“Climate change is just a hoax...a liberal conspiracy targeting fossil fuel companies.” Scientists are still debating whether climate change is real.” “It's all going to burn in the apocalypse.” If you have ever discussed climate change with those who do not believe that climate change is human-caused, you have probably heard quotes like these.
So why do climate change deniers strongly reject a 97% consensus reached by climate scientists worldwide? They may have even seen the evidence of climate change in the devastation of Superstorm Sandy, rising water levels in the streets of Miami, or the rapid disappearance of glaciers in Glacier National Park and yet, still refuse to believe that humankind is responsible for the rapidity of climate change that threatens our planet.
Understanding the Psychology of Denial
The answer lies in their worldview, the lens through which they perceive the events around them. Someone entrenched in a conservative worldview may claim that human-caused climate change is a liberal conspiracy to undermine the fossil fuel industry. People of faith may have adopted the position of the late Jerry Falwell, who declared that climate change was a tool of Satan designed to distract the faithful from spreading the message of Christ.
It would be natural to assume that, when presented with the facts and evidence of climate change, deniers would feel compelled to change their minds. In fact, their reaction is typically quite the opposite—they actually feel more confident in their beliefs—a dynamic that is known as the backfire effect. The science behind this is centered in the amygdala region of the brain, which causes us to respond to both physical and information threats by shoring up defenses.
Say No to “Just the Facts, Ma’am”
So if facts won’t change minds, what will? The answer lies in how we frame our talking points, the nature of our relationship with the denier, and the use of what is called “sticky science.”
Rather than reiterating the threats of climate change, reframe the conversation to focus on the positive benefits of caring for the planet such as reduced health risks, job creation, and energy independence. For example, you could mention that an offshore wind farm off the coast of Rhode Island has shut down a CO2-spewing diesel plant and created 300 jobs. Reframing climate change as ‘creation care’ tends to resonate with evangelical Christians.
Appealing to emotions can be a powerful influencer and is a prime example of sticky science—Florida residents may be more convinced when you point out that rising sea levels may threaten their residence or business. Using metaphors and telling stories bypasses the logical processes of the brain by stimulating the amygdala and sensory cortex of the brain respectively.
Linking climate change to personal health (another appeal to emotion) is likely to resonate with deniers on some level. Heat waves, hurricanes, famine, and flooding all threaten human life; increased flooding also increases the risk of disease carried by mosquitos and standing water. Psychologists report that climate change can lead to pre-traumatic stress and anxiety.
Trust also plays an important factor and is another trait of sticky science—the more credible and trustworthy you are perceived, the greater the chance that you will be able to influence deniers. Discussions with family, friends, and local community groups are more likely to engender a shift in beliefs than an impersonal news article or presentation by strangers. But regardless of who you are addressing, keep in mind that you are more likely to reach the undecided majority than hardcore deniers.
But It’s Cold Outside!
Deniers often cite common myths as a defense against facts regarding human-caused climate change. You may have heard the story of Jim Inhofe tossing a snowball in the U.S. Senate chamber, declaring that the cold, snowy weather outside disproved climate change. While this anecdote may seem darkly humorous, Inhofe’s statements perpetuate a common climate change myth. In reality, as the Arctic grows warmer, the polar jet stream pushes south and east across North America and Europe, leading to intense winter storms.
John Cook, the founder of Skeptical Science, explains how to use “inoculation theory” to debunk common climate change myths.
“In inoculation theory, you expose people to a weak version of the misconception,” Cook explains. “What I mean by this is you introduce the myth, and then identify the fallacy that the myth uses to distort science.”
Cook explains that most myths fall prey to one or more of five logical fallacies summed up as the acronym FLICC: fake experts (magnified minority), logical fallacies, impossible expectations, cherry picking, and conspiracy theories. Inhofe’s myth would be example of impossible expectations.
Working Together for Change
As climate change increasingly encroaches on our everyday lives, knowing how to engage and win over deniers is essential. If nothing else works, appeal to the better angels of their nature—in the current environment of national polarization, working together to care for our planet will foster a kinder, more responsible society.
Delve in Deeper
You can learn more about how to effectively communicate with climate change deniers or non-scientists in general through these two excellent online classes:
Making Sense of Climate Change Denial - University of Queensland
Stand Up for Science: Practical Approaches to Discussing Science that Matters - University of Michigan
Making Sense of Climate Change Denial - online class, University of Queensland
Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive While Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath
About the Author: This week's blog was written by Seattle Marcher and volunteer, Debbie King.
Debbie King is a science content writer with over 15-years' experience writing science, healthcare, and technical publications; she also has a background in web design and development. Debbie loves writing about all things science, but the mind-body interaction (now known as behavioral neuroscience) has always held a special fascination, leading her to earn her B.S. in Biology and Psychology. Debbie is committed to raising public awareness of scientific advances and energizing her readership with regard to climate change. A Virginian transplant, Debbie fell in love with the Northwest beauty and culture on her honeymoon and is happy to call Seattle her home. You can learn more about Debbie at debbierking.com.