. But the right question asked with sincere curiosity, the right comment made with true respect, may result in a future paradigm shift.
  • Honestly assess how you view science deniers. If your knee-jerk reaction is to consider climate-science deniers as “stupid,” take a step back and consider the following:
    • The fossil fuel industry has spent billions over many decades to generate doubt about the climate crisis. And while their tactics have been beyond successful, they didn’t invent them. The fossil fuel industry applied the strategies of the tobacco industry’s “White Coat Project”.
    • In an attempt to appear unbiased, media outlets will often present “both sides”of a subject on which there is no true scientific debate. And in the case of climate change, deniers received more press coverage in this century than actual climate scientists.
    • Social media feeds are curated by algorithms, and those algorithms are all about keeping users on the platforms for as long as possible. As a result, feeds become echo chambers, churning out posts and memes that just confirm and strengthen biases. This is true for climate activists as well as climate deniers: we all have our beliefs validated by simply opening an app or website. Though you may have already been aware of that, it’s important that you neither forget nor dismiss it. Your most difficult conversations are likely going to be with individuals whose opinions and beliefs have been confirmed, over and over again, by “experts” that have been presented to them online.
  • Approach each conversation from a place of compassion and true respect. Don’t allow your confidence and certainty to become arrogance. No one likes, or deserves, to be patronized or attacked.
  • Know your facts. Though you will not want to simply fire off a litany of data in response to every erroneous statement, it doesn’t hurt to familiarize yourself with common arguments made by climate skeptics.

During the Conversation

The recommendations that follow were compiled from articles written for The Climate Reality Project and Fast Company.

  • Allow the topic to come up naturally. A conversation about recent weather events, wildfires, oil spills, even emerging electric vehicle technology, can be an organic segue into a deeper dive on climate.
  • Ask questions. The right questions will help you to understand the person’s concerns and the reasons they believe what they believe. As Erec Smith, an associate professor of rhetoric and composition at York College of Pennsylvania, stated in the Fast Company article, “Trying to understand why a person thinks the way he or she thinks is not only a caring thing to do; it will assist a person in gauging a situation accurately and speaking accordingly… Don’t just wait for the other person to stop talking so that you can have your turn to make your excellent point. Truly listen to the other person to better discern what you need to say and how you need to say it.”
  • Share your own story. Help the other person understand your concerns about the climate crisis. Perhaps you were directly impacted by a wildfire, or you or a family member deal with health problems attributed to climate change. Sharing your experiences may even reveal a bit of common ground.
  • Sprinkle in the facts and science, but know when enough is enough. You don’t want to close the door to future conversations. Keep in mind that denial of facts is seldom an issue of ignorance. Like many fervently held beliefs – think sports team affiliation – science denial tends to be tied to identity, and all the sound logic in the world isn’t going to change minds.
  • Know when it’s time to step away or change topics. 
    • If tensions are generally ratcheting up, or if you’re being disrespected, it’s best to call a halt before things get out of hand.
    • The psychologist Adam Grant tweetedthe following advice in 2018: “When you’re in a heated argument, stop and ask ‘What evidence would change your mind?’ If the answer is nothing, there’s no point in continuing the debate.”

So, the next time you see red when your uncle shares a scientifically false post on social media, take a breath. Resist the urge to fire off a list of reasons he’s wrong. Don’t reply with a cutting meme. Close out of the app completely. Maybe, just maybe, consider inviting him out for a beer or a coffee. Perhaps all you’ll talk about is sports or the latest movies. But perhaps you’ll get together again, and perhaps the discussion will go a bit deeper. If we all make an effort to get a bit more comfortable with discomfort, perhaps the most local of local action can begin, one conversation at a time.

Christine Carlton is a contributing member of the Grassroots Network Climate Emergency Mobilization team. If you have a suggestion for a future blog topic or are interested in joining the team, please reach out to us at climateemergency[at]sfbaysc[dot]org.


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