Talking to climate deniers can be frustrating. How do you try and explain something that seems so obvious? 99.9% of scientists agree that humans are altering the climate- with the degree of scientific certainty of this at a similar level to evolution and plate tectonics. We know what’s happening, we know what’s causing it and we know it’s unprecedented. Human influence has caused the global surface temperature to reach 1.1°C above 1850-1900 levels in 2011-2020. Importantly, the rate of warming has been unprecedented for at least the past 2000 years.
I’m sure most of us have had an awkward conversation with a friend/ family member who doesn’t believe that climate change exists. It can be shocking and even stressful- trying to rapidly form an argument on the spot. I remember a family friend telling me that there was no need to worry about climate change because it didn’t exist, and the real problem to focus on was plastic pollution. I was literally too stunned to speak. For the first time in my life, I was being asked to explain a view that I thought was virtually universally accepted. I felt unprepared and thrown off by the mention of plastic pollution- which we can all agree is an important issue as well, but was not directly relevant to the argument. Now I can recognize this as a logical fallacy- distracting with irrelevant information.
So how do we begin the conversation with climate deniers? First, it is important to understand their arguments.
Climate denial arguments often follow the FLICC framework. This is:
Fake experts- creating the impression of ongoing scientific debate and appearing highly qualified, whilst often having no expertise in the relevant science.
Logical fallacies- distracting with irrelevant information and jumping to conclusions, or only presenting two choices when other are available.
Impossible expectations- requiring unrealistic standards of proof.
Cherry picking- using data out of context.
These characteristics in climate denial arguments often come from unconscious psychological process- for example, people attribute expertise to those they agree with, and favour evidence that confirms their own belief. Instead of trying to address climate deniers’ motives, it is more beneficial to address their techniques.
Common arguments that climate deniers use include:
‘Some glaciers in New Zealand are growing’– this is an example of cherry picking as local/regional context is not considered. It could also be seen as an impossible expectation as it implies that every glacier should be shrinking for global warming to exist, despite glaciers overall retreating globally.
‘It was really cold today!’ – another example of cherry picking. Weather and climate are not the same: weather describes the conditions seen on a particular day, whereas climate is the long-term average of temperatures. We set all kinds of cold temperature records each year- this isn’t unusual. However, the increasing number of hot temperature records compared to cold temperature records is unusual. Donald Trump has expressed this denialist view many times on X (formerly known as twitter). In 2014 he tweeted: ‘Snowing in Texas and Louisiana, record setting freezing temperatures throughout the country and beyond. Global warming in an expensive hoax!’ Many people will find this argument convincing as it has been written to appeal to common sense, but it is crucially ignoring key data or science principles. Using the FLICC framework can help make sense of the techniques used in the argument.
‘Climate scientists are in it for the money’– this a great example of a conspiracy theory. Climate scientists would make a lot more money working in other careers- notably the oil and gas industry.
Understanding the techniques of climate denials is an important factor to consider. But so is engaging in a debate in a non-threatening way. Listen to what they have to say and ask lots of questions- simply lecturing at people can make them feel judged and hold on to their beliefs further. Try to find points of similarity, such as concerns about extreme weather events in your local area, and come prepared with evidence. The psychologist Adam Grant suggests asking “What evidence would change your mind,” to know when to back off or continue the debate.
Understanding that their point of view may come from a place of scepticism rather than being ‘stupid’ or ‘uneducated’ (as common misconceptions suggest) is also important. Keeping the conservation two-sided and not talking down to people can lead to a more insightful debate. Professor van der Linden says it’s important to “[expose] techniques of manipulation” by asking questions such as: “Have you considered that some of these theories might be created to take advantage of people?”.
Going back to my personal experience with a climate denier, I now feel like I have a better understanding of how I would approach the situation. Firstly, I would recognise the techniques of their argument (for example logical fallacy), and then begin to ask questions. I would make sure I wasn’t talking down to them (they had a degree so were ultimately more qualified than I was as at 16 years old). Thirdly, I would find points of connection, such as both being interested in mountain walking, and therefore talk about the vulnerability of mountain glaciers, for example.
I would also acknowledge that one conservation won’t change their mind, and that the change of view will ultimately come from them. I can only begin the process of internal questioning and have evidence ready if they want to hear it.
For more information on common climate denial arguments visit:
or check out Katharine Hayhoe’s videos on YouTube.
Featured image: Markus Spiske via Pexels