How To Overcome The Social Barriers To Climate Consensus

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Originally published on The Conversation.
By Ana-Maria Bliuc and Craig McGarty

climate silenceIt can be tempting to think that people who disagree with you are mad, bad or simply stupid. However, not only are such judgements usually wrong, but telling people that they are stupid is unlikely to convince them of the merit of your own view.

Yet this is often what happens when it comes to debates about climate change and what we ought to do about it.

Despite there being a near consensus in the scientific community that the primary driver of climate change is anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions, and that we need to cut those emissions if we’re to keep global warming to a minimum, the public remains divided on the issue.

This division seems to run deeper in certain countries, such as US and Australia, where there are many vocal sceptics of the notion that climate change is caused by human activity.

Two views

It is common to think that believers and sceptics about anthropogenic climate change are simply people who hold different views. But we think it is more accurate to think of them as belonging to social groups that are working to achieve opposed policy objectives.

This latter view is often used to understand the division between pro-Life and pro-Choice stances in the abortion debate, for example. These are not just positions where people may “agree to disagree”, but rather they seek to promote their position in public opinion and in government policy.

In a paper published today, we took a similar perspective on the climate change debate in the US. What we found is that people’s attitudes in favour of action against climate change, or attitudes to the contrary, are predicted by three inter-related dimensions.

The first is a sense of identification with their own group. Secondly there is a perception that their group is likely to succeed in its collective efforts – what we call “group efficacy”. And finally, they tend to have feelings of anger towards their perceived opposition.

These dimensions work together to create a collective sense of “us” in opposition to “them”; a “group consciousness” that is present for both sceptic and believer groups.

This finding is important because it suggests that these groups do not co-exist in a social vacuum. They are not just indicative of differences of opinion, but rather are two social movements in conflict.

Beyond ‘us’ and ‘them’

In light of this, we propose that strategies for building support for climate change mitigation policies should go beyond attempts to simply persuade, educate or improve the public’s understanding of science. Instead, they should incorporate strategies aimed at improving intergroup relations.

We suggest that rather than concentrating solely on the sceptic movement, attempts to build consensus need to include both groups. They should also take into consideration the dynamics between them.

For example, communication from the scientific community and its supporters that ridicules sceptics’ concerns is likely to drive the groups further apart.

This is particularly problematic as we know from previous research on the politicisation of climate change. Ridicule is only likely to strengthen scepticism and therefore increase sceptics’ determination to act in support of their groups’ cause.

As Tom Postmes, of the University of Groningen, notes in an article in Nature Climate Change:

[…] to convince a sceptical public, believers need to harness knowledge about social movements and intergroup conflict reduction […] as with any conflict between two groups, efforts should be directed to prevent escalation, improve the relationships, and focus on the dynamics within groups that prevent progress.

Getting social

One way forward is to use what we know from the history of other social movements along with techniques of conflict resolution. From a theoretical standpoint, the conflict between sceptics and believers is similar to other conflicts in history that pushed forward our society. For example, the civil rights movement in the US, created a sharp division in American society, but in the long term has led to major advances.

Another path that could lead to increased consensus is to harness intergroup communication that promotes conflict reduction by maintaining dialogue between the sides in conflict, along with being open to engagement and collaboration.

Conflict between groups can also be diffused by shifting the focus from differences to focusing on similarities between the members of the two groups. And, more importantly, on broader goals that both groups share.

As this cartoon from USA Today shows, clean air, low power consumption, improved public transport, better waste management, efficient agriculture, reforestation and low cost renewable energy are all in the public interest whatever one’s position on climate change is.

So if you want to promote climate change action to people who don’t believe in climate change, then you need be mindful of the social dimension of people’s beliefs. That, and work to convince sceptics that that action is worth doing anyway.

Image:, CC BY-NC-SA

Reprinted with permission.

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17 thoughts on “How To Overcome The Social Barriers To Climate Consensus

  • Personally I’m used to the climate change deniers spewing their usual bogus talking points. I’m 70 years old and I have little time to spend trying to “reach consensus” with these people. Alternative energy technology is rapidly making fossil fuel systems the most expensive option. Money talks. When money speaks, most of those same strident deniers listen.

    • Me, too. Age and inclination.

      I think it’s probably time to point a finger at them, laugh, and dismiss them from rational discussions.

      • Bob,
        Laughing at them or dismissing their arguments is very dangerous these days. As the article notes their “goal” is to codify their delusional position into law. With the present makeup of the US political circus they are making significant progress toward their goal. You and I both realize how wrong their position is but that doesn’t prevent the deniers from holding on to fossil fuels as long as they possibly can.

        They, by impeding progress toward a carbon neutral energy paradigm, have already caused irreparable damage to the planet. The incoming republican majority has already stated that they intend to continue down the BAU road. That road will lead to a catastrophe of unimaginable consequence.

        The problem seems to me to be intractable but a conciliatory demeanor won’t solve the problem. It will only feed their fire

        Alternative energy is already less expensive than fossil fuels even without factoring in the externalized costs. When those costs are considered alternative energy is ridiculously less expensive. Does that ever factor into the denier equation? If so, I have yet to see any evidence of it. We are in the fight of our lives where we AGW folks are trying to save everyone, even the deniers. If we don’t somehow prevail no one wins.

    • The only argument that I find is difficult to dismiss is that if the deniers are right and we limit our CO2 and adopt renewables, then no harm done. However, if they are wrong and we do nothing, then we may be toying with catastrophe. I then end the email with a picture of down town Phoenix where the city cannot be seen, only the tops of the mountains that stick above the smog. Having said that, Larry, you are right, until it becomes cheaper to use renewables vs. fossil fuels, it is somewhat fruitless even getting involved in the controversy. It is much like religion, it is a belief system and belief systems do not need facts to support them.

    • I tend to reverse the approach the article takes.

      You have to look at what the driving influence of the social conflict is in order to effectively engage. And the driving influence is fossil fuel economic interest.

      Climate change would not be an issue if trillions of dollars in fossil fuel holdings were not at risk. For the fossil fuel interests, those holdings must remain viable or their industry withers.

      The industry, as a whole, has made this decision despite the fact that it is amoral and probably uneconomical too. This decision is similar to decision of the South with regard to its slaves leading up to the Civil War. The North was advancing toward new industries. The South clung to ancient slave labor due to the fact that it supported established powers and economies.

      Fights to preserve established, if harmful, economic systems rapidly become cultural as groups attempt to justify or rationalize the harm they cause. In the South, this led to a racist world view in which slave races were viewed as intellectually, morally, and physically inferior. This view held that slaves needed to be held captive for their own good. And that the white man was doing them a favor. Similarly, we have the climate change denial rationalization today. Both rest on opinion and worldview rather than fact. Both are inherently blind to reality.

      In truth, you cannot engage with such unrealistic rationalizations. Slavery did not end due to negotiation and consensus. It ended due to confrontation. A growing number of abolitionists confronted the slave system in the South as unjust. Their direct action including a war to free slaves declared by John Brown, led to heightened public awareness and disgust for slavery. This fed the Lincoln election campaign which eventually led to better laws for slaves causing the South to

      • Excellent rebuttal! I’m very impressed with your superb analogy and factual presentation. Well Said!

        • Cheers Larry. Glad to help. But, yes, we need to go on offense. This is direct conflict and we need to engage it as such even if we would want a peaceful, more rational resolution. There is too much at stake. We can’t afford to do nothing or go at it without all the weapons at our disposal. Evil profits if we take that tact.

      • You are a certifiable IDIOT.

      • How about a more current comparison? Tobacco.

        In fact, some of the individuals and organizations who told us tobacco wasn’t hurting us are the same people who are climate change deniers.

        What’s a non-sexist synonym for whore?

        • Good point. Although the reach of the fossil fuel industry far exceeds that of tobacco. Got to love the fact that many of those denying climate change were also those who claimed cigarettes didn’t cause cancer.

          Overall, the link between slavery and fossil fuels is in the level of political power that can be attained by concentrating the toxic resource. A resource curse model.

  • It’s not really a battle to bring round the hard-core denialists, but to marginalise them in the eyes of the silent majority – which accepts both the science and the desirability of action, but doesn’t care much about the issue. Ridicule is a legitimate and effective tactic for this, as in John Oliver’s “balanced” debate with two denialists and 98 climate scientists. I for one am not prepared to give wilful ignoramuses and paid apologists the benefit of the doubt, and treat them as legitimate partners in a Socratic dialogue of equals. They are no more my equals than a roomful of spoiled adolescents.

    • That’s true, but it’s also true that it can be hard to distinguish a true naive from a troll–especially when the latter plays Mr. Disingenuous. I think the default assumption should be “naive”, since it’s worse to alienate someone on the fence with unmerited verbal aggression than to miscategorize a troll. After all, trolls will out themselves soon enough anyway.

    • I think they should be marginalized and singled out for the extremists that they are. They are killing our future one obstacle and obstruction at a time. History will judge them very harshly so why shouldn’t we?

      • Yeah, that’s exactly how you play the game “Rules for Radicals”, a game invented by Saul Allenski the Communist. No matter what the issue those same rules apply.

        • So you’re opinion is that idiots should be given equal standing in the discussion with experts?

          If your oncologist tells you that you have a melanoma but your plumber and your paper delivery boy tell you it’s a harmless mole you’re going to not seek treatment? After all two people (even if they know nothing) agreed that the third person was wrong.

          Thank you for your opinion…. ;o)

        • False equivalency again.

          And I can’t count the number of times a racist, regressive, a KKK member, or a climate change denier has used the term ‘Communist’ to justify their arguments. They called MLK a communist. They called FDR a communist. Bobby Kennedy — communist. Evolutionary and climate scientist — communist. Anyone who wanted to help the poor — communist. Those who favored diplomatic negotiation vs jumping into wars half-cocked — communist. People who wanted to actually fund the VA — communist. People for pensions for workers — communist.

          According to those like you, most of the 20th Century was spent under communist financial regulations like Glass Steagall and paying communist taxes — the same kind that have basically funded every civilization for 5,000 years. But I suppose the Egyptians and Greeks were communists too? And the very rich irony now is that those with the money behind much of the nonsense peddling — the Koch brothers — got a good portion of their early fortune from building oil refineries for the Bulshevicks. Actual died in the wool communists. Not the fantasy kind we have all heard about so often from the likes of you.

          So who’s the commie now?

          In any case, this is not a game. It’s basically working to preserve wealth, and to save human lives. And for that good mission there can be no compromise.

  • i think this is really the same concept as “love thy enemies” as preached by Jesus. and i do agree that the most effective climate advocate (or anything-advocate) is the one who reaches the hearts of the non-believers and transcends their transgressions

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