Get On Board for the Climate: Sharpen Your Wits on Die-Hard Skeptics

by Martha Walden for The What Now Coalition


Is changing the minds of climate change skeptics even possible at this point? Connie Roser-Renouf not only believes it is, she has dedicated considerable research to the challenge of how to do it. She is an Associate Research Professor at the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University. 350 Humboldt sponsored her online presentation on the third of August.

Before she talked about communication strategies, she shared some statistics that surprised me. 75% of Humboldt county residents believe that climate change is happening (8% more than the national average). I thought those numbers would be higher. I’ve been riding around the countryside for fifteen years, shouting, “Climate change is coming!” I was even more disappointed to discover that only 58% of Humboldters believe that human activity is the main cause of climate change (5% more than the national average).

However, if we dice the population more finely into six categories of attitude towards climate change, the biggest one these days is Alarmed. The other five are Concerned, Cautious, Disengaged, Doubtful, and Dismissive. Over the last five years the Alarmed and Concerned categories have been growing as the other ones have been shrinking–all except for Disengaged. That number–7%–has remained steady.

The importance of solutions when discussing climate change. Image source: Dr. Connie Roser-Renouf, PhD. (George Mason University Center for Climate Communication)

So it’s true that the Doubtful and Dismissive categories have been declining but only by a few points since 2014.  Apparently, it’s possible but difficult to persuade a climate skeptic. Still, if I ever get the chance, I hope to rise to the occasion.

But according to Roser-Renouf, it might be wiser in some instances to skip the question of climate change and go straight to the solutions. She said that pointing out the co-benefits of green energy and energy conservation — such as self-sufficiency or national security — can get traction with people who may not believe burning fossil fuels causes climate change. The U.S. military, for instance, has been developing green energy technologies since the invasion of Iraq for economic and security reasons. Also, some political conservatives are receptive to green strategies that don’t require major government intervention.

When you do talk about the impacts of climate change, stress the ones that are close to home. Wildfire and sea level rise are the two biggest for us here. Immediate impacts are simply more real to most people than impacts on people who live far away or on wildlife. This strategy is incongruent with the global awareness that many of us aim for, but we all need a chance to evolve in one way or another.  

The other communication suggestions made by Roser-Renouf were more generic — good habits for us all. Listen, ask questions, don’t terrify people, be humorous. Stop with the complicated graphs. Don’t go on and on about all the terrible behaviors you witness; instead, praise behaviors you admire.

But perhaps the most important communicating you can do about climate change is with your legislators. You can also write persuasive letters to the editor. The tide of public opinion has changed, but we need to speed it up.