How To Argue With A Climate Change Denier In The Most Productive Way

by Caroline Burke
Originally Published: 
Man standing on the shore of a glacier lagoon.

It might be shocking to consider the fact that there are still people who don't believe humans are heavily influencing climate change. But according to a 2018 survey by the Associated Press, approximately 9% of Americans thought climate change wasn't real, while another 19% said they weren't sure. So, while you shouldn't be surprised if you find yourself arguing with a climate change denier, it's important to get your point across efficiently. Regardless of how passionate you are about the cause, these conversations can get frustrating.

Before you engage in any discussions, remember that it's not your job to convince another person that an extensively researched scientific phenomenon is in fact happening. What's more, you shouldn't have a conversation with a climate change denier if it's going to give you serious anxiety or totally infuriate you. After all, it's important to remember that the mass majority of people in the United States know climate change is real, and support aggressive climate legislation to address the crisis, according to the Pew Research Center and Reuters, respectively.

With all of that said, you might come across someone who genuinely wants to debate the legitimacy of climate change. And if that happens, it helps to be prepared — and also to present your information in a calm and kind manner.

According to both climate and conflict resolution experts, you shouldn't engage in these conversations if it drains or upsets you. But if you do want to make your voice heard, here are several psychological and fact-based tips to help you in your efforts, depending on the situation.

If They Say Climate Change Isn't Real

If the person you're speaking to says climate change just flat out isn't real, or that global warming is a hoax, then the first thing you should do is take a deep breath. It's likely that if you respond with "That's ridiculous" or a similar version of that phrase, the conversation will end right there.

Instead, consider asking them why they think climate change isn't real. Based on their response, you can offer to point them in the direction of some science-based information.

"When you can, use language that they relate to and respect," Liz Perera, the Climate Policy Director for the Sierra Club tells Bustle. She points out framing climate change as an issue of "national security" as an example; this is because concerns over national security are traditionally talking points for conservatives, and conservatives are more likely to disbelieve climate change. According to a 2018 Yale survey, only 40% of conservative Republicans think global warming is happening, compared to 68% of moderate Republicans or 88% of moderate Democrats.

In fact, Republican green energy advocate Debbie Dooley is known for using talking points like national security to help convince other Republicans to move towards clean energy. The Climate Reality Project published a story on how she's changing conservatives' minds on the topic, and it has some helpful takeaways.

Lindsay Meiman, the Senior U.S. Communications Specialist for 350, an organization that works toward eliminating fossil fuels, also suggests "finding points where you can agree." For example, if you can agree that widespread evacuation of certain areas due to flooding, sinking, or other natural disasters is horrible news for the international community, then you're both standing on common ground.

If They Say Glaciers Are Always Growing & Receding

If your climate change denier friend says that glaciers are always growing and receding, and that what's happening today is totally normal, there are a few ways you can respond. First, you can point out that it's not just a few glaciers: it's an accelerating global trend, as Grist notes. The emphasis here is on the word "accelerating." Annual losses of glacier mass are increasing every year, the nonprofit news site notes. What's more, the annual loss of ice for glaciers is a different issue than the loss and gain of ice between summer and winter. So even if a glacier is technically growing in the winter, it's still possible that it's losing mass over time.

You can also say that the glaciers aren't the problem — they're one of many symptoms that represent the real problem, which is climate change. You can check out this breakdown on glaciers and climate change by National Geographic, which has plenty of stats you can offer to your friend.

For example, in 1910 there were over 150 glaciers in Glacier National Park, and there are less than 30 now. Approximately all of those 30 glaciers are expected to be gone in another 30 years, the publication reports. Daniel Fagre, a research scientist from the U.S. Geological Survey Global Change Research Program put it into perspective when he told National Geographic, "Things that normally happen in geologic time are happening during the span of a human lifetime. It's like watching the Statue of Liberty melt."

If They Say You Can't Even Accurately Predict The Weather Next Week

One of the more common arguments made by climate change deniers is that it's impossible to predict the weather years in advance, seeing as how meteorologists can only make educated guesses at best a few days in advance.

The best response you can give to this argument is to explain that climate and weather are two very different things. Climate is an accumulation of weather patterns, averaged over a long period of time. It's not one given rainy or cold or hot day. You can learn more about the difference between climate and weather (as well as why it's easier to predict climate than weather) by checking out this explainer by the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

If They Say Global Warming Is A Natural Cycle

You might come across someone who wants to argue that climate change is a natural cycle for the earth, and that heating and cooling is to be expected on this planet. In response to this argument, you can point out that there are a number of factors that have led scientists to be certain this recent heat increase is not a part of a natural cycle.

The video above, created by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, explains how fossil fuel emissions and temperatures across the globe have both risen in tandem in the last 200 years. The video also points out that the carbon dioxide (CO2) that comes from fossil fuels is different than the CO2 that comes from plants, volcano eruptions, or other natural events. So there's no confusion over what type of CO2 is leading to this temperature rise.

If They Say Scientists Are Divided Over Climate Change

If the person you're arguing with says that scientists are divided on the topic, you can reply by pointing out that there is, in fact, no remote division on the topic. In fact, over 97% of actively publishing climate scientists are in consensus over the dangers of climate change, according to NASA.

You also might encounter someone who acknowledges the existence of climate change, but claims it's not man-made. Elizabeth Gore, Senior Vice President for Political Affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund, suggests that you say, "You may not [think you need] to reduce your carbon footprint but the rest of the world does, and that’s how you maintain strong economic ties." You can point to the Paris Agreement as an example of this cumulative international will to address climate change.

That being said, you might not want to just throw facts at them. Dr. Xavier Amador, a psychologist and author, suggests that you try to really listen to the person you're speaking to, as well, so that you gain their trust. "Attitudinal and behavior change occurs in the context of relationships, where somebody feels trusted and respected," he tells Bustle.

In other words, if you're truly seeking to change this person's opinion, you have to make sure your verbal opponent feels heard and respected. "Let them know that they’ve been heard," Amador adds. "That [will help you to] change attitudes and behaviors, independent of the facts."

If They Say Clean Energy Is An Impossible Goal

If the conversation moves toward clean energy, and the person you're speaking to argues that clean energy is an impossible or improbable goal, then you can consider explaining that clean energy isn't something that might happen in the future. Rather, it's a movement happening in the present that's already yielded incredible success.

For example, in 2019 there were more homes powered by renewable energy than there were by coal, according to the Energy Information Administration via The Guardian. What's more, over 1,000 institutions representing over $9 trillion in assets have committed to stop investing in fossil fuels, as reported by Go Fossil Free, an organization committed to stopping the fossil fuel industry.

Meiman, from 350, pointed out that you have the momentum of industry movement on your side. "From a purely financial and economic perspective, this is already happening," Meiman says. "The question is can the public garner political will to ensure the government is enacting it at scale?"

If They Say There Are More Important Issues For The Country

Climate change isn't just a scientific issue. It's also an issue of justice versus injustice, Meiman explains.

"We can’t talk about the climate crisis just in scientific terms," she says. "[It's about] migrant justice, people being forced from their home because of extended drought and crop failures. [It's about] economic justice, coal miners in Kentucky who aren’t getting paid right now."

In other words, don't rely solely on the scientific facts behind climate change. Take the time to frame it as a cultural, economic, and political issue as well.

If They're Not Willing To Change Their Mind

Of course, there's only so much you can say to someone who refuses to consider the overwhelming evidence for climate change — so don't waste too much of your energy if it doesn't seem like they're willing to consider what you're saying. Talking to a climate change denier can be "sort of a hopeless situation," Gore, from the Environmental Defense Fund, notes. "If people don’t acknowledge or embrace it, it’s pretty hard to come with a data set to change their mind."

Part of the challenge of having conversations like this can be in sussing out whether the person you're speaking to is on the fence, or whether they're adamant in their beliefs. Dr. Paula Green, Ed.D., a peace educator, psychologist, and founder of the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding, notes that if you're approaching the conversation with the sole goal of "trying to convince," then you're likely heading for a dead end.

"It's not about climate," she adds. "It's not rational at all." She explains that, in other words, climate change deniers probably aren't motivated by their own set of facts. Instead they might be acting based on their emotions or a distrust of particular news outlets. If you can remember this, she says, then you might be able to find more patience for the person you're speaking with rather than immediately becoming furious with their refusal to recognize a scientific phenomenon.

If You're At A Loss For How To Start The Conversation

If you have no clue how to even begin with this conversation, Green suggests trying to show an interest in this person's own opinions and experiences by asking them questions. "You have to ask questions with genuine curiosity," she maintains; what's more, these questions should "be coming from the heart, not the head."

Some of the questions Green suggest asking include:

  • "What would change for you if you believed in climate change?"
  • "Have you had any personal experiences related to climate change or natural disasters?"
  • "Do you have family or friends who believe in climate change?"

The bottom line is trying to understand and create an open conversation, Green explains, rather than creating an atmosphere that makes the person feel humiliated. "It's not about right or wrong," she says. "It's about exploring. You also have to remember that this person may not look fragile, but they are. Everyone is."

If You're Feeling Frustrated

If you're feeling frustrated by your conversation, or by the idea of people still not believing in climate change, you can redirect your efforts in plenty of other positive ways. The biggest way to make a difference, all three climate experts agree, is to put pressure on your lawmakers to make aggressive moves towards addressing the climate change crisis.

Gore, from the Environmental Defense Fund, reiterated a similar truth: "We can’t go another four years with a president that is denying climate change and refusing to act. We have to have bold, federal legislation."

If you want to put pressure on your legislators, but don't know where to start, you can check out the Sierra Club's "Take Action" page, which highlights various environmental petitions you can sign.

You can also direct your attention towards another crucial part of the fight against climate change: the work done by climate scientists around the world. "Fund climate science journalists by subscribing to their newspapers or supporting them directly," Perera, from the Sierra Club, suggests. "These journalists are telling the stories and the science of climate change, allowing deniers to see the whole picture and get the facts."

And if you want to get out there and do something with other people, you can participate in the Global Climate Strikes, which are taking place the week of Sept. 20.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

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