Updated: Oct 22, 2021
By Hamilton Steimer
Almost everyone has heard the arguments of a climate change denier.
The climate is always changing. Renewables are not reliable. Democrats made it up to push their socialist agenda. There’s too much uncertainty on what to do about it. We can’t afford the solutions.
Quite frankly, it’s some of the most frustrating arguments you will ever hear because most of them are either made up on the spot or are flat-out wrong.
Americans are increasingly divided on climate change. This divide has widened over the years, reflecting the rising political polarization, and now, it threatens to stall essential climate action. Currently, President Joe Biden (D) has made tackling the climate crisis one of his administration’s top priorities, and Democrats have aggressively pursued climate solutions in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal as well as the proposed reconciliation package. Meanwhile, Republicans have historically resisted climate action, and many, including former President Donald Trump (R), deny climate change even exists.
Why are we so divided on what is the most important issue of our time? How do so many Americans still believe climate change doesn’t exist when 97% of scientists agree on climate change? Political ideology and psychological barriers can provide an explanation.
Understanding Climate Denial
In my opinion, the partisan divide on climate change makes perfect sense, especially when you consider the ideological principles of American conservativism. Just look to the GOP Platform Preamble. You will find euphemisms about how the United States is “unlike any other nation on earth” as well as phrases such as “American exceptionalism”, “economic freedom”, “limited government”, and “God-given natural resources.” The modern American conservative supports reducing government regulations, lowering taxes, and resolving policy problems via free-market solutions.
Let me be clear and say American conservatism is not objectively “bad”. However, conservative ideological principles don’t exactly vibe with most climate policy solutions and messaging. Climate change is a global threat that requires international cooperation and sacrifices to solve. Decarbonizing rapidly requires transforming our economy and lifestyles away from fossil fuels in favor of clean and renewable energy resources. Solutions will decide winners and losers, potentially creating more regulations and higher taxes. The government will most likely take a central role in leading this revolutionary change.
Conservatives don’t want to listen about a problem with solutions that fundamentally run contrary to their worldview. According to conservatives, if climate change was real and was a threat, the free market would adjust accordingly and produce competitive and affordable solutions. Government interference would just complicate things, restrict freedoms, and transform America to resemble the economically stagnant countries of Europe. Acceptable solutions wouldn’t have Democrats, especially self-proclaimed democratic socialists, Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), leading the charge.
Many conservatives deny climate change exists because their ideological principles do not square with the climate crisis and its solutions.
Now that you understand the basic frame of reference from which many conservatives view the world, psychology can help us further understand their stance on climate change and why it’s so hard to change their minds.
If you’ve taken a psychology class in high school or college, you may have heard about cognitive dissonance, the mental discomfort created by holding more than one conflicting belief at once. No one wants to believe that their everyday behavior is contributing to a global crisis already killing thousands of people and creating millions of refugees. America’s capitalist system cannot be part of the problem because the free market would self-adjust to continue economic growth. It’s easier for some people to fall back on their conservative worldview and reject climate change instead of changing their habits and fundamental beliefs.
This leads us to Cognitive Bias. We develop heuristics, mental shortcuts, to help us navigate the world quickly without becoming overwhelmed. Unfortunately, cognitive biases, influenced by our motivations, social influences, and emotions can lead us to make mistakes or resist new information. For example, people exhibit confirmation bias, a cognitive bias where they seek out, interpret, and recall information in a way that reinforces their preconceived beliefs. Social media, Fox News, and other echo chambers reduce cognitive dissonance by reinforcing conservative beliefs regarding climate science.
Cognitive biases and aversion for cognitive dissonance help understand why it is so hard to convince people to change their minds about climate change. You may have even noticed that no matter the evidence you offer someone, the more firmly they reject it. This is called the backfire effect, where people double down on their beliefs, even when given contrary evidence. Remember, climate denial is not based on fact but based on ideological beliefs and psychological barriers. Simply refuting a climate denier’s claims with legitimate evidence will not be enough to change their mind, as it can have the reverse effect.
Simple psychology can help explain why it’s so difficult to convince a climate denier to change their opinion. However, by understaining the different psychological barriers to reason, we can form effective strategies to overcome them.
Talking With a Climate Denier
Changing the mind of a climate denier is challenging, but it is necessary if we are to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. Here are some suggestions when engaging with a climate denier.
Know Your Audience
Consider the perspective of your audience. If you are talking to someone who doesn’t believe in climate change, ask yourself why that is. How might their gender, race, profession, economic status, religion, or political ideology impact their views on the climate? Before your conversation, you can determine an effective approach that recognizes their perspective and provide acceptable responses. Having a complete picture of your audience helps you create a dialogue founded on mutual respect and understanding, not one on disdain and judgment.
Prepare Ahead of Time
Decide on what kind of conversation you want to have ahead of time. Do you want to focus on climate science, or do you want a solutions-focused discussion? Think of your audience’s perspective and prepare responses that acknowledge their beliefs but help them realize they are wrong. Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, an evangelical climate scientist who specializes in climate communications, reminds us that “climate action has to be framed as something that’s a natural expression of something you already are - something that makes you feel like a better version of yourself.” You are more likely to achieve success by focusing on solutions that make people feel “more pragmatic, more competitive, more innovative, maybe even more fiscally conservative.”
When talking with climate deniers, it’s important to ask questions about their beliefs. This may be even more helpful than focusing simply on the science behind climate change, as it may cause climate deniers to reevaluate what they believe. Asking questions doesn’t necessarily mean challenging someone’s beliefs, but it may lead people to consider the source of their information and whether their beliefs truly make sense with reality. As Philosopher Blaise Pascal once said, “People are generally persuaded by the reasons which they themselves discovered…”
Have Realistic Expectations
It’s important to have realistic expectations when talking with a climate denier about climate change, as it is unlikely you will change their thinking in one discussion. You may present a thoughtful argument with solid counterpoints and still make no progress. That is okay! At least that person was willing to sit down and engage with you on the subject matter. Hopefully, repeated, honest discussions that minimize direct challenges to held beliefs will eventually change some climate deniers’ opinions on climate change.
I agree with psychologist Troy Campbell who argues that solution aversion, not liking the solution to a problem, is causing fact aversion, refusal to believe the problem exists.
The climate change narrative and its proposed solutions increasingly seem anti-conservative, turning away crucial voters required to achieve significant policy progress. When we tell people that saving the planet requires giving up their cars, raising taxes, reducing meat consumption, and increasing energy bills, they want to laugh in our faces. From their perspective, the solutions are so ridiculous that climate change must be a political ploy to achieve the liberal agenda.
In my opinion, we need to reconsider our goals concerning climate change and reexamine our messaging strategy because conservatives are increasingly becoming hostile to climate action. Moral arguments that appeal to our humanity or future generations are falling on deaf ears and are ineffective. Without trying to make conservatives go all-in on climate action, maybe we should tailor our arguments and our solutions to fit their worldview. Let’s argue for solutions that address the impacts of climate change, without mentioning climate change at all. At least that way, we can take some positive steps instead of being stuck in a frustrating deadlock.
For example, the clean energy sector is one of the fastest growing job sectors in the country, so we should remind conservatives that by increasing clean energy subsidies and R&D, we can make more jobs and make clean energy cheaper. The military agrees that investments in energy and climate resiliency strengthen our national security, so we should explain that resiliency investments makes our country safer. Most solar panels come from China or other foreign countries, so we should argue to strengthen our domestic industry and outcompete our adversaries. Energy efficiency is one of the most cost efficient climate solutions, so we should encourage people to switch to electric heat pumps and water heaters to save money.
Converting a climate denier is hard, but by appealing to some of their conservative values, we may be able to convince them to support some climate solutions and make progress against the climate crisis.