Talking with “Climate Skeptics”

Talking with “Climate Skeptics”

I have given close to one hundred presentations about climate change over the last decade, and I am frequently asked about talking to “climate change skeptics.” I have identified three general groups of skeptics, and I thought I’d describe how I engage with each group. I hope this will be helpful for having productive conversations with “skeptics” in your life.

Skeptics from Error

People in this group are skeptical about climate change because they have accepted as true a claim that is false. These skeptics generally accept science as a method of knowing truth, and often the falsehoods they accept are created deliberately by distorting climate science (refutations of the some common falsehoods are found here and here). These falsehoods use logical fallacies, “cherry-picked” datasets, or other techniques to sound convincing.

Skeptics from Error are often relying on biased sources of information such as Fox News, the Trump administration (including the Department of the Interior and the Environmental Protection agency), major fossil fuel companies, or private blogs. That many people are misinformed is demonstrated by a recent Yale/George Mason poll, which shows that only half of Americans understand that an overwhelming majority of climate scientists agree human-caused climate change is happening (six independent, peer-reviewed studies have concluded this majority is between 90% and 100%).

Moreover, the falsehoods influencing these skeptics go beyond misuse of science or data. Many of these skeptics have been convinced that those calling for climate action have evil or nefarious motivations, or that responding to climate change will require them to take action inimical to their own personal values. They are thus predisposed to accept scientific falsehoods as true to “fight for what’s right.” An example of this type of falsehood is the Heartland Institute’s warning that “the despotic green new world is coming… global government is the goal,” or the idea that the non-binding UN Resolution for sustainable development (Agenda 21) is a “linchpin in a plot to subjugate humanity under an eco-totalitarian regime.”

When confronted with this type of skepticism, I try to determine what an individual is willing to stipulate as true, while carefully respecting their personal values. Do they agree temperatures are rising on the planet, or that greenhouse gas concentrations are much higher than at any time in the history of human civilization? Do they understand that John Tyndall demonstrated that greenhouse gases absorb heat in 1859? If we can agree on some basic facts, then we can discuss the alternative explanations for the changes we are observing, rather than the discussion becoming a debate about who’s right or wrong. I normally note the US Supreme Court decision requiring the US EPA to regulate greenhouse gases as a threat to public health. A key factor in this decision was that no compelling alternative explanation was offered to the court to explain what we are observing.

Skeptics from Belief

There are some people who will not accept that humans can change climate because it conflicts with their deeply-held religious beliefs. For example, Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) said “Climate is changing and climate has always changed and always will…man can’t change climate.” This skepticism is framed as a religious belief (e.g., something that is held as true without evidence), and from the frame of such conviction scientific findings are not influential.

While this type of skepticism has received much publicity, it does not appear to be as important as many contend. My colleague Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, who is an Evangelical Christian and a climate scientist, has had thousands of conversations with religious people. She told me that in her experience religious skepticism is usually a “smokescreen” used because it sounds better than an objection based on ideology or values. Thus, behind the smokescreen many Skeptics from Belief are Skeptics from Error, mistakenly concluding that accepting climate science as true requires that they change their personal values.

In my work I do not expect to influence Skeptics from Belief. I always start my presentations by saying that “I am not here to tell you what to believe, but rather to discuss the objective evidence that documents we have a big problem.”

Skeptics from Experience

The final group can be represented by Bill, a sixty-something successful businessman with whom I had a respectful conversation after a recent presentation. Like many people, Bill has found from his own life experience that it is frequently wise to apply a skeptical eye towards new information. Consequently, Bill was resistant to my message that we must take the bold step of decarbonizing our economy or our future will take a serious turn for the worse.

Indeed, being a sixty-something myself, I understand that skepticism can be wise (“if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.”) Like Bill, I have found such skepticism valuable in social, political, and professional settings. However, it is unwise to apply such skepticism to the physical world, as it behaves in predictable ways. Global climate change caused by human emissions may be unprecedented, but due to physical laws we’ve understood for over a century it is going to happen.

I have found Skeptics from Experience to be the most persuadable of my three groups, as they are interested in gathering more facts to use in their assessment. Particularly effective in this regard is the history of climate science, which is a great story that you don’t have to be a scientist to tell. It starts with Joseph Fourier, a contemporary of Thomas Jefferson, and includes John Tyndall’s important laboratory experiments from before the Civil War (Tyndall wrote in 1859 “the atmosphere admits the entrance of the solar heat, but checks its exit; and the result is a tendency to accumulate heat at the surface of the planet.”) You find this history at and the American Institute of Physics.

Skeptics from Experience are also aware of the great risk associated with resisting the conclusions of climate science. They will consider the idea that given the grave consequences that are already appearing as predicted, climate action (such as a price on carbon) is a reasonable insurance policy for the future.

Understanding the type of skeptic you are engaging is helpful for conducting productive discussions. That doesn’t mean you will convince them of the need for action, but perhaps you will get them thinking. Remember, while we need to convince some skeptics, we don’t have to convince them all.