How to Effectively Engage with Climate Change Skeptics

That Earth Day (April 22) is rapidly approaching may make us painfully aware of the contentious divide in our country around the topic of climate change. Fortunately, some politicians are working together on bipartisan solutions to address this very real issue. If politicians can set aside their differences to work on this cause, how might we do the same in our own lives?

Climate Change


While there is a consensus among climate scientists that the climate is changing due to human activity, some still do not believe this. This is unfortunate, as even the belief that scientists are at a consensus regarding the effects of climate change is often a “gateway” to believing that climate change is really occurring. In turn, this might help lead us to engage in more eco-healthy behaviors such as switching to solar power, recycling and reducing our use of plastics, and urging our representatives to craft climate-responsible policies.

There may be people in your life who are unwilling to believe that humans are causing climate change, or think it is a hoax created by the Chinese. As a result of this, they may not attempt to live in a caring way. If you want to change their minds and/or help them embrace new climate-conscious lifestyles, what can you do?

Choose Your Arguments Carefully

If you were alive during the 1970s or took a social psychology course, you may remember the “Crying Indian” campaign against littering. This infamous commercial depicts a Native American crying at the sight of ubiquitous litter and pollution. It was meant to convince people not to litter, but it may have had the opposite effect. Widely cited research shows that when people are exposed to littered environments, they believe that littering is the norm. As a result, they may actually be more likely to litter. So, to get people to behave in an environmentally conscious way, explaining how millions of people create waste may backfire.

Though many people think that a lack of scientific knowledge is to blame for disbelief in climate change, this isn’t necessarily true. In fact, what someone believes about climate change may have more to do with the cultural group they belong to rather than their level of scientific literacy. This applies regardless of your political affiliation, or even the issue at hand. For instance, if your peers believe that the Zika virus is spreading because of global warming, you are likely to do a bit of mental jiu-jitsu to make your views align with theirs. If your peers seem to believe that Zika is spreading because of illegal immigration, on the other hand, you’re likely to believe the same. While this is a natural and socially advantageous strategy, most individuals hold moderate opinions about climate change, which are thus malleable.

So, instead of fixating on our differences in opinion, we should really focus on what we have in common. For example, though most would accept that living in a productive and trusting society would be a good thing, getting skeptics to trust scientific evidence is a much bigger ask. So, instead of using scientific evidence to argue for climate change action, you might try arguing that climate change action “… would create a society where people are more considerate and caring, and where there is greater economic/technological development.” Focusing on arguments that are less politically polarized could lead to more discussions, and less yelling.

In summary, here’s how you can have better conversations with climate change skeptics:

Try to understand the other person’s point of view. If you try to convince them with sheer conviction without taking their beliefs into account, you won’t get anywhere. This is especially true if the other person has strong beliefs in the opposite direction; if this is the case, you’ll likely find yourself in a shouting match. Instead, listen to what the other person has to say. This will make the conversation more pleasant, and the other person may then be more willing to try and understand your point of view.

Appeal to that person’s views in your argument. If this person is dubious about climate science, do not inundate them with scientific evidence supporting climate change. Unfortunately, this will probably backfire. Try a different tactic, like emphasizing that climate change action may cause us to feel greater warmth toward one another or even create new jobs.

Do not emphasize how many people are destroying the environment. As we have seen, this could depict harmful behaviors as normal, sending the wrong message that they are an acceptable social norm. Instead, try telling them how many people are installing solar panels, or choosing public transport. Alternatively, you might ask them to imagine a world in which we can breathe easier due to a lack of air pollution and live happier, healthier lives because of clean drinking water and having enough to eat. It’s clear that this  future isn’t possible if we keep acting without regard for the planet that sustains us.

Climate change should not be a partisan issue, but it will continue as such unless we at least try to bridge that divide. In the process, you might be able to form connections with a more diverse set of people than you normally would. You may find that you have more in common than you first thought. In our polarized country, a willingness to discuss and understand different points of view is essential if we ever want to be a nation of responsible Earth-dwellers.


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