New Research Points to Effective Ways to Talk to Skeptical Conservatives about Climate Change

Read time: 4 mins
Sign for the May 1, 2018 LBJ Library talk from climate scientist Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, an evangelical Christian, about how climate change is affecting Texas. 

This is a guest post by ClimateDenierRoundup.

Two new studies on denial came out last week. While they’re not exactly breaking new ground, confirmation is always nice.

The first is a literature review led by Stanford’s Gabrielle Wong-Parodi that examines psychological studies on climate denial in the U.S. and found four big lessons for appealing to conservatives. Although the press release is promisingly headlined as “pathways to changing the minds of climate deniers,” we remain skeptical that there’s any real way to change a denier’s mind. After all, if they were open to change, they wouldn’t be deniers!

Nonetheless, the findings are still helpful and relevant for communicating with the cohort that we like to think of as a denier’s family. No amount of carefully crafted climate messaging is going to undo the results of a lifetime of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News indoctrination, but the wife and children of a denier, who are only second-hand exposed to that steady stream of politicized content, may be reachable.

How? The study found four effective communication approaches in the literature. The first is to frame climate solutions as ways to uphold the status quo, appealing to the conservative desire for stability. That would look like a message along these lines: “Society has been built and developed over thousands of years in a very particular climate. Now that’s changing, and our coastlines, infrastructure, agricultural, and other systems are going to have to change — unless we get climate change under control.”

The second is to appeal to the Judeo-Christian affinity for purity by focusing on preserving the Earth’s beauty, as opposed to how we’re befouling it. Messages that center on saving our beautiful landscapes from dirty fossil fuels and caring for God’s creation provide a way for conservative (Christians) to align environmental concerns with their religious beliefs.

The third avenue is to have trusted messengers talk about the scientific consensus, reinforcing the fact that scientists are nearly unanimous about the impacts of burning fossil fuels.

Lastly, the study found it was effective to have people talk about their own values and position on climate before laying out the evidence. By priming people to think about themselves before thinking about climate, it makes it easier for them to incorporate climate information in a way that compliments their worldview, instead of clashing with it. That’s obviously difficult to do when communicating with the public writ large, but is an easy way to begin an actual conversation with a particular person. Laying out our own personal beliefs and biases makes us conscious of them, and can therefore lessen the subconscious influence they have in the discussion.

The other new study focuses on the third suggestion, talking about the consensus on climate science. It found strong evidence that having college-level biology students engage with the original Cook ‘13 97 percent paper, and the follow-up ‘16 study of the various consensus studies raises their estimate of the consensus to more closely reflect reality, as well as making them more worried about climate change and more confident in their own ability to talk about the consensus with other people.

That said, the sample size was tiny: only 11 students. And none of them were in denial to begin with. But still, it presents a compelling picture of the power of the consensus. Before reading the studies, the students on average thought the consensus was 75 percent, with some thinking it was as low as 10 percent. After engaging with consensus studies, that number climbed to its correct range of 90-100 percent.

Taken together, these two studies show that whether you’re talking to curious students or their skeptical parents, it’s still vital to reinforce the fact that nearly all the scientists who study the issue understand that human activity is causing climate change. And for conservatives, it helps if that message comes from someone who speaks to their values.

Main image: Sign for the May 1, 2018 LBJ Library talk from climate scientist Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, an evangelical Christian, about how climate change is affecting Texas. Credit: LBJ Library photo by Jay Godwin, public domain

Get DeSmog News and Alerts