How to Approach a Climate Skeptic

021114 DanKahan_OrigClimate change continues to be a highly polarizing issue. According to psychological research, part of the issue has to do with the way our brains process information. We’re biologically predisposed to seek out and trust information that confirms our existing points of view, a phenomenon known by psychologists as “confirmation bias.” This means that those who “get” climate change continue to seek out information that further confirms their views, whereas those who don’t keep seeking out sources that deny the issue.
Seems like a pretty intractable problem. But a paper by Yale psychology and law professor Dan Kahan recently featured in Universe Today suggests that there may be a way around this. Climate change, Kahan says, just “needs better marketing.” Here is what his research suggests about how to approach a climate skeptic:
1) Affirm people’s values, don’t threaten them. People tend to resist information — even scientific information — that threatens their values. According to Kahan’s research, when individuals who endorse stratified social roles (often political conservatives) read about carbon regulation, only a small number showed subsequent belief in climate change. This is because carbon regulation threatens a core conservative value: free market competition. But when these same individuals were instead presented with information that was more amenable to their values — information about geoengineering – a greater proportion said they believed climate change was real. In other words, affirming people’s existing values, rather than threatening them, may help make conservatives more receptive to the idea of climate change. This research points to the necessity of presenting many types of climate solutions — not just those advocated by liberals — in order to take conservatives off the defensive and start to build a broader base of support.
2) Reference statements by experts that conservatives trust. People are most likely to listen to information from people they know and trust. When conservatives hear about climate change from someone they can identify with, they may stop attaching the issue to a certain political identity, and start thinking of climate change as something that people like them know and care about. We at ecoAmerica also support the idea of using “trusted messengers” to talk about climate change, which is a principle we discuss in our most recent communications guide: Communicating on Climate: 13 Steps and Guiding Principles.


Why People Resist the Notion of Climate Change

By Shannon Hall, Contributer at Universe Today
One of the most striking features of the climate change ‘debate’ is that it’s no longer a debate. Climate scientists around the world agree that climate change is very real — the Earth is warming up and we are the cause.
Yet while there is consensus even among the most reserved climate scientists, a portion of the public persistently disagrees. A recent Pew Research Center — an organization that provides information on demographic trends across the U.S. and the world — survey found that roughly four-in-ten Americans see climate change as a global threat. Climate scientists are racking their brains in an attempt to find out why.
Yale law professor Dan Kahan has done extensive research which reveals how our deep-rooted cultural dispositions might interfere with our perceptions of reality.
Read more here.

2 Responses to “How to Approach a Climate Skeptic”


  1. Why Do Some People Deny Climate Change? | ecoAffect - February 14, 2014

    […] emphasizing scientific arguments, climate communicators can use different strategies instead, like affirming people’s values, leading with solutions rather than the problem, and explaining why climate change is personally […]

Leave a Reply