Public concern in the US about global warming peaked in 2000, when it reached 72%. It is now about 58%. While the majority of Americans accept that human-caused global warming is happening (including most liberal and moderate Republicans), many feel that that the dangers of climate changes have been greatly exaggerated. If climate change activists are truly interested in converting the general public to their cause, I suggest toning down the rhetoric. Don’t use “consensus” as an argument. Don’t refer to skeptics as “deniers”. Avoid ad hominem attacks. Don’t argue from extreme cases – that is, assume that the worst case scenario will happen without drastic action now. Alarmism is rarely an effective form of persuasion (see, e.g., The Boy Who Cried Wolf).

Which brings me to: Ten Commandments of How to Fail in an Environmental Campaign Environmental Politics Volume 10, Issue 1, 2001 by Avner de-Shalit (Associate Fellow Oxford Centre for Environment, Ethics and Society, Mansfield College, Oxford).

Here’s the Second Commandment:

“Always Use the Terminology of Despair (Environmental activists “try to show how desperate a situation is… and [since many] can point to cases in which scenarios predicted by environmentalists have failed to materialize….Also, people generally react in a very basic way to the threat of dire consequences and horrific scenarios. They simply repress and doubt what they hear - a common strategy when faced with alarming prognostications. Thus while environmentalists try to force an impression on the general public with their somewhat exaggerated predictions, the eventual outcome is counter-productive: many people simply disbelieve, do not want to believe, or even refuse to listen.”

As any business knows, if you want to convince people of the value of your product, do some research on your potential customers. And don’t waste your time on people who have made it clear they will never buy what you’re selling.

Regarding climate change, you have to be able to distinguish mild or moderate skeptics –people on the fence or who have doubts about this or that aspect of climate change theory – and those whose opinions are pretty much set in stone. Don’t paint all skeptics with the broad brush of “denier” – that just creates resentment and may even push some people into the arms of strong disbelievers. (How that process works: if one side shows no respect and treats your doubts with sarcasm and condescension, there are others who may at least listen without immediately trying to bat down your concerns and questions).

For a more informed understanding of why people may doubt global warming, start reading the actual research about factors that influence people’s opinions and beliefs about global warming. The journal “Environment and Behavior” would be a good start. I also recommend the article “Climatologists’ patterns of conveying climate science to the agricultural community” in Agriculture and Human Values. In that paper, the key issue seemed to be trust in the source of information.

Concluding, some tips on getting the climate change message across:

  1. Acknowledge that “mistakes have been made” – e.g., that in the past, predictions of future calamity have been made by aligned individuals/groups, which have turned out to be false, such as the population explosion and peak oil. So acknowledge that credibility is an issue and that some mending of fences is called for.
  2. Don’t underestimate the intelligence and sophistication of those with whom you disagree. For instance, don’t push a message of authority and proof regarding scientific forecasts that are expressed in a wide range of scenarios, each with a range of confidence, and which rely on different assumptions. Acknowledge that uncertainty and prognostication go together. (For a great illustration of the latter point, check out the number of time “uncertainty” is used in the latest IPCC report).
  3. Don’t talk down to people you disagree with – avoid mockery, sarcasm, and condescension.
  4. Don’t question the values or motives of those you disagree with. Not seeing climate change as “serious” can mean different things to different people and does not in itself imply callous indifference to the plight of the planet or humanity. I know a lot of climate change skeptics who care deeply about environmental matters and are quite willing to make personal sacrifices if they think it will help a greater cause.
  5. Don’t assume homogeneity among those you disagree with. Climate skeptics range from those who are absolutely certain that climate change is not real, serious, and/or anthropogenic to those who are skeptical about some of the dominant claims or opinions. By characterizing climate skeptics as a “type” best characterized by the supposed attributes of their most extreme associates, one pushes further away those with whom there might have been some common ground.
  6. Quit pushing “consensus” as a reason to embrace global warming predictions. Consensus by itself is never sufficient, so quit badgering people with it. I doubt people believe the earth circles the sun because it’s the “scientific consensus” or that vaccines usually work because that’s the “consensus” – they believe because they have seen, heard or read of evidence that support these beliefs.