8 Ways to Successfully Engage with a Climate Change Skeptic
You may have seen a recent news story about a gigantic slab of ice that has broken off Antarctica’s Brunt Ice Shelf. Alarm bells ring in your head as you file this incident as one more example of in-your-face climate impacts in the already burgeoning climate crisis cabinet in your head. It’s big—the British Antarctic Society estimates the massive berg to be 490 miles across and 500 feet thick. Maybe this one will finally convince your religious-right cousin, Doris, that climate change is real, threatening her kids and future grandkids.
Yet when you tell her about the mammoth chunk of ice free-floating off Antarctica, she digs in. “Nope, it is all part of a liberal hoax designed to distract us from the Bible,” she insists. No amount of showing her the footage or telling her that God may be trying to tell us something makes one bit of difference. You shake your head and wonder how, in the face of a 97% scientific consensus, Doris could so easily ignore the facts of a warming planet dissolving in front of her eyes.
The answer lies with the strength of our worldview — the lens through which we filter life and events happening around us. Our family, the decades we grew up in, who we have grown up with, the church we attend, the politicians we support, even social media groups we belong to all contribute to shaping our worldview. As long as we surround ourselves with people and information that confirms our perception of reality, we feel safe from real or perceived threats.
When conflicting information intrudes into our worldview, we feel threatened. Our first instinct is to immediately shore up our defenses against the threat — a mental version of our physical flight-or-fight response to danger. For climate change, this could take the form of claiming that it is a liberal hoax to destroy fossil fuel companies or that it contradicts the Bible. The more someone tries to sway us with facts, the more convinced we are that they are a part of the hoax — a psychological concept known as the backfire effect.
So if facts won’t persuade climate skeptics, what will? Here are eight suggestions for engaging someone in a productive discussion on climate change.
- Make It Sticky
You pride yourself on your beautifully designed presentation, yet your audience is hard-pressed to remember even two or three of the bullet points the next day. What went wrong? Most likely, your bullet points were not ‘sticky.’
According to brothers Chip and Dan Heath in Teaching That Sticks, a sticky idea bridges the gap between the concrete and the abstract by anchoring itself to something we already know. A sticky idea or sticky science has the power to change opinions, behavior, and values—a powerful tool when talking with someone about climate change.
A sticky idea bridges the gap between the concrete and the abstract by anchoring itself to something we already know.
Now suppose you were to mention to Doris that the newly created Antarctic iceberg is more than 20 times the size of Manhattan. This sticky science may not be enough to turn her into a climate activist, but she will have a better frame of reference for how gigantic this iceberg is, especially if she is familiar with New York City.
A metaphor is a perfect example of sticky science. A common metaphor for our ailing planet is that the earth has a fever. Because the concept of having a fever is familiar to us, our brain immediately bridges the gap between the concrete and the abstract. (This metaphor works especially well with children.)
The FrameWorks Institute and National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation (NNOCCI) found that people were more likely to understand and portray climate change in terms of high CO2 levels blanketing the earth and trapping heat rather than talking about greenhouse gases.
2. Tell a Tale
How is it that we can barely remember a single bulleted fact from a presentation at the last staff meeting but can recall every word of a graphic tale we overheard in the cafeteria this morning? The answer lies in how our brain responds to story.
When our spouse asks what happened at work that day, we may tell them a funny anecdote. Our kids recite stories of what they learned in class. We reveal the tale of how we met the person we are dating to a friend. Throughout the day, we are creating and communicating with simple cause-and-effect stories. Scientific journalist Jeremy Hsu has found that “personal stories and gossip make up 65% of our conversations.”
When a teacher or presenter recites an endless string of narratives and bullet points, a single area of our brain activates. This brain region, known as Wernicke’s area, translates what we hear into understandable language, leading to our comprehension of the narrative.
But when they tell the same narrative in the form of a story, not only does Wernicke’s area activate, other parts of our brain light up as well—all the same areas of our brain that would activate if we were living the story. Depending on the content of the story, this could include the sensory and motor cortexes, and emotional regions of the brain.
According to Uri Hasson, a Princeton professor of psychology and neuroscience, “a story is the only way to activate parts in the brain so that a listener turns the story into their idea and experience.”
What’s more, Hasson has observed that the brains of the speaker and the listener sync or align with one another during the storytelling.
You decide to tell Doris a simple story of how climate change has devastated the Monarch butterfly population in the United States. You break the tale into three simple steps: set up, conflict, and resolution. Knowing that she loves butterflies, you tell her that Monarch butterflies (those striking orange and black butterflies that are harbingers of spring) once numbered in the billions throughout the US just a few decades ago. But wildly fluctuating temperatures and precipitation, not to mention destructive western wildfires, have disrupted their migration patterns and breeding habitats (milkweed plants), dropping the Monarch population throughout the US to just a few thousand and threatening extinction.
I continue this story in the next step.
3. Hook with Emotion
Metaphors and sticky science work well because they trigger an emotional response. The Heath brothers state that the role of emotion is “to transform the idea from something that’s analytical or abstract or theoretical and make it hit us in the gut (or the heart).” Using an emotional hook as part of your story invites your audience to care.
People converge on Pacific Grove and other Californian wintering hot spots to see thousands of Monarchs clustering together before making their long trip back north in the spring. But according to Sarina Jepsen, director of endangered species at the Xerces Society, volunteers and visitors alike did not see a single butterfly at the Pacific Grove site during the winter of 2020.
What a heartbreaking story! Imagine the devastation of the visitors who have traveled a long way to catch a glimpse of these orange and black beauties only to come up with nothing, not to mention the fate of the poor butterflies. Deliver this anecdote as a conclusion to your Monarch story and Doris is sure to feel a gut-punch in the stomach as she processes this sad tale of climate change (as I did when reading the Xerces Society account.)
4. Be Credible
When it comes to sharing our passion for saving the planet, we do not need to have an advanced degree in climate science. We can all share how climate change has impacted us in some way.
But we do need to have credibility with our audience, whether we are talking one-on-one with a friend or family or addressing a group. If your audience perceives you as trustworthy, you will have a greater chance of bringing them on board with your passion and ideas.
If you are part of a local ski club, your fellow skiers may want to hear your ideas on decreasing snow levels. If you raise bees, share how rising temperatures are contributing to a decline in the local bumblebee population. Joining Toastmasters International, a worldwide public-speaking organization, would be a perfect opportunity to share why you are concerned about climate change.
5. Find Common Ground
When discussing climate change, look for values you both share. It could be a concern for the welfare of your children or looking forward to healthy and sustainable retirement years. Sharing common values lets them know you respect them and increases your credibility.
Linking climate change to personal health can be a powerful emotional hook. Heatwaves, extreme weather, disease, and respiratory illnesses all threaten human life and can have devastating impacts on our mental health.
Most people would enjoy the benefits of a sustainable planet: reduced health risks, increased job security, and energy independence. And everyone loves to save money — you could share how electricity powered by wind and solar is now often less expensive than that supplied by fossil fuels.
Focusing on these and other benefits of a healthy planet will break down barriers and move the conversation forward.
Just as someone receives a weak form of a virus to build their immunity against it, with inoculation theory, you expose someone to a weakened version of the misinformation they have given you and identify the fallacy it uses to distort science.
According to John Cook of Skeptical Science, most climate myths include at least one of five fallacies: fake experts, logical fallacies, impossible expectations, cherry-picking, and conspiracy theories.
After receiving a vaccine, you may feel ill for a couple of days as your body builds immunity against the virus. Similarly, you may encounter the backfire effect when attempting to dilute misinformation. Cook stresses the importance of emphasizing the facts rather than the myth, followed by explaining the fallacy used to fuel its circulation. This process helps build up resistance to future misinformation.
Say that Doris repeats the popular myth that extreme winter weather, such as the fatal Texas ice storm in February 2021, means that climate change is not real. You could explain that this is a common myth that focuses on only one aspect of climate change (a fallacy of cherry-picking). In reality, warming temperatures in the Arctic are pushing cold air from the polar vortex down from the North Pole further south, leading to extreme winter storms such as the one that wreaked havoc in Texas.
7. Speak Their Language
The language we use, both verbal and nonverbal, is crucial to how well we are received when addressing climate change. A conservative Christian who associates climate change with liberal ideology (Al Gore, tree huggers) may respond to a discussion on caring for God’s creation. For example, you could frame our destruction of the planet God gave us in the context of someone we invite into our home only to have them trash it from top to bottom.
Typically a conservative stalwart, farmers devastated by record flooding and the decreasing nutritional value of crops are increasingly willing to talk about regenerative agriculture: an approach that restores healthy topsoil and carbon sequestration.
Always maintain an open approach and show interest in where the person is coming from. Adopting an adversarial or mocking tone will only cause them to retreat into backfire mode.
Be sure you are mirroring your verbal passion with non-verbal cues. Your message is not likely to resonate if you send mixed messages with your body language and facial expressions. Maintain a relaxed, welcoming posture, leaning slightly toward the other person to create an environment of safety and respect. Maintaining direct eye contact is especially important in these days of Zoom meetings where other body cues may not be easily visible.
8. Be Authentic and Dispense Hope
None of these suggestions will carry much weight if you are not authentic. Attempts to manipulate or badger your audience will only meet with resistance. Be yourself, speak from your heart, and make the message of hope central to your communication.
When the world shut down in April of 2020 at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, daily global CO2 emissions dropped by 17%. The skies became so clear of pollution from vehicles on the road that people in Punjab, India could see the Himalayan Mountains for the first time in 30 years. Here was a visible example of how we help combat the climate crisis by changing our transportation practices— a clear message of hope.
One reason people shy away from discussions on climate change is the sense that it is an overwhelming, unsolvable problem. Sharing bite-size messages of hope of how we can and are already taking steps to ensure a more sustainable future will help ease those feelings and motivate them to help keep our planet safe for generations to come.