Have a Climate Denier Over for Coffee?

A researcher explains the psychological foundation of climate skepticism—and offers a strategy for chipping away at it.

October 20, 2017


Empirical reality has been going through a rough patch lately. Fake news, filtered through algorithmically tailored social media feeds and targeted to the susceptible, continues to poison our information supply. At the same time, real news—rooted in fact and reported dispassionately—gets branded as “fake” by the president and many of his followers whenever it doesn’t support their preferred narrative. Increasingly, our political battles are more like metaphysical battles. We’re arguing less over a broad range of controversial ideas, the way we once did, and more over one very big idea: whether objective truth is ultimately subservient to political will and personal opinion.

Science is supposed to be our secret weapon in this struggle. When it comes to an issue as important as climate change, for example, we want to believe that facts have persuasive power—that the doubters and deniers, once they’ve been fully apprised of the data, will come around and align themselves with the majority of people (including 97 percent of climate scientists) who believe and prescribe action.

But the climate debate doesn’t always work that way. In fact, barraging skeptics with data—in the form of peer-reviewed studies, phonebook-thick white papers, countless charts and graphs from NASA and NOAA, climate models, even the 97-percent-of-climate-scientists figure itself—can have the opposite effect. Instead of softening the deniers’ stance, it hardens it. The normal evidentiary rules that govern our debates don’t apply: Motives are impugned; data are questioned; conspiracies are birthed. Empirical reality is maligned as “fake.”

If climate deniers won’t respond to the plainly stated facts, what will they respond to? How on earth are we supposed to reach them?

I recently posed these questions to Renee Lertzman, a psychologist who studies the thought processes behind climate denial and whose research suggests the emergence of new and better ways of breaking through to skeptical minds. To hear Lertzman tell it, the problem isn’t necessarily what we’re saying to these disbelievers—it’s how we’re saying it.

For many climate skeptics, Lertzman says, “denial is a defense mechanism: It’s people trying to protect themselves, to keep themselves from experiencing the stress that goes along with coming to terms with our situation.” The first mistake their would-be persuaders make, she says, is in thinking that facts can change minds all by themselves. Instead, she says, the way to break through is to employ facts as part of a larger effort that also involves listening and, as hard as it can be sometimes, empathizing.

Skepticism and even outright denial aren’t always based on politics or ideology, Lertzman stresses. In fact, she says, they’re often manifestations of cognitive dissonance, the clinical term for the psychological tension that results from the holding of two (or more) conflicting beliefs simultaneously. People may really care about protecting the planet and keeping it habitable for future generations . . . but they also can’t imagine their lives without the benefits that have come with industrialization and fossil fuels. When we point out that we simply can’t continue down this familiar path, they can feel like they are being personally criticized. “Until we acknowledge that cognitive dissonance,” she says, “we’ll continue to get resistance.”

According to Lertzman, a founding member of the Climate Psychology Alliance and author of an academic book on the psychoanalytic dimensions of environmental engagement, “we need to be better about addressing the anxiety underneath people’s positions.” The way to do that, she says, is to “explore that anxiety and ambivalence—the space where people are actually in conflict with themselves.” From there, we can move with them, conversationally, to a more creative level, the aspirational level, where minds and attitudes can be changed.

“People really do respond to the feeling that their concerns and anxieties are being addressed,” Lertzman says. And when they feel that someone is listening to them rather than lecturing them, walls come down and rigidity begins to disappear. To achieve this, she utilizes motivational interviewing, a counseling technique borrowed from clinical therapy that was developed by a pair of clinicians whose specialty was treating problem drinkers. “They realized, after many years of frustration, that it’s simply not enough to tell patients they’re going to die if they don’t stop doing what they’re doing,” says Lertzman. Instead, the therapists learned to “enlist the person in their own welfare, by having them talk through their own cognitive dissonance.”

The technique doesn’t only help people calm down and become less defensive; “it helps people feel like they’re being included in solving the problem.” And that, Lertzman says, is key.

So the next time you’re dealing with that climate-denying uncle at Thanksgiving or that skeptical friend on Facebook, try changing your tactics a bit. Instead of talking to or at them, take the time to talk with them. As difficult as it can be to hear someone baldly refute the scientific facts, or accuse scientists of faking data for personal enrichment, or suggest (absurdly) that climate activism represents a global conspiracy to stifle American competitiveness, resist the reflex to shoot down their misinformed views. Offer instead a sincere, calmly worded question. And another. And then another. Before you know it, you could find yourself in a conversation instead of an argument. You could also discover, right there in front of you, someone who no longer considers you—and whom you no longer consider—an antagonist.

Fighting is certainly appropriate sometimes. But it can take us only so far. Climate change is an enormous problem, the biggest and most terrifying one we face as a global community. To combat it, we need fewer enemies and more allies. And that means investigating any and all possible ways of converting the former into the latter.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

onEarth Story

The administration cites the likelihood of catastrophic global temperature rise to justify gutting fuel-efficiency standards. Yes, you read that correctly.

onEarth Story

With funding from the fossil-fuel industry, a denialist think tank is mailing its anti-science propaganda to 200,000 schoolteachers. Hmmm, what could be behind their newfound boldness?

onEarth Story

Climate science is under its fiercest attack yet. But one group has been countering the onslaught—by connecting with everyday Americans in their own communities.

onEarth Story

Meet Scott Pruitt, the EPA’s cheerless new leader.

Personal Action

We know that you know that Trump’s assessment of the Paris Agreement is way off base. Here’s how to convince those who don’t.

Personal Action

Anxious about where our planet is headed? Tip one: You’re not alone—and that means a lot.

onEarth Story

A nation serious about mitigating natural disasters like the ones we’ve just seen can’t afford to let this moment slip away.

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.