Graphic by Sam Papavasiliou.

How to Communicate With A Science Skeptic

Effective ways to speak with climate change deniers

The year 2020 proved to be the year of difficult and uncomfortable conversations. Topics about politics, race, and inequality in the United States have come to the forefront of daily conversations on a much wider scale than before. Some may see this as an awakening that spread across America, leading to positive political and social reform. Therefore we, as Americans, must keep these conversations going.

In a nationally representative survey conducted in 2019 by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication called “Climate Change in the American Mind” researchers found that 12% of Americans do not believe that climate change is real and harmful to the environment. While this seems like a fairly small percentage of people, it comes to a grand total of about 39 million people.

Thirty-nine million people who disregard accurate data, ignore signs of environmental degradation, and refuse to believe the world’s leading climate scientists. The world can no longer afford science skepticism. How do we persuade this many people– more than the entire population of Canada– to change their worldviews?

Environmental Communication Professor Jennifer Ortega believes that the solution may lie in a shift in the way we communicate with climate change skeptics.

“Climate change is so big,” Ortega said. “In every community it looks very different as to how they are supposed to address it. If we talk about how there is, say, a disruption in this hydrological process, people are more inclined to be like, ‘Oh, what does that mean?’”

The problem with the constant preaching of “we need to solve climate change” is that people do not know where to begin with that sentiment. The destruction of the Earth is often seen as an insurmountable problem which often leads to either complacency or outright denial. This is because, well, it is hardly possible to wrap our human minds around something as colossal as an entire planet in need of help.

Creating viable, tangible solutions to smaller scale issues has the potential to both give people hope and convince skeptics that these problems are truly occurring. Ortega suggests that leaving the term climate change completely out of the conversation when trying to convince people to take action may be an effective route. People become turned off by the phrase, so keeping them engaged with local issues such as disruptions in a hydrological process or the benefits of electric cars in a city may be more constructive. Language is key.

Environmental Studies Alumnus Miles Kinman agrees with this sentiment.

“It is important to show people how climate change would impact their lives and the area in which they live,” Kinman said. “Sometimes the effects of climate change don’t seem real because the conversation often revolves around far off places such as the Amazon forest. Reframing the conversation in a way that makes people feel more connected to the problem of definitely a necessary step in trying to help people understand climate change is real.”

Environmental studies student Emily Dreyer believes that climate change skepticism is one of the most pressing issues in the United States.

“I think it’s an issue because it can disrupt the dominant narrative of environmental education,” Dreyer said. “Therefore, pressing issues aren’t supported enough and no change occurs. We are running out of time to save our planet and move towards total sustainability and any skepticism disrupts that process.”

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