I live in a part of the country where people profess to be climate savvy. I don’t know anyone who’d publicly label him- or herself a climate change skeptic, but there are plenty who have poked holes in the fundamental tenets of climate science. This wolf-in-sheep’s clothing approach – whether consciously or unconsciously donned – is in some ways more alarming than grappling with the consummate skeptic.
I’m reminded of a conversation I had with one of our elected officials a few years ago who was the liaison (aka “supporter”) of our town’s sustainability committee. She claimed to be supportive of sustainability initiatives but insisted that climate change wasn’t a function of human activity.
These climate-denying beliefs have consequences, particularly when they’re held by people in positions of power. In this instance, our town’s legislative body refused to enroll in a state program that would have provided our town with technical and financial assistance. The reason? The legislators would have had to pass a resolution affirming that climate change is real and caused by human activities.
Whether you’re talking with a firmly entrenched climate change skeptic or someone who’s on the fence, the same general communication strategies apply. You won’t convert everyone, but with these techniques, you can start chipping away at their doubt.
Start From a Position of Empathy
Starting from a welcoming position of empathy is the key to engaging with anyone, including a climate change skeptic. Approaching a climate conversation as if it’s a sparring match where the plan is to annihilate your “opposition” with a barrage of climate facts and science is ineffective and will only push people away. The goal is to break down barriers and bring more people into the climate action tent, right? With a welcoming and receptive attitude, you’ll increase the odds of converting the skeptic.
Instead, listen to what the person has to say before reacting. I’ve found that many skeptics are unaware of or don’t understand the issues. There’s also fear associated with the topic of climate change. Let’s face it, a future of rising temperatures, extreme weather, massive flooding, and food scarcity sounds pretty terrible. It’s understandable that people would want to avoid delving into the issues and be more susceptible to misinformation campaigns.
Unfortunately, even brief exposure to misleading and false information can affect beliefs on climate change. It’s much more comforting to accept greenwashing tactics and the fiction of, for instance, “clean energy” and “clean coal,” than face the hard facts of global warming and environmental catastrophe.
So first, understand why the skeptic is skeptical. That way you’ll be able to engage effectively and build trust with the person.
Make the Conversation Personal
Now that you’ve listened, you can engage. What’s the best way to do that? Make the conversation about them.
Remember that the climate crisis is difficult to comprehend because it’s not a readily visible, immediate threat. So instead of lecturing about abstract climate science, talk to the climate change skeptic about a topic that’s personal and immediate. For example, when I was working to convince residents to support a plastic bag ban in our community, I focused on beautification and community pride themes, not global plastic pollution or the climate impacts of single-use plastic.
Let the climate change skeptic dictate the direction of the conversation. If your goal is, for instance, to show a connection between excessive flooding and climate change but the skeptic is only concerned about her property, you can pick up on personal property themes, explaining how the trees on her property help reduce runoff and their deep roots prevent flooding. From there, you can expand the conversation into one about the value of trees beyond flood mitigation: enhancing property values (particularly mature trees) and providing shade that will help reduce air conditioning bills.
Have Your Climate Facts Handy
Although you don’t want to overwhelm the climate change skeptic with reams of facts and figures, it’s always helpful to be versed in the basics of climate science so you can weave them into the conversation. The key is to keep any factual references brief, avoiding the temptation to wander off into, say, an extended rant about rising levels of atmospheric CO2.
If there’s a particular point you want to get across, you can always follow up after the conversation with a list of relevant resources. Another way to ensure that the skeptic gets her dose of facts without them being rammed down her throat is to suggest popular books and media sources. An acclaimed novel like The Overstory, for example, is filled with climate facts and will help connect the reader to current environmental issues.
Enlist a Trusted Ally of the Climate Change Skeptic
More often than not, you won’t be the best person to engage with a climate change skeptic. Humans are tribal creatures, more apt to listen to our fellow tribe members than someone from outside the group. If you’re not part of the tribe, it’s extremely difficult to connect and persuade people to see your point of view. How do you reach the skeptics if you’re not part of their tribe?
One of the most effective ways is to enlist a trusted ally of the climate change skeptic. The ally could be a person or even a respected community-based institution, such as a garden club or religious institution.
Another successful strategy is to connect with the climate change skeptic’s children. The younger generation is more receptive to climate facts and science and can help nudge their parents to accept the reality of our changing planet.
Here are examples of community-focused initiatives I’ve participated in with underlying environmental or climate action themes:
- A “Healthy Yard” coffee event, hosted by a homeowner with a naturally landscaped yard. The homeowner invites friends and neighbors to view her yard while enjoying refreshments and listening to an expert provide practical tips for healthy landscaping.
- A no-car-idling campaign where students encourage their parents to make a no-idling pledge.
- A no-plastic-straws campaign organized by a local boy scout troop to sell reusable straws and donate the proceeds to environmental causes.
- A “Green Screen” film series hosted by a local sustainability group and schools. Screenings are open to the public and school credit is given to students who attend.
- A pollinator-themed story hour organized by a garden club for young children and their caregivers. Attendees receive seeds and instructions to grow their own pollinator-friendly garden.
Make it Easy for the Skeptic to Become a Climate Ally
Now that you’ve made a connection, follow up with simple and practical green lifestyle tips to make it easy for the climate change skeptic to become a climate ally!
If you see that the person is receptive to a particular issue, follow up with anecdotes, articles, or even event suggestions. So if you’ve talked about the health (and of course, environmental) benefits of using fewer chemicals in household cleaning products, send a list of products that you like to use.
Begin with suggestions that are easy and convenient before offering ideas that could be more time-consuming. For example, suggesting a switch from disposable plastic water bottles to reusable bottles is a pretty simple action (and it also saves money). It can then be the gateway to other climate-friendly suggestions, such as using reusable bags or utensils.
Stay Positive and Connected
Even if your climate change skeptic is now a new climate ally, it’s critical to stay positive and communicate a message of hope. Studies show that people are reluctant to act when presented with alarming news: “what grabs attention … is often not what empowers action.” Remain receptive and engaged and you’ll be rewarded with an expanding community of people committed to climate action.