Why Sceptics Doubt Climate Change

climate-changeI’m going to critique the article Climate Change Cynics: How to Effectively Communicate With a Denier from the website http://www.desmogblog.com/ to explain why those who believe in man made global warming have failed to convince the sceptics.

For climate activists, the growing trend of climate change denialism in recent years isn’t just frustrating—it’s alarming.

OK, right away, framing scepticism as denialism is an attack. Not a good beginning.

We know that the longer we wait to shift our energy sources and increase the efficiency with which we utilize the energy we produce, the more jarring the shift will be.

Again, stating that “we know” says to sceptics that you have closed your mind. Climate science involves theoretic models, so saying “we know” immediately discredits your arguments.

Despite the powerful message that world leaders have sent by coming together in Paris to agree to limit warming to 2 degrees, currently national and global plans are not enough to make that a reality.

World leaders are politicians, not scientists, which makes their message completely untrustworthy to most people.

Yet, rather than focusing energy on the how, climate activists in the United States are still stuck trying to explain the why to folks who still doubt there’s a problem at all.

Well, perhaps they need to do a better job, then. Let’s see what this article suggests.

Don’t focus on science. This may sound so counterintuitive as to be blasphemous, but hear me out. Yes, it’s infuriating to watch people vehemently deny the facts and latch on to the tiny fraction of (often industry-funded) studies that deny human-caused climate change in the face of overwhelming consensus among climatologists. But if the experts can’t convince them their large cars, big houses and power-hungry lifestyles are a problem, you’ll probably be hard-pressed to find more success.

This is ridiculous. The reason that climate change sceptics remain unconvinced is exactly the science. If you can debunk their claims, you will be left with a fringe of flat earthers who can be safely ignored. At this point, the theory of 3 degree man made climate change by 2050 may be the best scientific theory that we have, but it’s detractors have to be shown to be incorrect.

Researchers consistently find that trying to point out wrongs is the worst way to engage people. When people’s political beliefs are challenged by countervailing facts most folks actually double down on their false beliefs rather than come around to the other side. It’s not just a psychological but a biological phenomenon. Our brain is made up of synapses that grow in strength every time they’re fired. It doesn’t matter whether you’re saying that climate change is not a hoax—every time you put “climate” and “hoax” in the same sentence, that neuron grows. That means every piece of misinformation corrected is really an opportunity to reinforce deniers’ incorrect ideas.

Politics is not science. While it is true that confirmation bias exists in science, science deals with fact. The big bang theory began as a hypothesis, and there were competing theories like the steady state hypothesis. Gradually, more and more evidence piled up on that supported the big bang (e.g. the cosmic microwave background, discovered in 1964), until it became the prevailing theory.

Instead of tearing down folks for what they think, focus on what they have to gain from action (and lose from inaction) and the science behind that. Climate action won’t just curb greenhouse gases, it actually provides a lot of co-benefits that will improve folks’ everyday lives.


The problem with this argument is that the benefits of large scale emission reductions are only realised if there is real man made warming that can be reduced. On the other hand, it’s obvious that measures required to reduce carbon emissions will have huge costs. So a sceptic will say that you are offering what may be false savings in exchange for clear costs.

While there are lots of relatable arguments that focus on the benefits of large scale action at the national or international level, the same principles will work to advocate for individual action. It’s true that electricity generation is the largest source of carbon pollution in the United States, but the transportation sector, buildings and agriculture are also significant contributors. These are arenas where everyday citizens can make a big difference, and the benefits can be framed as personal as well as global.

I agree with this 100%. If everyone were to reduce their energy use, not only would we reduce emissions, we would all save money. Making the connection between conservation and savings clearer would help. Government could help things by (for example) reducing sales tax on things like double glazed windows, LED light bulbs, and fuel efficient vehicles.

Like with the focus on protecting human health and property, there are lots of co-benefits to focus on when talking to folks about ways to lower their carbon footprint. Forms of “active transportation” like biking and walking not only reduce emissions from their cars, they also provide a great form of exercise that keep them and their families fit. For those with the means, choosing to live in a walkable neighborhood can make a huge impact on your carbon footprint. As an added benefit, bike ownership and operation is loads cheaper than having a car (or a second car), which, even with low gas prices is estimated at more than $8,500 each year.

With the high cost of property in our cities, living within walking or even biking distance of work is impractical for many people. Mass transit is a great way to reduce the number of cars on the road, and this is something government can actually do that offers clear benefits. In BC, we have a carbon tax, yet it is not used to fund rapid transit. No wonder people are sceptical.

One of largest barriers to convincing deniers and the apathetic alike is the belief that climate change just isn’t something they will have to deal with. In fall 2015, the Yale Climate Change Communication project found that just 42 percent of people believe that climate change will harm them personally. Even sadder, that’s 6 percentage points higher than during the spring—a promising trend but disappointing total reach.

If someone is sceptical about the validity of man made climate change, it doesn’t matter whether they think climate change will affect them personally. I.e. if you believe that climate change is due to natural fluctuations in the earth’s climate, you will accept the ill effects as inevitable and focus instead on what you can do to mitigate them.

Convincing a doubter that climate change is happening and man-made is a huge challenge. But showing folks how acting on climate will benefit them and their families can be an easier sell. Finding common ground and mutual benefit may be the key to building the political support we need to save our planet from worse climate impacts yet to come.

I agree, but before the sceptics will be convinced, you need to answer their challenges with science, not rhetoric. Until the arguments made by climate change sceptics are countered with scientific arguments, conservatives will be unwilling to support the massive cost of reducing carbon emissions. Until then, appealing to greed (i.e. showing people how they can save money, rather than telling them they’ll have to pay higher taxes) is a persuasive argument.


About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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