The Tough Task Of Persuading A Climate Denier

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84% of American adults believe that global warming is happening, according to research by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. But what’s going on with the other 16%? C’mon, people! Get your acts together.

Maybe we in the climate action community can persuade you, the (often vocal) minority, to step up. But how?

Barnstable (MA) EV Show
“Barnstable (MA) EV Show,” photo by Carolyn Fortuna / CleanTechnica (available freely for reuse if correctly attributed).

Climate deniers are often followers of a politically conservative mantra that attempts to block the science of climate change. Would it make sense for conservatives in power to acquiesce to the need to shift to clean energy? Sure, but that would be costly for the fossil fuel billionaires who fund the conservatives.

So much time and energy is lost by subterfuge. Think of how much healthier our world would be if political conservatives devoted themselves to negotiations over climate change policies and to attempts to streamline new energies to make them more market-oriented — both of which still fall within the conservative credo.

Not everyone who once listened to the climate denial rhetoric is still onboard with the political conservatives, however. Researchers who conducted a 2019 study concluded that efforts to communicate about the reality of human-caused climate change and its current relevance to Americans — including its impacts on local temperatures, precipitation, and extreme weather patterns — may be helping some Americans better understand the problem.

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Let ‘Em Get Up-Front & Personal

Last month, I was on vacation and happened upon the Cape Cod Electric Car Show at Barnstable Municipal Airport. Sponsored by Cape Air, the Cape and Vineyard Electric Cooperative, and Green Energy Consumers Alliance, the Show and Ride Experience offered a free, low-risk opportunity for everyday folks to chat with real-life electric vehicle drivers, test-drive several models of EVs, talk to representatives from environmental and energy organizations, and learn how to reduce their carbon footprint.

Sure, the Teslas were the hit of the show, but cynics experienced epiphanies after they talked to local EV owners — their neighbors, really — who volunteered to be on site. Questions about expense, range, charging, comparisons to ICE vehicles, reliability, and power gave people who had little previous experience with EVs the opportunity to dilute some of their EV angst and take the first steps toward envisioning themselves making the switch to all-electric transportation.

The automobile as we know it has been around for nearly a century. It takes tremendous wherewithal to dismantle a deeply embedded belief and replace it with a new one. But, with the climate crisis looming, the most urgent goal is to inspire action. Having an opportunity like this EV show is one example of a concrete opportunity to move people toward personal meaning-making through an up-front and personal experience.

Get Them More Informed about the Climate Crisis

The climate crisis has become a common daily topic. You hear about it these days on the weather segment of the local TV news. Turn on the radio, and the announcer is wondering how much the early snows/ fast-spreading fires/ extreme heat is a symptom of climate change. Social media is rife with references to the effects around us of the rapidly warming climate.

Access to vast amounts of climate crisis data today in our information age helps people to understand climate crisis jargon. For example, we can think of global warming as one type of climate change, with the broader term covering changes beyond warmer temperatures, such as shifting rainfall patterns.

We hear explanations that the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide has increased 43% above pre-industrial levels so far.

We come to see that energy sources with the lowest emissions include wind turbines, solar panels, hydroelectric dams, and nuclear power stations (the latter of which has its own significant issues).

Hard evidence, including studies that use radioactivity to distinguish industrial emissions from natural emissions, shows that the extra gas is coming from human activity.

Offering Data to Describe Everyday Phenomena

Scientists have been making projections of future global warming using climate models of increasing complexity for the past four decades. Driven by atmospheric physics and biogeochemistry, some models predicted less warming than actually occurred; in a few others, they predicted more. Yet the overall accuracy of the top climate models cannot be denied, and there’s little reason to doubt the warnings they’re offering about the future.

Letting climate crisis data speak for itself is a powerful persuasive mechanism.

Through data analysis, we learn that warming can slow to a potentially manageable pace if human emissions are reduced to zero. Many countries are committing to zero emissions, and US states are pushing for higher fuel-economy standards for cars (even though the federal government is fighting back), stricter building codes, and emissions limits for power plants.

Coral reefs and other sensitive habitats are already starting to die. The warming climate makes heat waves and droughts more frequent and intense, causes heavier rainstorms, and increases coastal flooding — and this is all because of human emissions.

Over the coming 25 or 30 years, scientists say, the climate is likely to gradually warm, with more extreme weather.

The Youth Appeal is Hard to Overlook, Even for a Climate Denier

Sara Peach  — sort of a Dear Abby of the climate movement — advises that we forego attempting to persuade the climate denying adults, and, instead, focus on the next generation. She suggests buying National Park passes as birthday presents for kids, watching nature documentaries with the littlest family members, or even starting a friendly competition with children over who can conserve the most energy at home.

A good deal of momentum for climate action is coming from youth around the world. Middle and high school and college students have been demanding that adults listen to their pleas for climate justice. A 2019 study in the journal Nature Climate Change points out that child-to-parent intergenerational learning— that is, the transfer of knowledge, attitudes or behaviors from children to parents —may be a promising pathway to over-coming socio-ideological barriers to climate concerns.

climate denier
“Child and Tulips,” photo by Carolyn Fortuna / CleanTechnica (permission to use freely if correctly attributed).

After all, Greta Thunberg has demonstrated how a youth can be a very effective political figure. With well-placed outrage directed at much older decision-makers, she has disrupted the consumerism-at-all-costs mantra that has allowed fossil fuel billionaires to create the climate crisis that surrounds us. Of course, Greta’s generation will have to be up to the climate challenge. By the time she is is 40 years old, the world will have changed unalterably. Her example may provide impetus for voters who are searching for visions over verbosity.

She does have a way of holding leaders’ proverbial feet to the fire, doesn’t she?

“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. People are suffering, people are dying, entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are at the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of endless economic growth. How dare you!” — Greta Thunberg, teenage environmental activist, in a speech at the UN Global Climate Action Summit in New York.

Youth like Thunberg and others may help to sway attitudes about the climate crisis due to their zeal, determination, and seemingly endless energy. It’s always easier to change people’s minds by presenting them with a credible truth with which they can easily agree — even it is from the mouth of babes.

Yes, a little guilt inspired by a child’s idealism might be just the persuasive factor to make a difference in gaining more global momentum around climate action.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack:

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