While climate change is a settled scientific issue — most credible scientists agree that the earth is heating up and humans are to blame — for some reason a small but vocal minority of Americans continue to deny it.
A majority of Americans (62 percent), regardless of political leanings, believe that climate change is an urgent threat requiring immediate and drastic action, according to a 2014 study by Yale University. But there is much less of a consensus when looking at it from a partisan perspective. A 2015 Pew Research Center poll found that 71 percent of Democrats and Independents who lean to the Democratic Party say the planet is warming due to human activity, compared with only 27 percent among Republicans — a difference of 44 percentage points.
With climate change’s adverse impacts already manifesting themselves around the world through extreme weather events, rising sea levels and more, we’re well past the stage to be debating about whether all of this is happening — we need to be debating what the best course of action is to solve this existential threat to our continued survival as a species.
Frustrating as it may be to deal with those who have drunk the climate denial Kool-Aid, convincing these people to rethink their position on climate change is going to be an important step to building the political will to take meaningful action.
Here are 7 tips on how to talk to a climate change denier:
1. Put yourself in your audience’s shoes
Strategic communicators must be skilled at identifying and appealing to different audiences’ specific worldviews. Social science research shows that people tend to interpret new information through the lens of past experiences, knowledge and social context. This is doubly true when it comes to complex scientific and societal issues such as climate change, where objective facts about the state of the world are not the only factors that influence what people believe and how they respond.
Someone who values prosperity, for example, might be motivated by a message that emphasizes how clean energy solutions can unlock new economic opportunities for American families.
2. Emphasize solutions and benefits
Climate change is a huge threat to everything we know and love, but do your best not to be too much of a downer. Instead, it’s better to lead with solutions rather than the problem. This makes it easier for people to accept that climate change exists because solutions imply action and opportunity. Rather than talking about the end of the world, communicators should work to build confidence that climate change can and will be addressed; highlight the benefits of taking action and align solutions with your audience’s values and priorities.
3. Channel the power of groups
Climate communicators can harness the influence of groups by helping people view their actions and responses to climate change as part of a larger group effort, whether it is a neighborhood, a company or a faith-based organization. Humans inherently are social animals and often think and behave differently when they’re physically part of a group or reminded of their membership in a group. One effective way to keep people engaged in the long run is to weave climate change into the activities of existing social groups and networks, such as neighborhood associations, religious groups, clubs, parent–teacher associations or company departments.
4. Bring climate impacts close to home
Most people have a hard time thinking about, or acting on, problems that are perceived as far in the future, physically distant, happening to other people or involving uncertainty. To help overcome this psychological distance, communicators can use vivid imagery and messages to help people identify the locally relevant, personally experienced consequences and impacts that climate change is already causing. This could mean something as simple as talking about the loss of property from intensified extreme weather events and the greater spread of infectious diseases. But remember to tread carefully; making the issue “too real and too scary” can lead to denial of the problem.
5. Connect climate change to issues that matter to your audience
Climate communicators are more successful when they show how climate change connects to issues or concerns that their audiences care about. The most effective communicators know when and how to make use of content frames, which might highlight public health implications of climate change, the relationship between climate change and national security, or how climate change (and climate solutions) affects personal health and family well-being. Many city leaders have found success in reframing the climate conversation to be more about resilience than climate change itself. Likewise, communicators can use structure frames to shape how an audience relates to a message by emphasizing “when,” “where” and “how many.”
6. Use images and stories to make climate change real
Making use of images that inspire and empower can be useful in attracting audiences’ attention or helping empower audiences to act. It also may help to employ cultural archetypes or icons to help audiences relate to climate change more effectively. Although data can be helpful, research shows that visualizations such as bar charts, pie charts and scatter plots are among the least memorable of all images. Rather, images of people or groups, faces and common household items are the most powerful.
7. Make behavior change easy
Communicators should strive to create a decision-making environment that makes positive action easier and more automatic. Research shows that people tend to stick with the option, choice or behavior that is preselected for them or selected automatically — this is called the default effect. Communicators can make climate-friendly behavior easier for people by presenting the climate-friendly option as the default. They also can help facilitate behavior change by highlighting social norms surrounding climate-friendly behavior, when they exist. For example, in our app-crazed world it could be effective to highlight eco-friendly actions people can take using their smartphones.