Talking to Deniers: Why We Should Talk Less About Observations and More About Carbon Dioxide

Students are blogging about topics that interest them for Applications in Climate and Society, a core spring class.

Sarah Smith, C+S ’19

When I was in fifth grade, my ophthalmologist finally agreed to allow me to trade out my uncomfortable, pinching glasses for contacts. I was ecstatic. And I was determined to do everything to make sure that I could keep wearing them. I listened attentively as she told me to take them out every night. And I did. Mostly. At first. Don’t worry, this isn’t a gross medical story.

Long before I became a case study worthy of the Lancet, I took high school anatomy. Turns out, the cornea of the eye is the only part of the human body without blood vessels, an adaptation that allows us to see through them without having our view obscured. Instead of getting oxygen from blood, corneas extract oxygen from the tears that run over them. Blocking the flow of those tears would be like tightening a rubber band around your finger, slowly killing the tissues. Learning this changed my mindand my eyecare behaviorinstantly. It’s also become instructive in how I think about climate communication.

As someone who works on climate change and occasionally interacts with climate deniers, I think a lot about how we communicate with people who don’t fully subscribe to the warnings of climate experts, and I wonder whether this experience might inform a better approach.

The phrase “denier” can encompass a broad spectrum of disbelief. In their study on climate change perception, the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found six distinct cohorts of Americans. Four of these categoriesdubbed the cautious, disengaged, doubtful and dismissivemight to varying degrees be considered deniers. Yet they might not be unreachable.

Members of these categories said they were most interested in having scientists answer their questions related to the evidence for and cause of climate change. Despite what I consider some highly impactful efforts to visualize the link between observed warming and carbon dioxide, many cautious, disengaged, and doubtful Americans said it was very difficult to understand news reports related to climate change. Psychologists have for decades understood that humans make poor natural statisticians, and I wonder whether a mechanistic explanationone that focuses on the basic physics of greenhouse gasses rather than the observational datamight help to bridge the gap between cause and effect, similar to the way that learning about the human eye motivated me to improve my ocular hygiene.

While the most strident opponents of climate science tend to support DonaldTrump, as a group their voting habits in 2016 were much less cohesive than other conservative voting blocks such as evangelicals. The lack of political cohesiveness suggests that climate denial could be a less salient social division than other political predictors. Effective messaging to deniers could be facilitated by social connections with alarmed Americans, who represent a growing cohort eager to take personal action on climate change.

One heartening finding is that the number of Americans who don’t believe in climate change is shrinking. More than 59 percent of the population is now either concerned or alarmed about climate change, and among climate deniers, only the percentage of the cautious class grew in the last five years.  Yet this minority of deniers has had an outsize effect on the climate change discussion. Given the consequences of delayed action, improving public understanding of the anatomy of planetary warming may play an important role in averting the worst impacts of climate change.

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