Climate change deniers continue to be vastly over-represented in many leading economies, such as the United States, Canada, and Australia. But they are a diminishing rump, and spending time and effort to convince the average denier is a waste of time. There are only four paths out of climate change denial, and only two of them are likely to be taken by more than the tiniest fraction of deniers.
Deniers skew old, much older than the rest of the populace. As a result, many of them will die denying, but still, they’ll be dead and their science denial will die with them.
As the vast majority of climate change deniers are thoroughly unpleasant and vile people — I’ve been dealing with them for at least a decade in online communities around the world but rarely in person — I hope for the loved ones and caretakers who still tolerate them that this happens sooner rather than later.
Major tribal shift
In the USA, most deniers are Republicans, or outright white supremacists. Republican strategists and senior leaders made a strategic decision to accept fossil fuel oligarch money in the 1990s, and scooped up the vast majority of the climate change deniers to go with their evolution deniers. The result is that climate change “skepticism” is vastly more prevalent in the Republican Party rank and file than anywhere else in the USA (or anywhere else in the world).
In my discussions last year (part 1, part 2) with John Cook, PhD, cognitive scientist, founder of Skeptical Science, and author of Cranky Uncle vs Climate Change and The Debunking Handbook, he admitted that his entire PhD thesis was based on the assumption that it was possible to convince climate change deniers with logic and reason, and that subsequently, especially since his career took him to the USA, he realized that tribalism was a vastly more powerful force than he had understood in shaping tribal member’s world views.
If the Republican Party was to wholeheartedly embrace climate science and advance intelligent policies to deal with it, then a whole bunch of Republican “skeptics” would magically become climate change accepters and would pretend that they always were. That’s the magic of received opinions from tribes.
There’s some evidence that the dam of idiocy and willful ignorance is breaking. In addition to the long-standing — if poorly supported — bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus in Congress, with saner Republicans like Romney and Murkowski, there’s a new Republican-only Conservative Climate Caucus in Congress with 60 listed members (and no big names). Their acceptance is pretty weak sauce, and the solutions that their stated “beliefs” point to are actively climate hostile, but it’s a step in the right direction.
A tribal authority with expertise and time
A subset of deniers can be brought to sanity if someone with the following qualifications spends a lot of time with them. Katharine Hayhoe is the best, and exceedingly rare, example of a person who actually manages to shift the needle on climate change acceptance.
- They have to be a member of one of the big and important tribes, whether that’s evangelical Christianity (Hayhoe’s connection), NASCAR, the local Lodge, or college football. They have to be inside with the denier, not outside trying to influence inwards. They have to spend time at the beginning of every conversation leaning on that joint affiliation to ensure ears and eyes will be open, not firmly shut.
- They have to be in a position of authority with a PhD and impressive post (Hayhoe’s place to stand), or a preacher, or a winning football coach, or a successful local politician, or a rich businessperson. They have to be looked up to.
- They have to be an expert in climate change. They actually have to know what they are talking about, and able to deal patiently and accurately with every objection.
- They have to be able to communicate complex concepts in simple terms, and do it over and over.
- And they have to be willing to spend a lot of time doing it.
Clearly, the vast majority of deniers aren’t going to find anyone willing to do that retail changing of minds. This is a pretty faint hope. Although, kudos to Hayhoe for all her good work. For those wanting to put the time and effort in, here’s my lengthier guide: “How to Talk to Conservatives About Climate Change.”
And to be clear, I have several of the attributes necessary to succeed, but not enough of them. I don’t bother to try to change individuals’ minds about climate change. When I realize I’m dealing with a denier, I simply ghost them. It’s literally not worth my time engaging with them because my chances of success are incredibly low, and I have much higher odds of adding value by working with people who accept the science and are focused on solutions.
It’s deeply unlikely that anyone still denying climate change in 2021 has the faintest shred of intellectual honesty and integrity, but there’s always one exception. And it’s happened before.
Jerry Taylor was a professional climate change denier. He did that for the Cato Institute, that mostly horrific Libertarian think tank created by oligarchs to spread the gospel of leave-rich-people-alone-and-unregulated. He spoke to Congress. And one of the scientists, Joe Romm, asked him to read the material he was citing, say that it didn’t say what he thought it did. And to Taylor’s credit, he did read it, and more, and realized that he was not only wrong about climate change, but that he was actively being hostile to good governance, politics, and the economy.
He jumped ship, formed the Niskanen Center, and now tries to bring conservatives into the climate light, without much success in my opinion. He, the Center, and everyone affiliated with it have actually stopped calling themselves libertarians at all because of the tribal dogma within libertarianism regarding climate change. To be a libertarian, you have to pass the values test of denial now, and Taylor refused to.
I spoke with a Senior Fellow of the Niskanen Center, Ed Dolan, PhD, economist and author, last year as well (part 1, part 2) about this and related subjects. They persist in trying to get Republicans to change their minds, and they are much better positioned than I am. I wish them well.
Death, tribal earthquake, devoted and careful attention by a trusted authority, or intellectual honesty are the only paths out of denial. The last two have so little chance of reaching statistical significance among deniers that they can safely be ignored. The first is too slow, and there are younger deniers, especially among the radicalized right. That’s why the stumbling, groping, abjectly inadequate efforts of some partisan politicians like the Conservative leader O’Toole in Canada and the Conservative Climate Caucus in the USA should be encouraged as well as criticized.
Senior conservative leaders have been raising the alarm about their parties’ electoral prospects in recent years. Lindsey Graham publicly stated that he wished Trump would accept climate change. In Canada, former Conservative prime ministers and cabinet ministers have pointed out that they just won’t win elections.
And so, when enough deniers die, and the wedge no longer outweighs the loss of voters who want good climate solutions in the twisted brains of conservative political strategists, the Republican Party, the Conservative Party of Canada, and the Liberal Party of Australia will magically become champions of climate action, and vast swaths of deniers will also magically become people who always accepted the science and the need for action.
Until then, one of the best things for anyone who wants climate action to do it is to keep the Parties of Denial out of power. In the USA, that means organizing and mobilizing for the November 2022 midterms now. In Canada, there’s likely a fall election coming, despite three-quarters of Canadians not wanting one. Australia is going through a full election in 2022 as well.
Wake conservative strategists up by eliminating their parties from power. That’s the only way to get rid of climate change deniers.