Climate Change Cynics: How to Effectively Communicate With a Denier

Climate Change Cynics: How to Effectively Communicate With a Denier
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This is a guest post by Aaron Viles from Care2.

For climate activists, the growing trend of climate change denialism in recent years isn’t just frustrating—it’s alarming. We know that the longer we wait to shift our energy sources and increase the efficiency with which we utilize the energy we produce, the more jarring the shift will be. Despite the powerful message that world leaders have sent by coming together in Paris to agree to limit warming to 2 degrees, currently national and global plans are not enough to make that a reality.

Yet, rather than focusing energy on the how, climate activists in the United States are still stuck trying to explain the why to folks who still doubt there’s a problem at all. It’s an important task: as the second largest emitter in the world, our country needs to implement strong climate action, something that’s impossible without strong political support. So how can those of us who see the looming disaster convince our neighbors to join our side?

People don’t care about climate scientists

Don’t focus on science. This may sound so counterintuitive as to be blasphemous, but hear me out. Yes, it’s infuriating to watch people vehemently deny the facts and latch on to the tiny fraction of (often industry-funded) studies that deny human-caused climate change in the face of overwhelming consensus among climatologists. But if the experts can’t convince them their large cars, big houses and power-hungry lifestyles are a problem, you’ll probably be hard-pressed to find more success.

Researchers consistently find that trying to point out wrongs is the worst way to engage people. When people’s political beliefs are challenged by countervailing facts most folks actually double down on their false beliefs rather than come around to the other side. It’s not just a psychological but a biological phenomenon. Our brain is made up of synapses that grow in strength every time they’re fired. It doesn’t matter whether you’re saying that climate change is not a hoax—every time you put “climate” and “hoax” in the same sentence, that neuron grows. That means every piece of misinformation corrected is really an opportunity to reinforce deniers’ incorrect ideas.

Instead of tearing down folks for what they think, focus on what they have to gain from action (and lose from inaction) and the science behind that. Climate action won’t just curb greenhouse gases, it actually provides a lot of co-benefits that will improve folks’ everyday lives.

We know that hotter temperatures can worsen air quality, especially in valleys hemmed in by mountains (think Denver, Los Angeles and Phoenix). This poor air quality damages our health, particularly among the more vulnerable like children and the elderly who are more likely to develop asthma. It’s not just air: warming temperatures can change the spread of viruses borne by mosquitoes, fleas and other creatures whose habitat will change and expand into new territories. Rather than speaking abstractly, you can share tangible health impacts to draw support.

Extreme weather impacts are another way to illustrate what’s to come. While climate scientists are loath to blame any one storm on climate change, it’s clear extreme events like Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, the California drought and Colorado wildfires are going to become the norm rather than the exception. The United States experienced 10 weather disasters that cost more than $1 billion each. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which tracks these events, found that over the last 20 years the average has been about five such events each year. But since 2011, the average has been double that, making it clear that we stand to endure lots of climate-induced economic hardship in the years to come.

It’s not just these large headline-making weather events. As the eastern United States faces more heavy downpours, already aging and inadequate sewer systems can fail, poisoning our water and eroding river banks. This, too, can lead to illness, death and loss of property and quality of life.

Make it hyper-hyperlocal

While there are lots of relatable arguments that focus on the benefits of large scale action at the national or international level, the same principles will work to advocate for individual action. It’s true that electricity generation is the largest source of carbon pollution in the United States, but the transportation sector, buildings and agriculture are also significant contributors. These are arenas where everyday citizens can make a big difference, and the benefits can be framed as personal as well as global.

Like with the focus on protecting human health and property, there are lots of co-benefits to focus on when talking to folks about ways to lower their carbon footprint. Forms of “active transportation” like biking and walking not only reduce emissions from their cars, they also provide a great form of exercise that keep them and their families fit. For those with the means, choosing to live in a walkable neighborhood can make a huge impact on your carbon footprint. As an added benefit, bike ownership and operation is loads cheaper than having a car (or a second car), which, even with low gas prices is estimated at more than $8,500 each year.

Similar cost and comfort arguments work for reducing buildings’ emissions. Energy-efficiency measures, like installing new windows or better insulation, can lower your bills and make your home or office a more comfortable and consistent temperature. The Environmental Protection Agency’s ENERGY STAR program estimates just installing energy-efficient windows can save hundreds of dollars in electricity bills annually.

Households can make a difference on agricultural emissions too. The Meatless Monday campaign—which encourages families to eat vegetarian one day per week—has grown in popularity as people have become more health-conscious. Not only does going meatless help curb heart disease and diabetes, it significantly cuts into agricultural emissions which comprise 15 percent of carbon pollution worldwide. One kilogram of beef contributes 60 times as much carbon pollution as carrots or potatoes.

Make it personal and urgent

One of largest barriers to convincing deniers and the apathetic alike is the belief that climate change just isn’t something they will have to deal with. In fall 2015, the Yale Climate Change Communication project found that just 42 percent of people believe that climate change will harm them personally. Even sadder, that’s 6 percentage points higher than during the spring—a promising trend but disappointing total reach.

The more you can make climate change an urgent, personal issue and show examples of how it’s already harming health, wealth and communities, the better. You may notice that when you receive emails from your favorite nonprofits, they’re full of deadlines and short-lived opportunities. That’s not an accident: creating a sense of urgency is an effective way to get people to take action.

The same applies when talking to doubters about climate change. If you’re talking about health impacts, point to a child you know who suffers from respiratory illness. If you’re using extreme weather events to make your point, highlight the coming fire or hurricane season. When focusing on their personal actions, talk about next month’s utility bills or a beach trip that would compel someone to bike instead of drive, or cook white bean salad instead of steak for dinner.

Convincing a doubter that climate change is happening and man-made is a huge challenge. But showing folks how acting on climate will benefit them and their families can be an easier sell. Finding common ground and mutual benefit may be the key to building the political support we need to save our planet from worse climate impacts yet to come.

Aaron Viles is a Senior Grassroots Organizer for Care2. He works with citizen authors on Care2 Petitions to create petitions that will win concrete victories for animals, the environment and other progressive causes. Prior to Care2 he spent decades working within the non-profit environmental advocacy field. Aaron honed his craft while working for Gulf Restoration Network, U.S. Public Interest Research Group and Faithful America. He began his career with Green Corps, the field school for environmental organizing. When not in front of a screen or on a conference call, Aaron can be found doting on his daughters, pedaling furiously to keep up with the peloton and serving as a volunteer leader for the Gulf Restoration Network and his church.

Climate Change Cynics: How to Effectively Communicate With a Denier

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