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How to Nudge Climate Deniers Into Doing the Right Thing

brown field in california
Farm land in California, where aquifers are being drained as climate change alters precipitation patterns. Photo: Ian Abbott

Who could forget back in 2015 when Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma brought a snowball to the Senate floor as apparent proof that climate change could not be happening simply because there was snow on the ground in Washington, D.C.? The media had a field day poking fun at him and his “reasoning,” with some speculating as to whether he truly did not understand how climate change works or worse, that he did and was just pretending not to.

When climate denial or climate skepticism is discussed in the media, there’s not always much clarification as to why some people have these beliefs. Psychologists and researchers have identified a few different why’s: for example, some may not believe in climate change simply because they don’t have the science education to understand what’s happening. Others might deny the climate crisis because they’ve been taking in misinformation from their favorite news outlet or social media platform.

And some people might have personal reasons for attempting to deny the reality of climate change, even if they have access to the data that proves the climate crisis is in full swing. Gabrielle Wong-Parodi, an assistant professor of earth system science at Stanford University, has studied this last reason, which is called ‘motivated’ or ‘justified’ denial.

For motivated skeptics, the denial comes from a personal desire to try to protect institutions, values, and beliefs that they hold dear. By pretending as though nothing is wrong, motivated skeptics can achieve a sense of stability and security about their involvement in systems that cause climate change or whose operations would be altered by climate action.

As part of her work with various skeptic communities, such as farmers in California, Wong-Parodi identifies key strategies for conversing with motivated skeptics and convincing them to take climate-smart actions.

“When I work in communities where it’s clear that skepticism is going to be high, we don’t say the words ‘climate change,’” Wong-Parodi says. “We say ‘environmental change.’ And as we talk, we identify the words that resonate with the particular audience and those that don’t.”

The nature of climate change means that the effects can be diverse and widespread. One consequence is that aquifers in California are being drained for agriculture faster than they can be replenished. Climate change is causing the precipitation in the mountains to come down as rain rather than snow, which means that all of this water is running off the surface of the land and isn’t able to slowly trickle down into the aquifers as snowmelt.

“When I work in communities where it’s clear that skepticism is going to be high, we don’t say the words ‘climate change.’ We say ‘environmental change.’”

Wong-Parodi and her colleagues are trying to convince the farmers that use these aquifers to have their fields lie fallow, which makes it easier for rain water to percolate into the aquifers and recharge them.

When talking to the farmers about the “environmental changes” in precipitation that are making it hard for the aquifers to fill up, Wong-Parodi says the farmers are acutely aware of the changes on the ground. “[They’ve] noticed the rain is coming at a different time and there’s water shortages when [they] need to get water, and [they’re] pumping more and the aquifers are flowing dry.”

But having the farmers acknowledge the changes in their environment is just the first step. “That’s our starting point. Then we say, ‘Should we do something about that? Are you willing to help us do something about this?,’ and they agree to help.”

By framing the solution as something that addresses the changing precipitation patterns that the farmers are seeing with their own eyes, the researchers have been able to get the farmers to make the behavioral changes necessary to save their aquifers and their crops. Wong-Parodi points out that it’s a far better approach than bluntly saying, “‘Hey, climate change is happening, we need to adapt, will you do this?’”

While it’s easy for most people to get into a pessimistic mindset when talking about climate skepticism, Wong-Parodi, on the other hand, sounds more optimistic when she explains that the majority of Americans agree that climate change is happening, that they are going to be personally affected by it, and that something should be done about it.

However, that something should be done about it is where there’s less agreement, she says. She adds that everybody has something they just don’t want to give up, and any solutions we look for should take into account these values and aim to preserve them. “So, how do we do something about it in a way that preserves things that we care about?”

Everybody has something they just don’t want to give up, and any solutions we look for should take into account these values and aim to preserve them.

Focusing more directly on climate skeptics, Wong-Parodi says these people have a set of “facts” that they are going to defend and that it may not be worth it to try to change their minds. But even though completely changing the mind of climate skeptics may be a fruitless endeavor, there remain instances where communicators can make progress.

“In our research we’re finding that peoples’ experience of climate hazards, like this freak winter storm in the middle of the country and in Texas — those types of events create windows of opportunity to talk about climate change. I think these events help to pull people away from that extreme end of skepticism.”

If the situation is handled correctly, communicators can nudge these skeptics away from the side of the spectrum where they don’t want to deal with climate change at all.

Wong-Parodi sees it as a success if a skeptic can recognize the need to adapt to the impacts of climate change, even if they are reluctant to accept the fact the humans are responsible for it.

In the aftermath of Texas, many are calling for improvements to make infrastructure sturdy enough to withstand the extreme events projected to be more common as climate change progresses. A program to adapt the power grid to better cope with new variations, for example, would be a step in the right direction for addressing the impacts of climate change.

But can skeptics, once pulled away from the extreme, outright denial-end of the spectrum, be brought even farther to the side of accepting that human-caused climate change, not just environmental change, is our reality?

“We don’t really go into it. They know… everyone knows,” Wong-Parodi says with a sigh. “But they definitely don’t want to talk about [climate] mitigation because that seems like it’s a cost. With the term ‘mitigation,’ it seems like a sacrifice. With adaptation, it seems like a necessity because change is happening and they recognize it.” Again, choosing your words wisely is essential.

Particularly important in this context is research showing that conservative males are more likely to display motivated climate denial than other demographics.

“Conservative males…” she says with a laugh. “And also older individuals. But I will say that we are seeing a change with younger adults. Across the gender identity spectrum, I think we’re seeing a change, and even among conservatives as well, so I’m hopeful for the future.”

“I think if we start to repair some of the divisions we see in the society at large, it will help with this conversation.”

She believes that part of climate skepticism in the United States likely stems from the deep partisanship that we’re currently seeing. Back in the 1970s, climate change was not a political issue. Both Republicans and Democrats wanted to do something about environmental problems.

“I think it’s a shame that the issue has become part of a political identity and so I think if we start to repair some of the divisions we see in the society at large, it will help with this conversation.”

Sometimes it feels that to address the climate crisis, the best way forward would be to plow ahead with adaptation and mitigation tactics and leave anyone who wasn’t on board in the dust. Instead, Wong-Parodi promotes a message of unity, and the possibility that the path of least resistance — and the path that would be best for our nation — may be to get everyone involved with doing the right things that will put an end to the climate crisis, even if they are doing it for different reasons.

Allison Day is a student in the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program at Columbia University. She wrote this piece as part of her coursework for the class, Writing About Global Science for the International Media

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